Turn-based games have seen somewhat of a revival lately what with the imminent Wasteland 2, the recent decision to make Tides of Numenera turn-based, and the ridiculous success of the X-COM reboot. It’s nice to see larger studios turn their eyes to a genre that, for the past few years, has primarily been the domain of indie developers (Total War and Civilization aside). In between the world of AAA publishers and indie unknowns sits Stoic. Comprised of three former Bioware developers, The Banner Saga is their first venture into the world of publisher free game development. As one of the first games generously backed during the first wave of Kickstarter fever, there’s quite a bit of pressure on developers like Stoic to show the worth of Kickstarter as a funding model.
The Banner Saga is a linear RPG with elements of visual novels and Oregon Trail with a fairly unique turn-based combat system. Of course while those elements have their merits within the game itself, it’s the artwork, music, and world design that will most likely jump out at players. While this was one of the things that initially helped the game stand out from similar projects, I can definitely say that the many previews of the game simply don’t do it justice. Drawing heavily from animation legend Eyvind Earle, the most striking pieces of the game’s art come through in the caravan scenes where tiny trails of hand animated characters plod slowly through enormous painted landscapes. Though the game carries this gorgeous traditionally animated look into every section, it’s never quite as striking as the first time you see your caravan in motion. Given the small size of Stoic and the obvious funding limitations, they have managed to find a means to make a game that is both outstanding in its visual design and manageable for a small team. Stoic has really played to their strengths in this department and it is undoubtedly what many will remember the game for.
But enough about the eye-candy, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of this tactical RPG. The centerpiece of The Banner Saga’s gameplay is a turn-based combat system that was released earlier last year as a multiplayer-only standalone. There are a few interesting quirks to the game that set it apart from other turn-based games. First off, health and damage have been combined into one stat: strength. Damage from strength is mitigated by an opponent’s armor stat and your damage on any given atack is determined by how much your strength exceeds the opponent’s armor. For every point that an enemy’s armor exceeds your unit’s strength, there is an added 10% miss chance. It’s creates some interesting decision points in combat where you must choose between wounding and enemy (and thus indirectly mitigating damage down the road), or setting them up for an easy kill. Secondly, turns will always alternate between an enemy unit and a player controlled one unless there is only one of either on the board. This alone affects gameplay in several interesting ways. Players may be more inclined to maim enemy units instead of outright killing them as it effectively leaves the enemy with more turns on a gimped unit. This isn’t as cut and dry as it might seem as many units are still very effective even at one strength (the ability damage armor and use special talents is not directly tied to strength). It can seem kind of counter-intuitive at first and has a tendency to draw out the battles, but it does create a fairly unique set of decisions in terms of placement and turn order. Finally there’s the willpower system. Every character begins each encounter with a natural amount of will power which can be spent to move extra tiles, or add damage to an attack. For example, even if an enemy’s armor is higher than your unit’s strength, willpower can be employed to turn a one damage attack into three damage. It is also used for units’ unique abilities and is gained in combat either through resting for a turn or killing enemy units. The AI in these encounters ranges from cruelly opportunistic (check the movement range of enemy units unless you want your archers smashed to pieces), to intermittently buggy. I didn’t encounter anything game-breaking until my second playthrough, although there was an instance of enemy units continually attacking a unit with one strength who simply kept using his ability to mitigate all damage until his next turn, rendering him a completely invulnerable tank so long as I had the willpower to expend. Overall though, the combat on normal difficulty is enough of a challenge for most players and is, for the most part, well-balanced. Veterans of tactical RPGs should probably play on hard right out of the gate if they have an understanding of the games mechanics.
Beyond combat, the rest of the game plays out in the aforementioned travel sections and intermittent dialog and text prompts. The Oregon Trail comparison I spoke of earlier is conveyed through the brief encounters where you, as a caravan leader, must make basic decisions on how the group should proceed. These range from settling disputes between soldiers, to determining strategy before a battle, and even, in a rather direct homage, how your party should go about crossing a river. Aside from simply aiding in immersion, these sections also help determine your party’s morale which, when high enough, provides bonus willpower during combat. It is however unfortunate that the resource management system was not more fleshed out in terms of consequences. Though my party was starving and suffering from low morale at one point, there was little the game did to punish me other than removing a willpower bonus for encounters and stating that several troops and clansmen had perished. It would have been nice to see this have more of an impact on the encounters or at least have another text prompt where I have to deal with unrest in my party since the only thing I was prevented from doing was exchanging supplies for new caravan members in a few choice encounters. The number of troops at your disposal will determine how well you can put the odds in your favor during the game’s battles (events that pit your party’s morale and numbers against an enemy’s so you can determine whether you want to auto-resolve a battle or fight using your party). Though I was engaged throughout the campaign, I would definitely like to see this part of the game expanded.
With all of that said, I found the dialog sections and the story’s branching narrative very engaging. Though many of the encounters and decisions didn’t have the gameplay impact they could have, in terms of immersion and conveying the game’s story and setting, they were rather well executed. Dialog sections, though plentiful, are often brief and to-the-point. This is something that really compliments the grim and spartan tone the game tries to convey. The Banner Saga’s story, while steeped in modern parallels (zombie survival dramas, dark fantasy, etc.), is decidedly old-fashioned. Instead of the gray-shaded cynicism of modern fantasy settings, The Banner Saga instead relies on the simplicity of cultural myths and folktales. Aside from the more prosaic decisions made by the player, most of the game works through some very old and simple archetypes; a reluctant leader forced into power and responsibility, a child losing her innocence, a race of warriors struggling to leave a mark on the world, petty and anthropomorphic gods. In a medium where contemporary fantasy has been dominated by the brutal and morally ambiguous, it’s good to see a game with a story that is more fable-esque (not Fable-esque).
The Banner Saga is a game that while will probably be most remembered for its presentation. Austin Wintory’s score is, in my opinion, his absolute best work yet. I could seriously write an entirely new article on why this is but I suggest you simply check it out for yourself. While Stoic has managed to craft an interesting set of mechanics for the game, in their current state they are more in service to the sheer splendor of the game’s art and music. There’s nothing all that bad about the game’s combat or resource management system (they actually manage to do a few rather clever things), they still have some room for improvement. Even considering the game’s minor shortcomings, The Banner Saga is an excellent game and is truly worth playing.