It seems like that the older that the video game industry gets, the darker its products become, both from a visual and storytelling perspective. This has made a lot of games over the last generation get a lot of heat for their limited brown or black color palettes and grim-dark but shallow plots. But there's a difference between being dark and being mature. Only recently with titles such as Bastion, Journey, and Brothers: a Tale of Two Sons, have video games started showing signs of being able to have exciting and varied visual presentations with smart, mature stories.
The Banner Saga doesn't rival those brilliant games, but it definitely feels more mature and adult than your average blockbuster, bang bang shooty game. But what does set The Banner Saga apart from everything else is how its more sophisticated atmosphere is present in every aspect of the game from its art style to its gameplay. Every facet of the game is intricately tied together in exciting ways, while aren't fully fleshed out, lay a very solid foundation for what is to come.
The first thing you are introduced to in The Banner Saga is its combat. Anyone familiar with the recent XCOM or Shadowrun Returns will instantly feel at home with the isometric perspective of its turn-based battle system. Though unlike those two games, The Banner Saga is rather reduced in the amount of systems that you have to manage, but that doesn't mean it feels dumbed down. In fact, it's one of the few exceptions where its simplicity doesn't reduce its potential complexity.
There are two primary stats for each unit that you need to be chiefly concerned with: Strength and Armor. Strength is both the unit's health and attack damage, so the healthier an unit is the more damage they'll do, and vice versa. Armor, though, helps keep enemies from instantly knocking your unit out. When an enemy makes an attack on an unit's Strength, their own Strength first gets subtracted by the amount of Armor that the target has (The amount of armor you can knock out is governed by a separate "Armor Break" stat.) So it's important during combat that you mix your attacks between damaging their Armor and Health equally, which proves to be an interesting juggling act.
Stirred into the mix is the Willpower stat which is a limited pool of points which can be used to let your character move further, adding extra points of damage to your attacks or activating your character's specific special ability. This is the quintessential "game changer" element which allows some creative flexibility when executing some of your more involved or riskier strategies. To be honest though, I never felt that the abilities were always that useful. I was usually more interested in just using standard attacks as they always seemed the most effective, which was fine as it allowed me to spend more Willpower in extra movement or attack points. It's a very cool and accommodating system that's inclusive to any style of play, which rewards successful tactics with restoring Willpower with every enemy that you kill. And you'll have to master these systems as The Banner Saga is no joke in its difficulty, grim and unforgiving as it is with its challenging enemy AI and intensity of the combat scenarios that are stacked against you.
Fascinatingly enough, the grim and unforgiving combat actually reflects the story and settling of The Banner Saga. The gods died a long time ago and the sun has halted its movements in the heavens and magic is in decline. The frozen landscape of this Norse land is inhospitable to life and the two primary races of the land, the giant-esque Varl and the human-esque humans, are at an uneasy alliance against their common ancient enemy, the rock/machine monstrous Drudge. When the Drudge start their third great invasion, there's a strange sense of desperation of it that throws the Varl and humans off guard, and both races quickly find themselves on the retreat in a way that they haven't before.
It's a grim tale about the ending of an age, and potentially, the world. You switch between two different story lines through most of the game, one focusing primarily on the Varl perspective and the other on the human side of things. This gives you a well-rounded view on things, and as most fantasy trilogies ought to do, this first shot focuses primarily on world building. This means it doesn't do a lot with its cast except introduce a bunch of names and kinda forget about them, which is fairly disappointing as there are some great characters in The Banner Saga. Though, the world that Stoic Games builds here is so fantastic that my attention was primarily focused on it as it expertly introduced new revelations about its world and people that kept me entertained and made me care about this unique Norse universe.
