Giant Bomb Review

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The Banner Saga Review

4
  • PC

Stoic's debut strategy RPG succeeds far more than it falters.

The Banner Saga is a game of both terrific beauty and desperate misery. Those who like their RPGs to deliver an epic-scale world-saving power fantasy would probably be served better by something other than Stoic's debut effort, which has no particular interest in making its player feel good about the decisions and scenarios they're being presented with. This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song, full of wearied, cynical heroes forced to make hard choices that rarely result in great things for those they bear responsibility for, as the fabric of their already barren world unravels around them at every turn. The Banner Saga is grim, bordering on hopeless at times, so it's a credit to its mechanics and art design that the game never feels particularly punishing to play. In fact, it's a surprising time-suck, one of those games that, should it get its hooks in you, it'll get them deep.

The sumptuous visuals of The Banner Saga go a long way toward taking some of the sting out of its relentlessly sad story.

It'll help, of course, if you have even a minor predilection toward Vikings. No, The Banner Saga doesn't dig into actual Norse mythology, but its hardscrabble heroes are clearly inspired by the Nordic warriors of old. The mythology here finds a world previously decimated by massive wars, long-dead gods, and a seething mistrust between the two primary races. The smaller, more obviously familiar humans live in scattered settlements and cities alongside the giant, behorned varl, a race defined primarily by its largeness and exceptionally long lifespan. Neither race much trusts one another, but a tentative alliance has kept things peaceful since the old days of war against the race of stone-demons known as the dredge. Not long into The Banner Saga's opening, the dredge return mysteriously, pouring over the land in volume the likes of which even the oldest varl can't recall ever seeing. Immediately villages are overwhelmed, people are driven from their homes, and it's up to you to find a way to save as many as you can.

You'll play The Banner Saga from multiple perspectives, including a human clan led by an archer named Rook, and a caravan of varl and humans led by one of the few diplomatically minded varl you'll meet. In either situation, you'll find yourself leading a group from place to place, scavenging for supplies, fighting dredge, and slowly putting the pieces together on why the dredge have returned, why the sun has stopped moving across the sky, and why a shroud of darkness has begun to cover the whole of the world.

Unfortunately, The Banner Saga only gets around to actually answering a couple of those questions. Much of the game's plot is dedicated to introducing you quite a few different characters, many of which become playable members of your party as you trudge across the icy wasteland. Some of these characters are legitimately interesting personalities, while others offer less distinctive voices, making their presences occasionally confusing during larger conversations. The game's script is mostly judicious about who it inserts into what situation, but it's almost entirely unvoiced (outside of a few narrated chapter intros) and that makes trying to differentiate some of the very similarly mannered characters a bit of a pain when you're clicking through the various conversations. This is also not a very long game. I completed it in something like nine hours, and while it mostly makes good use of the time it has, its conclusion makes the events that preceded it feel like a lot of table-setting for a much bigger, even more arduous conflict later down the road, rather than a satisfying wrap-up of its own stand-alone tale. It's a little like watching The Fellowship of the Ring if you weren't already aware there were going to be more sequels coming.

Still, I liked a lot of what The Banner Saga aims for in terms of crafting its world and those that inhabit it. Some clunky dialogue here and there aside, many of the characters you're presented with demonstrate nuance in their motivations, despite the perpetually crumbling world around them not exactly allowing for many opportunities for subtle character-building. Even as the game falls further and further into its apocalyptic abyss, the key personalities of the story remain engaging, keeping you transfixed on their tale, even as the circumstances become more and more ominous.

Battles take place on various grids like this, and follows a turn-based progression.

I don't think I'm overselling the dire nature of The Banner Saga's story, though I'll concede that a good chunk of that misery comes from the fact that you are the one forced to make the hard decisions around all this tragedy. Most of these come from simple dialogue trees that pop up in primary conversations, but you'll also constantly be making plenty of smaller, yet still important, decisions that greatly affect how your game progresses. You see, The Banner Saga breaks up its combat and plot points with a traveling system not all that dissimilar from The Oregon Trail. As you move from place to place, you'll be bringing along a caravan of warriors and clansmen that must be properly maintained, lest your people begin dying off along the path. Essentially, you have to balance your store of supplies against the need to keep healthy morale among your people, which you gain by resting along the way. You'll have opportunities on the road to scavenge for additional supplies, take on new members of the caravan, and even find a few extra items to buff your warriors with, but those situations can often just as easily go wrong, leading to lost supplies, sickness, and very often death for those around you.

