A brutal yet beautiful journey
It isn't difficult to see why The Banner Saga secured over $723,000 via Kickstarter. The Viking-themed tactical role-playing game is just gorgeous, resembling something along the lines of a classic Disney picture. And it vaunts some serious pedigree too. In addition to being developed by a team of BioWare veterans, the music comes courtesy of Austin Wintory, the composer behind the Grammy-nominated and BAFTA-winning Journey soundtrack.
Yes, that certainly seems like a recipe for success.
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The Banner Saga (PC [tested], Mac, Linux)
Release: January 14, 2014
Having spent roughly five hours experiencing what's apparently the first quarter of The Banner Saga's campaign, I can safely say the art direction is as lovely as you might expect. The style evokes the work of Eyvind Earle, featuring intensely detailed landscapes that really steal the show.
The visual showcase is headlined by a myriad of wonderful subarctic vistas. The attention to detail here is outstanding. The art is just so lovingly crafted (or perhaps painstakingly rendered) that it really gives the game a sense of place, decisively hammering home the fantastical Nordic setting.
The soundtrack is equally felicitous. Strings, horns, drums, and chants are paired with ambient natural sounds. It's often somber, as is much of the narrative, but rises to the occasion, drumming up excitement when needed with epic tracks one might expect to hear accompanying Vikings at war.
That's where things start to go a bit awry though. The story is incomprehensible -- at least at first. Due to an utter lack of exposition, it feels like one is dropped into this tale in media res. I slowly pieced together a plot following two separate groups at opposite ends of the wilderness, each beset upon by an ancient race called the dredge.
Men and horned giants called varl form tenuous alliances to survive the scourge. Forced from their homes, refugees unite under banners. Caravans wander from one place to the next, merely attempting to survive as their demonic foes threaten their very existence. It's the end of the world.
Because of that, the game is pretty linear. Imagine something along the lines of The Oregon Trail, but with battles akin to Fire Emblem posting the way, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what The Banner Saga entails. Players will be sent in one direction, almost as though the experience were on-rails, and left to react as best they can as the game throws curveballs, forcing players to make one difficult decision after the next.
Choices have impacts on everything you could possibly imagine. One's judgement can turn the tide of battle, result in gaining supplies, or lead to losing a valuable party member. On two occasions I lost my most vital comrades because of stupid decisions. This is a difficult game, and losing the most vital cog in your battle formation can really sting -- so choose wisely.
Battles are turn-based and take place on a grid. It seems like a pretty standard tactical role-playing game at first, but there are definitely some wrinkles. One aspect of the combat that will have players changing their approach is armor. Players are given the opportunity to go for the kill or whittle away an enemy's protective coating. Sometimes the latter route is vital to one's success, as some foes have virtually impenetrable shielding.
Another idiosyncrasy is willpower. Units have a supply of surplus energy that they can use to hit harder, move further, or perform special abilities. Willpower doesn't regenerate automatically, however, so players will need to rest their heroes or kill enemies to replenish these reserves. Knowing when and how to utilize these abilities frequently proves to key to emerging from a skirmish victorious.
There's a great deal of potential in The Banner Saga, but it's not without its frustrations. Everything feels so painfully slow and arduous. And I'm not entirely sure how intentional that is. It seems to mirror the narrative, reflecting how bleak the life of a refugee warrior in this cold, barren world on the edge of Armageddon must be. It can come across as a slog, which doesn't necessarily lend itself to being fun.
Combat frequently proves to be a battle of attrition where one wins merely by the skin one's teeth. Pitted against long odds, and always outnumbered, edging forward can seem like a chore. The story never goes out of its way to make sure you understand what is going on or why you should care about these characters. After a gorgeous animated opening, players are left to wade through miles and miles of text and still images.
My time with the game seemed evenly split between being in awe and feeling terribly discouraged and disheartened. Again, perhaps that's the intent. Perhaps, I'm supposed to feel like I'm walking a tightrope or along a knife-edge. But despite all my frustrations, all the times I felt disengaged or confused, I found myself wanting more. By the end, I wanted to spend more time in that setting, with those characters, even if it's just to see where it's going and what is going to happen next.