The first part of a proposed trilogy, The Banner Saga fuses some old school gameplay styles with some more modern ideas, and it works well, combining some Norse-inspired ethos with exceptional visuals and musical score. As soon as The Banner Saga is booted up, you know you're in for something special.
The gods are dead, and the sun is forever beaming, casting the planet into a state of perpetual brightness. Some foretell this as an impending apocalypse being on the horizon, while others are thankful for no more 'dark months', where things like food and nature have a chance to flourish. Despite constant sunshine, the world is, as always, covered in snow, and against this backdrop The Banner Saga tells a bleak and desperate story.
Humans have relatively recently begun to coexist somewhat peacefully with the giant hulking varl race after the Second Great War against the dredge many years prior to the game's beginning. Still mainly segregated across the land and in groups, the two races get along but relations are a struggle at times, mirroring real life and bringing a mature element into the fold. However, these races must band together once more as the dredge are coming back.
The dredge are large, unforgiving forces of evil, driven into the wilderness after the war but for reasons yet unknown make a return and begin terrorising villages, killing anyone they come across and advance from the edges of the map inwards. And thus begins the main story, as through different protagonists at different ends of the world stage you must take control of huge armies and villagers as you lead an exodus, flying long banners into which your clan's families' stories are woven, fleeing your homes before the dredge have a chance to kill and destroy everything you own and love.
From the off, The Banner Saga is rich with story. There is a real history woven into the overall fabric of the game, and on the world map you can click on any area, path, mountain range, etc and read up on their significances to the plot and the parts they play. This, along with the strikingly beautiful visuals, immediately give The Banner Saga a real character in itself.
The hand drawn visuals are incredibly good-looking and give the whole ensemble a unique, albeit a little classic Disney, look (think The Sword in the Stone era).
The problem is that to get fully immersed into the story, you need to pay close attention and actively seek out a lot of backstory. Despite the beautiful and melodic opening, setting the scene via a world-weary voice-over, for the most part you are presented with reams and reams of text to sift through. While not necessarily that bad a notion, it can very quickly become tiresome. Sometimes you're presented with a decision or dialogue response options after a lot of prose, and you're not always 100% sure what you're deciding or whose fate you've chosen because you're skim-reading.
This is only a minor niggle, as for the best part the dialogue is well-written and really sets a good scene, there's just a little too much of it at times, and what with the character animations being kept to an absolute minimum during conversations (bar a couple of preset blinks here and fingers gripping weapons there), a little more dynamism would have helped keep an interest. Despite some annoying typos and spelling mistakes, which really, really ought to have been ironed out by this point, text is interesting and stories are rich in content, you just have to put in an active imagination to glean full enjoyment and understanding.
Combat, on the other hand, is where the game has had its biggest focus, and it shows. With the combat system having already been released a year ago under the name The Banner Saga: Factions, players have already been treated to Stoic's turn-based offering as a free-to-play multiplayer game. As such it has since been fine-tuned and perfected for this single-player release.
On the surface, it looks and plays like a typical, bare bones isometric turn-based RPG. But very soon you will come to realise that while it doesn't offer the dynamism and over-the-top attacks and character classes from the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics, or the instant bloodthirsty gratification from slicing through opponents in Vandal Hearts, there are many subtle layers of tactics and much depth to combat.
Mirroring the desperate and bleak struggle for survival in the story, battles are fraught and provide a constant uphill struggle. Normally outnumbered, pure strategy will make you victorious. Each character has their own values for armour and strength. When strength reaches zero, the character falls in battle. Simple so far. However, to do damage, you invariably have to whittle down your opponent's armour to cause any real harm. Your strength minus their armour equals damage; a simple notion, but it adds more decision-making to the mix, as each turn you can only decide to do one or the other. You can break their armour, allowing some of your more weaker characters to pile on and do them more damage come their turn. Or alternatively you can go for their strength, meaning a longer time for the opponent to fall but they will in turn do less damage come their attack. Decisions like these will plague most turns, and the wrong one can easily change the tide of battle.
Interestingly, though, and keeping in line the idea of cause and effect, a loss in battle doesn't mean game over and fighting over and over again until you're victorious, oh no. A loss means your story will twist off onto another tangent (where applicable), and your army numbers will deplete along with morale.
You will also go to war with large numbers of the dredge horde, which measures your current numbers and types of fighters against the opposing force. If you are outnumbered, charging into battle will mean a harder fight on the grid with higher consequences if you face a loss, but retreating will mean an easier battle with little gain if victorious. If numbers are in your favour, charging is more preferable but rewards are fewer. Essentially, war is played out like a normal grid-based combat where you set the risk-reward meter yourself, and works quite nicely.