The health and morale of your caravan must additionally be balanced against your need to improve the warriors in your party. The only way you'll be able to upgrade them is by taking on the hordes of dredge that seem to appear at every turn, as well as the occasional band of human brigands or renegade varl. Winning in battle earns you renown, the game's only currency. You use renown to upgrade your warriors in the usual stats like strength and armor, as well as willpower. Willpower is a special, stackable trait that lets warriors move further on the battlefield, as well as enact stronger attacks. Incidentally, renown is also the currency you use to purchase supplies for your caravan, so you constantly find yourself having to decide if having extra days worth of a healthy caravan is worth having potentially underpowered fighters in the next battle. And keeping morale in a good place helps too, since having extremely low morale will cost you penalties during battles.

About that battle system. Fights take place on a grid, using a turn-based system that rewards careful strategy. You'll have a half-dozen or so warriors available per fight, which is usually enough to take on the hordes of dredge, highwaymen, and whatever else you come in contact with. Each main warrior has their own particular skillset, though there are several character classes that each fighter pulls from. Which is to say nothing of the major differences between the humans and varl's skillsets. Varl, as you might imagine, are lumbering hulks that do lots of damage but aren't necessarily the most nimble nor defensive-minded fighters, while humans can use a greater variety of weapons, like bows, spears, and small axes. Creating a strong party that balances attackers and supporting players is generally key to victory.

It's an intriguing system, one that I managed to pick up the particulars of fairly quickly. If there's a flaw here, it's that there regrettably isn't much variety to the combat scenarios you're presented. You spend most of the game just fighting the dredge, who certainly have some differing fighter classes, but not enough to make any engagement with them feel much different from another, outside of a few random (but not unmanageable) difficulty spikes. Some of that sameness is offset by the fact that the combat system itself is fairly fun and just complicated enough to require some thinking, without being too complicated for an average player to dive into. Samey as they might be, fights are often enjoyably challenging. I guess I just wish more time were dedicated to throwing some unexpected wrinkles into the combat situations. The traversal system offers up a pretty solid variety of situations and choices for the player to make over the course of the game. It's just a small shame that the combat system, as vital to the game's progression as it is, doesn't quite follow suit.

Did I mention how incredible this game looks? I did? Well, I'm mentioning it again.

One aspect of The Banner Saga I have no qualms with whatsoever is its art. Evoking the hand-drawn art of animation's "dark age," The Banner Saga features exquisite character art, gorgeous landscapes, and tons of small visual flourishes that combine into a spectacular looking world. It's worth noting that the game doesn't feature a ton of actual animation, outside of battle scenes and some lightly animated cutscenes, but it doesn't really matter. The mostly static images that make up the conversation and overworld sequences are drawn so wonderfully that they do plenty to suck you into the game's snow-bleached world. That art is underscored brilliantly by another terrific soundtrack from Austin Wintory, which perfectly captures the game's overall aesthetic in audio form.

I expect that phenomenal art and audio will go a long way toward making people forget about some of The Banner Saga's less developed elements. It certainly did so for me. I was too busy admiring the visuals, carefully considering each conversation, and plotting out battle strategies during the course of the game. It was only after I'd finished that I was left to consider the sometimes monotonous fights, the regrettably cliffhanging conclusion, and the overall bleakness of the game's worldview. Still, none of those considerations diminished my enjoyment at the time, and in retrospect, the worst thing I can say about The Banner Saga is that I wanted a lot more of it. That might sound like an odd thing to say about a game that digs its players into a place of nonstop hardship and treachery, a world where death and despair are the only constant, and hope seems utterly lost in the dark behind an unmoving sun. Credit then to Stoic for crafting a game experience that makes such gloom palatable, beautiful, and yes, even enjoyable.

Alex Navarro on Google+
125 Comments
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Edited by MikeLemmer

Hrm? I didn't see any mandatory Ranged slots in the character select... although where I'm at in the game, you don't have enough characters yet to do all melee.

This game lost me when they wouldn't let me do all melee dudes! Anyone know if that got changed back?

Edited by turboskerv
Posted by MikeLemmer
@mrgtd said:

Turns out this "Kickstarter" thing is alright. Broken Age is incredible, and this is pretty good too.

You forgot FTL, Shadowrun Returns, Waveform, etc.

Aside from a few scams or poor games I'm sure I'm missing because they barely blip on the radar, I think Kickstarter games have been consistently decent/good games in neglected genres. There's only been one smash hit (FTL), but I think their average level of quality/interest has been higher than the AAA titles.

Edited by mdmac92

Great review Alex. I was on the fence, figuring that this was probably one of those games with incredible art but sub-par gameplay, but after reading this I'm definitely going to pick it up at some point. Would like to see a QL to get a better feel for the combat and story dynamics though.

