by Daniel Lein
As someone who loves games, I want my choices to matter. I want my inclusion in this false universe to mean something beyond a simple bystander. I want to have an affect, and more so I want to have my own affect, rather than some pre-determined one laid out by the developers. Though I’ve always yearned for this tall order, I never really expected it to be filled. Enter Banner Saga.
Banner Saga is a strategy RPG set in a high fantasy Nordic setting. You take control of various caravan leaders who must make difficult decisions on and off the battlefield. All the while a war is raging against stony monsters known as Dredge. Banner Saga introduces an interesting art style that I hadn’t seen since the hand drawn animated movie days. The colors are vibrant and the penciling itself is fantastic. It also manages to carve a mature vibe out for itself without copying animator greats such as Don Blooth and Hiyo Miyazaki. And though there is little that can match the work of the aforementioned two, the art in Banner Saga feels right at home with them. It is unique and evocative of the somber emotions that the game requires to deliver its core messages. The music helps set the mood as well. The orchestrated soundtrack is simply epic. In all honesty Banner Saga’s tracks wouldn’t feel out of place among the tracks in Lord of the Rings. It’s that same level of grandiose orchestration that this time adds a sort of melancholy to the epic scene. The first time I paused Banner Saga I noticed a small button that said “Buy the Soundtrack”. I sniggered at the games arrogance, believing that its in-game music was worth an advertisement in the pause menu. But after playing through the game and experiencing the epic drums, depressing wind instruments and vocals, and the jaw dropping violin I was eager to buy the track. Both the music and the animation create a feeling of maturity. Yes this is a video game and yes this is animated, but that doesn’t mean it’s an experience for kids.
Part of the maturity of this game lies within its gameplay. Banner Saga offers a complex two fold game mechanic, the first fold of which revolves around combat. The combat is similar in many ways to that of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics. You move players around on a virtual board lining enemies up for attacks or cunning abilities. There’s a few twists however to this classic formula. The strength stat is the first. Rather than two separate stats for attack and health, Banner Saga combines these stats into one strength stat. This means that if you take damage you will deal less damage in subsequent turns, which adds a layer of realism to the combat. The other twist is the armor stat which is a separate stat bar that protects the strength stat, but rather than simply reducing the damage taken it totally negates any strength that is equal to or less than the armor stat. With that in mind the characters are able to attack the armor stat directly to lower the damage threshold for further attacks. As a matter of fact both the strength stat and the armor stat must be attacked separately. This forces the player to choose between setting up a killing blow or depleting a dangerous enemy’s attack. If it sounds confusing that’s because it is, but after a few well done tutorials you’ll be protecting your heroes and striking with ferocity. The second fold to Banner Saga’s deep gameplay is caravan management. Throughout the game, you will be leading a large caravan, and large caravans have many problems ranging from marital strife to dangerously low supplies. These issues and many more will be presented to you throughout the game and upon presentation you will be given choices on how to handle the situation. Each choice affects either morale or your supplies. If morale gets too low it can affect the way you perform in battle. If supplies get too low you will lose fighters and clansmen to starvation and disease. Much like Oregon trail your decisions can result in devastating losses or triumphant victories. However, unlike Oregon Trail, the result of each decision feels logical rather than randomized. The game always goes out of its way to explain why the choice you made was right or wrong rather than just giving you the good or bad news. This is a trait I find most promising as it shows that a great deal of focus and writing went into each of these caravan issues rather than just a number crunching computer.
Speaking of writing, Banner Saga is simply oozing with talent. Before I get into the story itself and the way in which it is presented I must point out the actual writing quality of the work. Excellent imagery brought the harshness of the tundra to my fingertips in a style that would have felt at home in a novel. Furthermore the game presents all of its story through these semi-animated dialogue sequences. By semi animated I mean that each character may shift their eyes, flick their hair, or perhaps turn a smile into a frown. These subtle animations give layers upon layers of depth to each character not to mention the dialogue itself which reflects and compliments those tiny yet powerful animations. Lastly I must mention the way in which the story is told. Using the player’s decisions, some of which are made with the caravan while others are made in key story moments, the game creates a unique tale that is purely your own. Multiple endings are popular in games, but multiple paths are largely missing at least to the degree Banner Saga presents them. The world of Banner Saga is also deeply interesting. It manages to avoid many of the high fantasy tropes, such as goblins, knights, and dragons, by creating its own magical creatures in the Varl and the Dredge. To assist the world’s complete and different feeling is a map that can be accessed in any town. For navigation the map isn’t much use as the caravan essentially moves on its own, through beautiful countryside I might add, but rather for education. Every city, forest, lake, and mountain range has at least a paragraph’s worth of information that exists purely to build the world and its history.
Banner Saga is an RPG that has it all. From its wonderful hand drawn art to its stunning orchestrated soundtrack, Banner Saga is brimming with beauty. It’s combat is deep and requires a fair bit of training to master, but with that mastery comes worthwhile satisfaction. And perhaps above all it has a deeply unique story. Rather than just giving the player a handful of paths to progress down, Banner Saga offers the players an opportunity to create an ornate quilt that is complex in its weaving, unique in its design, and beautiful in its entirety.
Banner Saga earns 9/10