The art of storytelling is blossoming in the gaming industry, and gamers are crying out for games with deep story lines and strong, dynamic characters. As developers, both big and small, try to accommodate the demand, one developer aims to rise above the rest; Stoic’s new game, The Banner Saga, takes players through an epic, Viking-inspired tale, filled with heroes, villains, and enchanting mythology.
The Gods are dead, and the sun has stopped in the sky – however, all is not lost. The end of the last Great War saw two former enemies join forces to drive the vicious dredge back into the Northern Wastes. Men and varl were thrust into an alliance born by necessity rather than friendship, but though the war against the dredge is passed, the tenuous peace between the two races continues.
Starting out as Udin, a varl tax collector on his way home to the northern capital city of Grofheim, players gain different perspectives by controlling different characters throughout the game. This method of telling the story works particularly well because of the differences between men and varl, making players view every situation in a different light, depending on who they’re controlling at the time.
Varl believe themselves to be superior in every way, especially in battle, and prefer to stay out of the company of men. Men, on the other hand, blame varl for instigating the Great Wars, and carry great distrust and contempt for their new comrades. When playing as a character of either race, adhering to his or her mindset feels natural, though players are free to make their own decisions.
A major part of the game, decisions shape the outcome of any event, and the consequences can often be disastrous. At any given moment, a certain choice can lead to low morale, lost supplies, or even characters dying. There are naturally positive consequences as well, such as new characters, better gear, or higher morale, but it’s the poor decisions causing irreparable damage that are remembered long after the game is finished.
Upon learning that the dredge have returned, sacking villages and slaying anyone caught in their path, both men and varl take up arms once more to rid their lands of evil. Some are hoping to escape the dredge, while others go to face them in battle. As each character looks to write their own story, choices made by the player helps them discover who they want to be, and how far they’ll go to save the people they love.
Traveling in The Banner Saga happens automatically, and depends on where a character is going. Players are given a side-on view of their caravan as it walks through magnificent landscapes, in search of the next town. Having enough supplies for the journey is vital, as members of the caravan will start dying if they run out. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know how many days each trip will take, which can result in either spending too much on supplies, or not enough.
While the walking is slow-paced, the monotony is often broken by encountering situations where players are forced to make a choice. “A group of dredge are attacking a village. Will you help fight them off?”, “One of your clansmen is drunk and started a fight. How will you discipline him?”, “Some of your clansmen wish to search for family members in a nearby village. Will you let them?”
Many of the choices have no impact on the main story, but can be important nonetheless. All of them have consequences, be they major or barely noticeable, and some even earn rewards. At times, the consequence of a choice isn’t made clear until much later in the game, which adds some mystery and excitement about what events may have been set in motion.
The combat system in The Banner Saga is similar to that in Heroes of Might and Magic. Units take turns moving around on a grid, and when they’re close enough to an opponent, they can attack its armor or strength. Depending on how much willpower a character has, he or she can use it to add extra damage to their attacks. Willpower can also be used to unleash special abilities, determined by the character’s class.
Enemies are defeated when their strength is fully depleted. However, attacking their armor is still important, as a foe with no armor will fall much quicker. Should any of your units fall in battle, they’ll be “injured” and must rest for a required amount of days in order to regain full strength.
When a battle is over, you’re rewarded with Renown, which serves as the game’s currency, used for buying supplies and items, and for leveling up characters. The “one-currency-buys-all” approach can be frustrating when wanting to level up someone, but instead having to buy supplies. As the party size increases, earning enough Renown to keep characters leveled up and the caravan alive is near impossible.
Battles sometimes feel like a necessary evil for the story to progress. While the mechanics are solid, the fights tend to be drawn out, repetitive affairs, especially if there are obstacles on the field of battle, forcing units to take the long way around. Fortunately, many combat situations can be avoided by making the right decisions.
It may seem like an odd thing to say, but one of the most exciting aspects of battle in this game is the fact that winning truly isn’t everything. If the enemy emerges victorious, the story will simply go with that scenario and alter what happens next. Winning is obviously the preferred outcome, but losing doesn’t necessarily mean having to reload and play that part again.
As video game stories go, Stoic has delivered one that’s truly deep and immersive. Even the world map is exceptionally well detailed, with little pieces of lore connected to every single road, mountain, village, or city. Players will get lost in each picturesque location, as they attempt to uncover the story behind it.
The Banner Saga is an incredibly beautiful game, with hand drawn animations and backdrops adding magic to every location. The parallax scrolling, used brilliantly in the travel sequences, creates an illusion of 3D and makes the game’s art even more special. Coupled with a powerful soundtrack, (created by Austin Wintory, who composed the music for Journey) The Banner Saga transports players to a wonderful world of Vikings and monsters. Where else would you want to be?
Choices that matter.