Posted by sravankb

"This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song" Ok, you have my attention, Banner Saga

That part made me lose attention. Fucking grimdark bullshit is the new post-apocalyptic.

Online
Posted by ICantBeStopped

Why do those people have horns?

Edited by Brenderous

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

Posted by heatDrive88

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Posted by heatDrive88

Will Smith approves of this review. Begrudgingly...

Realistically speaking, this drawing just makes me wish the GB staff and friends or whatever were drawn in the style of 1950's Disney cartoons or early-career Don Bluth.

Posted by Tennmuerti

Hah, totally did not excpect to see GB review this. good on ya @alex

Also the review is pretty spot on about pretty much everything.

My only difference with it would be that I am taking much much longer, I've already racked up 9 hours and am only now getting into the "wars" mechanic. So unless it's going to end super abruptly it's going to take me a while.

This is mostly due to the fact that I try to replay certain battles, or see alternating consequences of decisions, of which there are definitely many btw. So it's totally been worth backtracking for me.

Posted by NEONBEAR

I think we'll all be odin you a big thanks for this review.

Posted by EchoEcho
@sravankb said:

@shinboy630 said:

"This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song" Ok, you have my attention, Banner Saga

That part made me lose attention. Fucking grimdark bullshit is the new post-apocalyptic.

I am somewhat befuddled by this sentiment. What does it matter how grim or upbeat the tone of a game's story/setting is, as long as it's well-told/well-realized? If it's just your personal preference, that's cool -- but personally preferring upbeat stuff doesn't make anything that's grim automatically "bullshit".

Posted by csl316
Online
Edited by Seppli

Great read, as always. Now it's going to be even harder to wait for the PSN version of this.

It sounds like Stoic and their Banner Saga will probably go places in the future. Looking forward to seeing where their journey will take us.

Posted by TenStoryMother

I'm viking the way this game looks.

Boom! Mind BLOWN!

Edited by Daneian

@brenderous said:

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Honey, these are the worst jokes ever mead.

Edited by huser

@patvb said:

I could have sworn I've seen this game on the site before. Was there a Quick Look EX or something a while back?

I believe Patrick showcased it when he was deep diving games.

Edited by Sweetz

Forgive my ignorance, but regarding Alex's story concerns is this planned as an episodic series or is the victim of some sort of scope cutting, leaving it feel incomplete?

Posted by Pezen

As a nordic man with a decent beard who threw an axe and drank mead from a horn not too long ago, this sounds like it'll be right up my alley. I actually really liked the multiplayer beta thing they put out, a well made story around that is definitely worth the ticket of admission. I'll definitely be checking this out.

Posted by RoyaleWifCheese

@brenderous said:

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Valhalla bout we just get back to the topic at hand?

Posted by Hunkulese

Why do those people have horns?

Because they're giants. Duh!

Posted by NeoZeon

A dark tale told alongside a flexible combat system? Well time to get this on the wishlist!

Posted by Skeetz

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Shouldn't that be 'Banner for life'?

Posted by beard_of_zeus

I believe this is eventually coming to consoles too, which is nice. Sucks that it's only the first part of an episodic series, though.

Sounds right up my alley, thanks for the review Alex.

Posted by shinboy630

@echoecho said:
@sravankb said:

@shinboy630 said:

"This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song" Ok, you have my attention, Banner Saga

That part made me lose attention. Fucking grimdark bullshit is the new post-apocalyptic.

I am somewhat befuddled by this sentiment. What does it matter how grim or upbeat the tone of a game's story/setting is, as long as it's well-told/well-realized? If it's just your personal preference, that's cool -- but personally preferring upbeat stuff doesn't make anything that's grim automatically "bullshit".

To be fair, I initially made my statement to say that I think that folk metal is pretty rad.

Posted by sado

Great group of guys made Banner Saga. Had the chance to meet them in Austin. I'm still surprised they manage to produce the game in that small shack. When I visited them, they were working on the game in a place the size of 400 square feet or less. Hope this one gives them room to expand.

Loved the review @alex!

Posted by DevOverkill

Really dig the art style for this game. I haven't followed it too closely but I thought I heard this was just chapter 1? Or did I hear wrong? Anyways, will be picking this up eventually as I can't get enough turn based strategy games like this. Good review Alex, thanks.

Posted by YOUNGLINK

I wish there would have been a QL to go along with this but i guess not.

Edited by believer258

@echoecho said:
@sravankb said:

@shinboy630 said:

"This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song" Ok, you have my attention, Banner Saga

That part made me lose attention. Fucking grimdark bullshit is the new post-apocalyptic.

