After impressing backers on Kickstarter two years ago, culminating in pledges seven times what the developers were seeking, and then teasing the combat side of their game via a free-to-play multiplayer game last year, indie studio Stoic have finally released their long awaited campaign-based game, The Banner Saga. The game promises a story-based role-playing experience in which your choices affect how the story unfolds, combined with the tactical turn-based combat demonstrated in their aforementioned multiplayer release, The Banner Saga Factions. In fact, upon starting the campaign, there’s a sense of deja vu as it quickly becomes apparent they borrowed the first map wholesale from the campaign to serve as the tutorial in their free-to-play release.
The Banner Saga begins by placing you in command of a nomadic caravan of Varl, a Viking inspired race of giants, as they travel from settlement to settlement across a world in the grip of an ice age. The Varl have an uneasy alliance with their former enemy, the humans, after they joined forces in a previous war to counter a threat to both of them from an aggressive race known as the Dredge. The story is told via a combination of a series of beautiful hand-drawn animations whose artwork is reminiscent of old cartoons and events that happen whilst your caravan is crossing the lands.
At various points during the campaign, you will actually swap between the story of the Varl caravan and a human caravan whose own story is unfolding at the same time elsewhere on the continent. It has to be said that whilst introducing the warlike giant race straight away is no doubt an impressive hook, their story is a little harder to relate to than the human one. The human story of hunters and farmers with their human traits of fear, greed and heroism may have made a gentler start to the game. Both stories revolve around an unexpected resurgence of the common enemy, the Dredge, and your force’s organised retreat from their overwhelming onslaught.
Your caravan comprises of a variety of people: heroes, clansmen, fights and Varl. The heroes are the most important and comprise of a pool of characters who are essential to the story and whom can be selected to take part in player-controlled combat. The fighters and Varl are human and giant warriors respectively and feature in larger scale wars in which you have no direct control but during which your heroes will take part in a skirmish that may tip the overall battle in your force’s favour. The clansmen are simply human civilians you have rescued on your travels, and as cruel as this sounds, their main purpose seems to be as a drain upon your limited supplies. The game does a good job of making you feel guilty, however, if you place the practical considerations of feeding your army over the wellbeing of any settlements you encounter and you choose to leave them unaware of the impending Dredge threat rather than inviting them to join you.
Throughout the game there are obviously many opportunities to experience The Banner Saga’s unique take on turn-based tactical combat. These mostly take part against the Dredge but you may also find yourself facing human or Varl forces. Armour plays a major role in these fights - far more so than most other games. The two main attributes that affect the outcome of a fight are the attacking unit’s strength and the defending unit’s armour, with the difference between the two being the damage the defender takes. No surprises so far. Where The Banner Saga mixes things up is with the fact that armour levels will often be greater than the attacker’s strength, and attacks have the option to damage the opponent's armour instead of their health. A further twist comes from the fact that the attack strength and the unit’s health are one and the same stat. Every single attack you make starts with a difficult choice between damaging the opponent’s armour so that a future attack will do more damage, or to attack his strength to take your enemy closer to defeat and reduce the damage he can in turn inflict upon you.
Combat is further complicated by special moves and the highly important willpower stat. Each unit has their own, mostly unique, special move they can perform instead of an attack. These often affect units adjacent to their target, friend or foe, and so can be devastating but are also challenging to set up the enemy for optimum damage whilst keeping your own units out of the way. Each use of a special move consumes your finite willpower stat which replenishes between fights. Willpower can also be used to allow units to move further and add damage to attacks, so wise use of this attribute is essential for success.
Victory in combat will bring you renown which serves as the in-game currency. This can be spent when in towns to resupply, or to buy equipment to improve your heroes. Between towns you may choose to camp and from here you can also spend renown to level up your heroes’ attributes once they have achieved a certain number of kills. Camps also allow you to rest and improve morale at the expense of supplies or to take part in combat training. Morale drops over time as you travel and it affects your heroes’ willpower so you need to balance caravan supply against combat effectiveness. The combat training lets you take part in fights against an equivalent strength force and allows you to practise tactics without consequences for loss or injury. This is useful because whilst the tutorial teaches you the rules of the game, it does not teach you strategy and expects you to work out tactics for yourself.
A major part of The Banner Saga is the choices you will need to make along your journey which will affect how the story unfolds. Results of these decisions are wide ranging and may see your supply levels change, start combat, new heroes recruited, or even see heroes die. It is rarely clear cut which is the ‘right’ choice and you are often choosing between the lesser of two evils. There is also no telling if a decision that worked out well in the short term will later come back to bite. The game autosaves and has no manual saving so there is no reloading if your responses don’t have the outcome you wanted! It is worth noting at this point that the game only has one save slot, which may be limiting for families.
The game has three difficulty levels which can be changed at any time and this affects the number of enemy faced in combat as well as the enemies’ armour and health. It also determines how badly affected your units are by injury if their health drops to zero in a fight. Injured units begin fights with a strength and willpower penalty so you may find yourself having to choose between picking a high-level injured unit and a lower level healthy unit for your next fight. On easy difficulty, the enemies’ armour levels are low enough that you can almost ignore it and play the game as a more traditional turn-based strategy. Normal difficulty provides a good challenge but an understanding of the armour break mechanics and good use of willpower will see a seasoned TBS gamer able to win most of the fights. Hard difficulty will see you needing to understand and make optimal use of your special moves as well as the finer points of the rules such as the Dredge armour shatter where armour damage will chain to adjacent Dredge.
The Banner Saga has a nicely pitched difficulty curve with the number and strength of opponents increasing as the game progresses. These difficulties are added to by a scarcity of supplies later on in the game leading to difficulties in resting enough to maintain morale and heal injuries. The death of heroes due to story events also serves in forcing you to mix up your play style at inopportune times. A real sense of desperation sets in as your caravan crosses bleak landscapes, with rock bottom morale, civilians dying of starvation and few settlements left untouched by the Dredge to resupply you.
As well as providing a great and unique tactical challenge alongside a story full of choices and surprise, the game is great looking to match - from the fantastically stylised cartoon cutscenes to the detailed graphics during the fights which take place on a large variety of maps. The limitations of an indie production do shine through in a few places, such as voice acting only being used for selected parts of the story and the notable lack of combat animation frames for the archer when firing diagonally. It’s a little jarring to see them aim 45 degrees away from the direction their arrow takes. However, despite all its strengths, it somehow falls slightly short in simply being fun to play. Due to the bleak landscapes, the depressing situations your characters find themselves in and the challenging tactical combat, this is a game for those who will find the challenge rewarding rather than those looking for lighter entertainment.