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The Banner Saga Review: It’s about the journey

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Title: The Banner Saga
Price: $24.99
System(s): Windows and Mac
Release Date: January 14, 2014
Publisher (Developer): Versus Evil (Stoic)
ESRB Rating: N/A

I wish I could wax nostalgic about how I stumbled upon The Banner Saga almost two years ago and that I’ve been waiting for this moment ever since Stoic asked for help to make their dream game, but I can’t. I didn’t even play its free-to-play multiplayer on Steam. No, I only just heard about it a week ago, when I was asked if I would like to play a game by some former BioWare developers. I agreed, and I’m glad that I only did just discover The Banner Saga. It’s an amazing game and I honestly don’t think I could have survived waiting the last two years for the chance to play it if I had known about it before.

the banner saga

The things we do to survive.

The Banner Saga is the story of desperate men, women, and Varl doing what they can to survive. It’s been described as a viking epic, and that’s quite true. The world is desolate, abandoned by gods everyone says are dead, and faced with a sun-less sky. A third war is brewing against the fearsome Dredge, and it looks like the end days are upon us. Players just happen to be along for the ride.

Indeed, none of the players realize just how dire the situation is. At least, they don’t as the story begins. On one side of the world, we see a tax collector and historian Varl named Udin and his companion, Gunnulf, just doing their job when Vognir and Hakon come with a human prince named Ludin in tow, heading to finalize some important, political business between the two races. They head out towards the Varl homeland, not knowing they’ll encounter the awakening Dredge as they do.

On the other side, Rook and his daughter, Alette, are hunting in the forests near the small village of Skogr when they find Dredge in the woods. They barely make it back to town, where the resident Varl, Iver, says they have to quickly leave or fall to the creatures. The whole village packs up and runs, and seems destined to keep running as they attempt to survive Dredge attacks and search for one last, safe place in the world.

the banner saga

Make your choices and stand by them.

The Banner Saga is broken up into two basic, gameplay mechanics. The first is the actual journey through the world, fleeing the dredge, emptiness, and end and making major decisions that can influence the story. The second are the strategic, turn-based battles against against desperate foes. While the former is the one that will cause the most stress, they’re irrevokably tied together by the Reknown system.

The turn-based battles and major decisions reward players with reknown. This is used to upgrade characters who have made enough kills necessary to earn a promotion and buy supplies and equipment in town. However, with Rook’s party it feels like one is constantly trading towards his massive caravan’s future. There are never enough supplies to go around, at least in my playthrough, and I often had to sacrifice character progress to attempt to salvage moral and keep people alive. Both are important, because when dredge catch up, fighters have to be prepared for a battle, moral has to be at least average to make sure warriors fail on the field.

Battles proceed with turns alternating between player characters and the dredge. Willpower replaces the traditional mana, and allows for special attacks, increased damage and greater range if its available. Defeating dredge unlocks more willpower, which can be bestowed on any character with the blow of a horn. It’s very traditional, and the assorted character classes and variety means players can tailor their team to their liking. It works well, and I found I began to care for my favorite characters because of the time spent with them in fights and on the road.

That said, there was one design choice in particular that I didn’t appreciate with The Banner Saga. There are only auto-save options, and you can’t adjust this. I have a list of saves, all from different points in my journey, and I had no say in when any happened. Not that the autosave has ever failed me. Whenever I’ve reloaded the game, I’m right where I expected and wanted to be. Just it feels like Stoic is enforcing the fact that the decisions I make are permanent and there’s no going back after they’re made by preventing me from choosing when I save.

While I can understand that, it’s actually giving me pause when I consider replaying The Banner Saga. I’m loving and savoring the adventure, but there are many situations where I can’t see how my choices could have had a drastic impact on the story. I would give examples, but they’re all spoilers naturally and while I am disappointed that I haven’t seen drastic changes throughout the adventure, even the smallest changes are appreciated. It just seemed like most decisions really decided whether certain characters lived or died. I suppose it’s just that The Banner Saga feels linear, even though choice was promised and major characters like Rook and Hakon are constantly called upon to make decisions.

Which brings me to another desire. When I began The Banner Saga, I felt like I was promised a narrative that would shift between heroes. Initially, it did so. I was swapping between Hakon and Rook initially, and figured it would continue throughout the story. Except it didn’t. I found myself tied to Rook and his caravan, then though it was clear Hakon and his crew were still having undoubtedly interesting adventures of their own. It felt like a missed opportunity. Further interactions between Hakon, a Varl leader, and Ludin, the human prince, could have provided a perfect chance to improve, or hurt, relations between the two races.

the banner saga

Vibrantly subdued and detailed.

The design choices in The Banner Saga beg for your attention. The art direction harkens back to the golden age of animation, with crisp, clear lines. Color choice is important as well, with everything appearing dull and subdued. Bright, vibrant colors are absent, which makes sense since the sun is gone, the gods are dead, and there’s an overwhelming sense of facing the inevitable. It’s all very simple and effective. Yet, in that simplicity is excruciating detail. If you watch your wagon, you’ll actually see your party members all perfectly rendered and walking in line. When a character’s portrait is on screen, you’ll see the a breeze catch their hair or shirt laces, watch them breathe. It’s as though Stoic and wanted to catch people’s attention with the little things.

The same can be said for the music. The Banner Saga‘s score was created by Austin Wintory. You should remember the name, as he composed the music for Journey and Monaco: What’s Yours is Mine. Again, he works his magic with a rich, lush arrangements that perfectly capture the essence of every moment and draw players into the game. If you don’t play The Banner Saga with either the volume up or headphones on, you’re missing out.

Combined, the art and music serve to show the player that something important is happening. Pay attention to everything, because failing to do so will be your downfall. Watch and listen, so you can fully appreciate the majesty of this dying world. The Banner Saga is somber, and the graphics and music drive that point home.

the banner saga

The journey is what matters.

The Banner Saga is deliberate. Every action you take, be it on the field of battle or while escorting your caravan, matters. Will it lead to earthshattering decisions? Probably not. It’s far more likely to determine the fate of a character. While some may cry for more to actually happen, I think the game is perfect as it is. As you play, you’re drawn into the characters’ struggle. If it feels like a trudging, uphill climb, that’s because it’s supposed to. You can’t breeze through battles in a situation like this, with slow-moving behemoths like the dredge as your enemies and lumbering Varl as allies. You can’t race across a map when you have over 400 clansmen and hundreds of fighters and varls along for the ride. The Banner Saga is a thinking man’s game, and a player has to understand that means patient playthroughs, thoughtful decisions, and paying attention to everything. It’s the start of something wonderful, and I look forward to the ensuing installments to see where the story goes next.

Site [The Banner Saga]

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