When I first heard of ‘The Banner Saga’, my inner viking went absolutely giddy (in a tough, bloodthirsty viking kinda way). “How could a viking-themed strategy-RPG from ex-Bioware developers not be amazing?“, I thought to myself. After an immensley successful Kickstarter campaign and two years of development, the Banner Saga by Stoic has finally released. Does it live up to its potential?
Unlike most RPGs, where the player is given a large, often-annoyingly long-winded introduction, The Banner Saga throws the player into the midst of the story. Plot details may seem scarce at the start, but we are told one thing: The gods are dead. The player controls two parties (one human and one varl), each with their own missions and storylines. The varl, (who are essentially giants) are escorting a human prince to the capital to seal an alliance between the two races, and the humans have more of an emotional story, as a hunter, Rook, is thrust into leadership of his clan.
Gameplay-wise, The Banner Saga takes inspiration from older tactical-RPGs like Sega’s Shining Force series and Square’s Final Fantasy Tactics. Combat is turn-based, and each battle takes place on a tactical grid. The varl being much larger than the humans take up more space on the battlefied, which adds a little extra strategy into the mix. After each battle, you earn reknown, which is used to level up your characters and buy them new equipment.
Similar to the Mass Effect series (which Stoic’s Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson have also worked on), The Banner Saga tasks players with making difficult decisions between each battle. Unlike some RPGs where the outcome may be obvious (or at least seem obvious), the decisions made in The Banner Saga are often mysterious, and plyers will never be certain if they made the right decision. As someone who appreciates the investment and responsibility felt from such decisions in games, I thoroughly enjoyed similar decisions that I made in The Banner Saga. They complement the well-crafted story Stoic has written perfectly.
It would be a disservice to not mention how incredibly beautiful The Banner Saga is. The characters are well-designed, and their colourful outfits create a charming contrast with the bleak snowy environments. The combat and cutscenes are all hand-drawn, and on par with any major animated film (at least, before they were all done with 3D animation). It’s an unusual choice from a developer (especially for a modern RPG) but it works well with The Banner Saga.
In fact, during my time with The Banner Saga, I’ve come to recognise that the game really is a lot of interesting ideas that work incredibly well together, whether they have been established in newer games or classics like Shining Force. More developers could learn a thing or two from Stoic. You don’t need to copy every other modern game to have a successful title.
- Fantastic art direction. A truly unique game (from a visual perspective).
- Excellent gameplay. Accessible whilst stil providing a challenge.
- Well-crafted story that involves the player’s decisions competently.
The Banner Saga is not only a unique and fun game from a visual perspective, it’s also that from a gameplay perspective. Combining their influences with their own unique ideas for the game, Stoic have done well to deliver a fresh and engaging game that deals with the Nordic tradition of the saga.