A unique addition is the notion of willpower. Each character has their own allocation of willpower points which can be spent at almost any point in battle to buff out their actions. If your character needs to move an extra square on the grid, you can use a point. If you need to do an extra point of damage, willpower can be spent on this too. Each character has their own unique special ability which exerts between one and three points, depending on the ability's level. At first, the sheer amount of willpower available feels generous, and doesn't seem to run out very often. However, later on in the saga you will find the more you level up your characters the more willpower will be depleted as stronger attacks require more expenditure.
A nice little touch is the clan's horn. For each enemy you kill, one willpower point will be added to the horn which can be blown at any point, awarding the currently selected character the extra point. Depending on the caravan's morale, your starting quotient of willpower can increase or decrease, adding another layer of tactics beyond the simple notion of combat.
The caravan is your marching army of clansmen, varl and fighters, and keeping them happy and fed is your main role as whichever unintentional leader you control. As Hakon, bodyguard to the fallen future king Vognir, you become the reluctant leader of a mixed varl-human army as you warn and aid villagers in the face of the dredge onslaught when heading for relative safety at the land's capital. At the opposite end of the map, Rook, a noble and loyal fighter for the village's chieftain, must take control and lead a ragtag bunch of fighters and villagers on a mass exodus across the land following the chieftain's death at the hands of the dredge and their home village of Skogr being torn apart by these evil-doers
Along these lengthy marches, you must ensure you have enough supplies to keep your people fed. Naturally, if supplies run out people will start dying and your numbers will deplete, morale will become low, and progressing through the story becomes a much more difficult ordeal. Supplies can be purchased in town markets, spending your renown points on them - renown being gained from slaying enemies and making difficult decisions. However, renown isn't just in-game currency used for supplies and items, it is also used to promote (or level up) your heroes. You don't always have a lot of renown, so you must often make judgement calls on either making your fighters stronger or keeping your wider army warband alive.
A constant aspect of these long, bleak and depressing marches across the land are the decisions you are forced to make. While these don't happen quite as often as, say, Telltale Game's The Walking Dead, that doesn't mean they're any less consequential and deadly for your people. These decisions come at fairly regular intervals and can't be taken lightly. It actually feels at times like an updated version of The Oregon Trail (or the more recent zombie pastiche The Organ Trail), where getting from A to B relies on successful decisions, supply gathering and not letting your people die of dysentery / hunger. And this is in no way a bad thing.
From fraught race relations between varl and humans, dissent in the ranks, drunkards crying wolf and causing damage, to life or death decisions involving literal cliffhangers, and what to do when a city, which is your last bastion of hope, has closed its walls to outsiders, what you decide will always have a knock-on effect, affecting numbers of fighters, supplies or renown you can gain or lose. Over the long campaign, upwards of twenty hours or so, almost all of your total roster of heroes can succumb to permadeath following a foolish decision or unexpected outcome, after which elements of the story will weave the respective narrative depending on who lives and who dies. It certainly keeps those long treks through the beautiful landscapes interesting knowing that a buffed out hero on whom you've spent much renown and taken time to care about can simply fall off a cliff and die.
Overall, the guys at Stoic have made a great achievement. Admittedly it is in no way as deep or customisable as many other RPGs of this kind, but after playing through a little of the campaign it's clear this is intentional. The Banner Saga has its own set of customisations, attributes and systems in place that really work. The combat is a simple 'move-attack-end turn' affair, sure, but each character brings to the table their own attack methods, defensive skills, items and buffs that add a whole new dimension to proceedings. Everything about The Banner Saga is more intuitive than it first appears, which acts as both a gift and a curse. It looks too basic on the surface, and only after a fairly sizeable playthrough will one fully appreciate the intricacies of what lies beneath the simple combat system and decision making, and more importantly how they intertwine with each other, and how well.
Despite certain issues like a lack of real customisation beyond increasing the few stats of each character and adorning them with the odd item here and there, and spelling mistakes, The Banner Saga works really, really well. Combat won't be to everyone's tastes, but with XCOM: Enemy Unknown and the Fire Emblem series flying the flag for modern turn-based combat, a wider audience is now open to The Banner Saga, and I can fully recommend it. Hopefully, if The Banner Saga is a success (and I can see no reason why it wouldn't be), then the team at Stoic can fine-tune their magnificent accomplishment come the planned second and third instalments. With a Walking Dead style effort to remember decisions made and survivors from this episode planned, I foretell The Banner Saga will be a new big name in RPGs in coming years. A great accomplishment.