Which is important as The Banner Saga's other two modes of play, Survival and Decision Making, initially require you to care about the world. Since you're following parties that are essentially on the run, you have to manage your caravan's food supply versus the amount of people you let into your group. These moments of your party traversing across the landscape, consuming food along the way are some of the best examples of the brilliant and inspired art design, reminiscent of older Disney animated films. These moments are framed by a 2D perspective which a longshot camera angle which best serves in showing off the world that Stoic Games has crafted, and it's simply incredible.
The Decision Making elements occur while on the road or in a town arena. You're frequently given a number of choices as seemingly insignificant as fiddling with a mysterious puzzle box to whether or not to destroy an important Varl landmark for the potential greater good of the realm. Frequently your choices have important consequences and tested my ability as a leader and warrior in The Banner Saga. It constantly demanded me to make tough calls, with no clear "right" answer given. There were no Renegade or Paragon choices, no good or evil, light or dark, and that's something I greatly appreciate from games whom claim your decisions have import.
Both of the above elements, the Survival and Decision Making aspects, are important as they are intelligently woven into the core combat gameplay experience. If your caravan's morale is low or your people start starving, your own characters will start performing worse in combat, reflected by starting off with lower amounts of WIllpower which can be crippling to a winner strategy. On the other side of things, making good choices is the best way which you earn Renown, the game's currency with can be used to buy items, food or leveling up your units, as Combat itself doesn't reward you with a lot of it by itself. Also good choices can give you more food or better morale, which the reverse is true for really rotten choices, even potentially killing some of your units as it did for one of my more important pieces in the battlefield. It's impressive how well everything is tied together in The Banner Saga.
Though that's not to say that The Banner Saga is without faults, indeed it has a quite a few. The first half of the game does a generally good job of introducing all of the different elements of the game, with the bold exception of some of the important elements of the combat UI (like how it tells you that enemies are within striking distance), but the last half falls to evolve any of these elements. It stops introducing new enemy types, simply adding more armor and hit points to enemies, and the at first acceptable simple open fields of battle become repetitive as the game very rarely toys with the idea of alternate map designs, like adding terrain which would greatly influence how you approach an encounter.
The Survival aspect becomes rather heavy handed as the last half gives you very little options for getting yourself out of a bad predicament in terms of food, which constantly left me with under-powered units as morale sunk into the ground. The decisions you are given start feeling like they are repeating at the end of things, not to mention some cheap ones thrown in at the final battle which makes an already supremely difficult final battle into something which tumbles into the unfair. Not to mention an undeveloped "war" system which you command your cravan via a fixed set of dialogue trees which never offered any real challenge or reward whatsoever. It's generally unfortunate how The Banner Saga fails to live up to its own potential.
Even the normally stunning production values of The Banner Saga start to suffer a bit by the last half of things. Character models start repeating in their basic build and stature which became glaringly obvious at some point. And visually the places you go to by the end of the game fail to rival a lot of what you've seen earlier on in the game, which made the journey a little more taxing than it should have. For sound design, which has some really good sound effects (particularly the "Victory!" one), the lack of voice acting is disappointing as it would've helped a lot in giving the characters a distinctive voice and presence that the writing sometimes is unable to do. The only blameless part of this only deal is the soundtrack by Austin Wintory of Journey fame. It's a powerful score which I believe surpasses that of his previous masterpiece of Journey, and its classical styling with viking-like chants constantly left me in awe.
But despite all of that, I greatly enjoyed my time with The Banner Saga for the vast majority of it. Stoic Studio's introductory product is a strong first salvo for what is hopefully destined to be a large and successful franchise. The groundwork is all there with its simple yet tactically rewarding combat, interesting survival mechanic and harrowing choices that it throws at you.
The problem is that The Banner Saga sometimes fails to capitalize on this solid foundation with its first foray, and feels like it stretched my patience and attention too thin at certain points about halfway through. But even during moments where I was bored by the repetitive battles or confused by how to get my party out of its starving predicament; the visual style, audio work and overall fascinating world design kept me thoroughly entertained.
FOUR OUT OF FIVE
(A great game that largely succeeds, but stumbles in some notable ways.)