Platforms: PC, Mac OS X
Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Digital Distribution (Steam)
Ratings: T (ESRB)

Review copy provided by Versus Evil

The Banner Saga is a beautiful and unusual meeting between the tactical turn-based combat of Final Fantasy Tactics and the high drama of Game of Thrones. It is a compelling story-driven game of conflict, character, drama and loss, set amidst a visually stunning Viking-inspired fantasy realm. As I learned, it also makes you face up to your choices, and then live with them.

The Banner Saga follows the adventures, conflicts and rivalries of a variety of characters from different perspectives as its story unfolds across this fantastical Viking realm, in a nod to the shifting angles of Game of Thrones. You begin with Ubin and his companions, a race of giants – the Varl – who live in an uneasy alliance with humans as hired swords, soldiers and officials. Later on, the story switches to other characters who are caught up in the emerging story from across the broad land, as its “chapters” unroll and their stories become intertwined.

It is an age of stability and growth, the last wars having ended many years before. And yet, an ominous event has affected the world – the sun has stopped in the sky, casting the world in an endless winter without night, an event which presages the return of an old enemy from the north (another familiar Game of Thrones vibe). Ubin’s journey – your saga – does not begin, however, with its plot and dramatics laid out for you. You are simply a tax collector for the human King, travelling through the snow-bound landscape, from city to city, gathering tithes and dealing with the king’s servants, ironing out local disputes. It is refreshing that the story does not simply leap out of the game, but draws you to it. You feel part of a moving, complex world of which you are not the centre.

The Banner Saga

You’re not being hailed the Dragonborn or saviour in its opening moments, the “only one who can save us”. You are simply a hefty giant with a massive axe and a slightly ruffled beard. Like any good saga, you have to find your own heroics. For the first chapters, you’re on the back-foot, your Caravan – with its flickering Banner, on which families and clans sew their histories and identities – struggling lowly against harsh weather, falling down with illness, battered by ambush and knives in the dark. It is here that you, the leader, must make life or death decisions – sometimes they’re easy and obvious, while in others you have no compass to guide what’s going to happen. You have to use your head, but also your gut.

Story, character and place form the major components of The Banner Saga, beside its tactical battle system; rendered in an enchanting visual style, of crisp lines and pale hues against a fantastical background of mountaintops and fjords, your Caravan – of Ubin, Harkon and Rook and their followers, or heroes and fighters, as well as occasional tag-alongs – must traverse the world’s landscapes while setting camp to rest, managing supplies, and encountering plots and events. When you enter a city, you can overview it as a deeply detailed drawing, clicking on its mead halls and markets and hall in order to meet with characters, barter, or explore. Or else encounter travellers on the highway, refugees, and even enemies, which initiates opportunities to gain or lose renown (points to buy upgrades and equipment), to gain special items, or to lose friends and companions. This is where the world really opens out and feels alive. It can make the difference between a happy Caravan thick with fighters and Varl, or a starving strung-out trickle of dying Clansmen.

Conversation offers a rich and quietly dramatic means to progress the story and to learn more about your characters, often being provided with a small array of dialogue options which affect your relationship with a hero, an ally, or an enemy. These conversations do an excellent job of filling-out the characters who, on the face of it, are simply cartoon giants with horned helmets and plaited beards. You get to know their ticks and quirks, their histories of courage or failure. To this is added a light and unobtrusive text and sometimes voiced narrative which pops up at key moments to explain Ubin’s own impressions or reservations, and to suggest what may come next. This is important as the world has many names, places, roles and histories – on first playing the game, it can be a little difficult following exactly who is who.

The Banner Saga

On the one hand it gives a sense of being dropped in the middle of a full and living world, but it can cause moments of head-scratching and figuring out. This is, perhaps, an experience familiar to its Game of Thrones inspiration, of dramatic complexity. But your decisions in this world are still critical, whether you understand their import or not: decide whether to gather scattered supplies while an enemy approaches and you risk being encircled; choose who stays to fight and who seeks shelter and safety. There is no easy “narrative reset”, no going back to a previous, pre-battle save. If you chose to go back, you could be funnelled to a much earlier point in the game. It forces you to live with your choices and actions, no matter the cost. The game wants us to feel the weight of these decisions. But there is no scale of “good” or “evil” that you shift along – your decisions and actions have effects, not arithmetic.

But, being an axe-toting Varl warrior, and later, a skilled master hunter, it is only natural that conversation will have an end and you’ll get into a fight. The battles are satisfyingly addictive turn-based tactical affairs arranged on a grid of squares which determines movement and action. The tutorial does well to introduce you to the complex options that this arrangement provides – line your units up in a shield wall to boost defence, or charge to take out weak links or isolated enemies. Even on medium difficulty the game can throw some early, tricky challenges; spread your characters too thinly and even your biggest Varl can fall under a rain of axe blows and spears. Each unit – friend or foe – has both a Defence and Strength number (which includes health points) determined by their level. When you attack you can choose to focus on either one; whittle down defence to make attacks on Strength more effective in later turns, or go straight for the jugular. You can also use finite Willpower points to increase your attack or movement capacity. Each battle is genuinely always in the balance, always edge-of-your-seat tense.