I am somewhat befuddled by this sentiment. What does it matter how grim or upbeat the tone of a game's story/setting is, as long as it's well-told/well-realized? If it's just your personal preference, that's cool -- but personally preferring upbeat stuff doesn't make anything that's grim automatically "bullshit".

Setting that aside, how did anyone pay any attention to this game and not know that it was likely going to be "as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song"?

Edited by GaspoweR

@royalewifcheese said:

@heatdrive88 said:

@brenderous said:

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Valhalla bout we just get back to the topic at hand?

I was choking on my food from laughter while reading these puns... Good thing someone nearby knew how to do the Heimdallr maneuver. THANKS A LOT, @alex >:(

Posted by Hew7

Excellent review, very much considering this game now.

Posted by EchoEcho

@echoecho said:
@sravankb said:

@shinboy630 said:

"This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song" Ok, you have my attention, Banner Saga

That part made me lose attention. Fucking grimdark bullshit is the new post-apocalyptic.

I am somewhat befuddled by this sentiment. What does it matter how grim or upbeat the tone of a game's story/setting is, as long as it's well-told/well-realized? If it's just your personal preference, that's cool -- but personally preferring upbeat stuff doesn't make anything that's grim automatically "bullshit".

To be fair, I initially made my statement to say that I think that folk metal is pretty rad.

There is no disputing the truthiness of that statement.

Posted by ripelivejam

@heatdrive88: NO!

NO!!!

GIT DAT FURRY BULLSHIT OFF MAH GAMING(?) WEBSITE!!!!!!!

Posted by YoThatLimp

This game has been great so far. Some of the dialogue is a bit chunky, but everything else has been great. This has been a great week for Kickstarter.

Posted by Lifestrike

@gaspower said:

@royalewifcheese said:

@heatdrive88 said:

@brenderous said:

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Valhalla bout we just get back to the topic at hand?

I was choking on my food from laughter while reading these puns... Good thing someone nearby knew how to do the Heimdallr maneuver. THANKS A LOT, @alex >:(

odin

Edited by Schnoo

@brianp said:

@mildmolasses said:

@alex said:

@authenticm said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

Where's the QuickLoki of this game, Alex ?

*ENTIRE EARTH SCORCHED BY HATE-FUELED FLAMES*

These are some top Tyr puns

Now you're just starting to rune a good thing

What the Hel @alex, don't be such a Borr.

Posted by avantegardener

Glad to hear this turned out good, I actually really enjoyed Factions.

Posted by HS_Alpha_Wolf

Alright, another cool strategy game! Wait a minute....since when does Alex get to review GOOD games? I thought he was assigned to reviewing only bullshit, but has been bucking this trend a bit lately. Regardless, another well-written review as usual @alex, thanks!

Edited by MAST

I'd encourage everyone to try the free-to-play multiplayer side of this game. It's called Banner Saga: Factions on Steam. It'll allow you to check out some of the art style, music, and gameplay without spending a penny.

Not only that, I find the multiplayer to be incredibly engaging. I'm having a ton of fun playing against other people. I could see myself sinking a couple hundred hours into that alone. It's kinda bare bones, but I think a lot of the depth is in the simplicity, which might sound weird to say. Still, it doesn't cost a thing to try, and it really has it's hooks in me, personally.

Edited by vikingdeath1

I'm viking the way this game looks.

You have my eternal respect.

Edited by heatDrive88

@ripelivejam: Haha, I was thinking more Sleeping Beauty than their take on Robin Hood for what it's worth.

Posted by Darkhollow

Great review Alex!
I can't wait to play it, I have it waiting for me after I finish MGRR. Been looking for a tactical RPG for a while.

Posted by SenorMartinez

@gaspower said:

@royalewifcheese said:

@heatdrive88 said:

@brenderous said:

@bombedyermom said:

@alex said:

@joshwent said:

@alex said:

@thefakepsychic said:

@alex said:

@baka_shinji17 said:

I'm viking the way this game looks.

BANNED FOR LIFE.

Did he hit a Thor spot?

NUKED FROM ORBIT

I think they're just excited that this may be a banner year for video games.

Eh.

No more mister norse guy.

This thread mjolnirly made me burst a blood vessel.

This whole fucking quote tree full of puns makes me wish I was never Björn.

Valhalla bout we just get back to the topic at hand?

I was choking on my food from laughter while reading these puns... Good thing someone nearby knew how to do the Heimdallr maneuver. THANKS A LOT, @alex >:(

odin

There's Nor way this is gonna end well.

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