But you are not limited to these attack and defence options – each Hero belongs to a particular class (Shield Chieftain, Warhawk, etc), which grants a particular suite of abilities and special attacks. As you defeat enemies in battle, points are added to your “renown”, which enables you to level up and acquire upgrades to your various attributes, as well as new weapons and items. This adds an additional layer of strategy to the engagements, allowing you to mould your fighters to your favoured playing style like a deck of cards differently shuffled. Your special attacks can turn the tide of an unwinnable battle, or else provide a swansong of violence before a character dies. It’s an interesting tactical touch that you can also harm your allies – one attack offers a swirling 360 degree of damage, ideal for when you are surrounded. But if you share a square with an ally, they’ll also be damaged, even killed. It adds a proximity and intensity to the combat that, on the surface, is abstract in its squares and turns.

The Banner Saga

Added to this are battle scenarios, where your Caravan – numbering often over the thousand mark – encounters an enemy army. Before entering the tactical mode, you can make a series of basic strategic choices (“Charge!”, “Retreat”, “Formations”, etc), which then resolve into a particular tactical scenario (you can also chose not to fight personally, surveying the battle from the rear). It adds an extra level of engagement – making this really feel like war – yet it can feel a bit unclear as to what each option really means. I never really felt myself having to choose anything other than “formation” and then “pursue survivors” in order to clean up and wipe out the enemy. This is an area that could do with some tweaking and improvement.

Throughout the game, then, tactics aren’t just an optional extra – they’re essential to winning a fight. Even when you outnumber your enemies with stronger units, you can still foul up. I played several battles over and over, trying out different combinations, different tactics, and different choices, and each time the same battle turned out differently, however slightly – a major defeat, a major victory, a messy attrition of units. It means that there is an enormous level of complexity and tactical depth even in apparently straightforward battles. It provides a steep learning curve to really get this down to an art, and even when you are confident later in the game you can still make silly errors which cost you units, even favoured Heroes. But because you can’t simply “menu > reload”, you’ve got to grin and bear it. This can also happen during dialogue action sequences: in one scene, a large enemy looms behind your companion.

Choosing to fire an arrow to distract the enemy, rather than to charge at it with an axe or call out to her (other options), she freezes, while a boy – who had just saved my battle line-up in the last encounter, despite his inexperience – charges at the enemy and is killed instantly by it, before it is taken down. This was a preventable death, a death that if I had charged or acted differently would have been prevented. These kinds of unbidden, moral choices edge up on you continually throughout the game, setting your jaw clenching and your mind racing through the messy and unknowable consequences of your actions. While nothing active or visual had happened – there was no flashy video sequence or battle scene, just text – I was knocked backwards with guilt and the desire to do it again. But I couldn’t. I have to live with it. And it happened again, and again.

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I said in the introduction that this is a beautiful game. And it is. Everything about its 2D world and battle scenes has obviously received minute care and attention – the cursor is clear and pretty and crisp, the interface economical and striking, the characters defined and detailed, the landscapes and cities stunningly, enchantingly pretty. On several occasions I grabbed the screen to show people in the room – even those who never play computer games were knocked over and thought I was watching an animated film. Other times, I just sat and admired the line and depth and colour. Even the map, in its Tolkienesque ripple of mountains and inlets and towns, is a work of art. There is no obvious jittery aliasing, as if everything has been smoothed and carved and preened over by a master craftsman, the same care as a Viking shipwright put into the curve and shape of a long-ship.

The animation is sparse and makes careful use of line and colour. Conversation scenes are static, with the character set in a standard pose while the wind ruffles their beard and clothes. It gives the impression of moving through portraits or even across the illustrations in a richly-drawn book of fairy tales. It has the influence of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty – its lightness and its darkness.

That being said, there are some visual snags and arrangements which hinder rather than help. In the battle menu the options which branch from a character can sometimes overlap other, important information, so that you are forced to click back and forth and rearrange the screen position before continuing. These are very minor faults that can easily be patched, and don’t ultimately affect the gameplay or your immersion in it.

The Banner Saga

The score and sound are rich and impressive, providing sweeping strings and mead-hall folk which really create a sense of being part of a grand, unfolding story. The environmental sounds are generally very good, though there was some clipping and unusual levelling so that these could sometimes jar or grate against the backing theme. Nonetheless, there’s nothing quite so satisfying as listening to the heavy stomp and tread as your Varl approaches an enemy, ready to swing an axe or hammer. The resulting strike and death-rattle is particularly visceral, even making me wince on several occasions as the enemy’s body slumped to the ground.

Ultimately, what pins the game together is its attention to detail as well as its sweeping, attractive world. It is a world in which the choices you make are difficult and uncertain, determined as much by action – who lives and who dies – than by dialogue. If your favoured Hero dies because of your tactical inelegance or misdirection, whether in combat or text mode, then you have to live with that. Receive a crushing defeat in battle, then that’s your fault as well, your problem to deal with – you weren’t forced down a decision, but made it yourself. The Banner Saga tells us that you can’t always be the saviour or the hero, that you can’t always be the victor. Somebody has got to lose, and it could well be you; it just doesn’t mean that the game is over. It is a refreshing and thoughtful and extremely mature form of narrative storytelling, and a promise for games to come – as well as to the game’s projected, anticipated sequel chapters.

So while there are some very slight creases to be ironed out, there is little that The Banner Saga does wrong. And what it does right it does very, enchantingly, challengingly right. For RPG, tactics and even literature and film fans, this is an absolute must-own. It is a “I’m sitting up until 5am simply watching my Caravan, tiny and bent-backed, pass against the massive hulk of snow-swept mountains” kind of game, a game that makes you peer close and fuss and calculate in combat, but also lean back and smile and appreciate. It is, in a word, unmissable.

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