In early 2012 a new independent game dev team was formed by three ex-Bioware employees. This new studio was named Stoic and despite such a small team their first project immediately grabbed the attention of the gaming community. The project was The Banner Saga and the team took to Kickstarter to help fund the development. It took less than 48hrs to meet its $100k target and had smashed $700k by the end of the campaign.
The Banner Saga combines role-playing and strategy elements with a story inspired by Viking legend. It’s an incredibly ambitious title but Stoic have done the seemingly impossible and pulled it off. Right from the second we fired it up for the first time we fell in love with the music, art and animation. The whole presentation of the game is just absolutely stunning and easily on par with the best we’ve seen previously.
The setting for the game is an interesting one as the gods are dead and the sun is frozen in the sky. The snow-covered world is populated by humans and horned giants known as Varl. These two races try and live together in peace due to the threat of The Dredge. These are an armoured race who are slowly making their way around the world killing everything in their path.
In the game you take the role of a whole cast of characters from around the world. There’s a mix of humans and Varl to control and there is a variety of different classes to master. The game jumps around a bit between these different groups of characters and it can be a little overwhelming at first.
Your job as the player is to make decisions for the characters and the decisions you make always have consequences. Choices come in many forms from travel to conversation and even combat. It’s often unclear what the outcome of your choices will be but you can be sure that you have no choice but to deal with them as they come. Your decisions shape the game into your own personal experience and give plenty of replay value. Once you’re done with the game you’ll want to jump right back in and try a different path.
While you control the main characters you are also in charge of whole groups of people known as a caravan. These caravans are comprised of human fighters, Varl and normal people. Your whole caravan will travel from place to place as you progress in your adventure. The responsibility for looking after the whole caravan falls to you. This means you need to ensure there are enough supplies so they don’t starve and consider how your decisions will affect them too.
For example you might stumble upon a group of people who want to join you. Agreeing to take them with you will increase your numbers but this will increase the drain on your supplies. One chap we welcomed into our group turned out to be a violent drunk. His behaviour affected others and we had to choose whether to ignore his behaviour, punish him or banish him. Ignoring him could make you seem weak, punishing might send a message to your other people and banishing might upset others.
Much of your time in The Banner Saga is spent in combat which plays out through turn-based strategy. Before an encounter you can choose the order that your characters will be used. It’s highly recommended that you put your stronger melee characters first and your ranged characters last. At the start of an encounter you can choose the initial positioning of each character.
Encounters take place in many different areas but essentially they are all on a grid of squares. Humans take up a single square while Varl occupy four. When an encounter gets underway you get to move and/or attack with your first character and then the enemy does the same. Play constantly switches back and forth until one side wins.
Each character can move a certain number of spaces but their willpower stats can be used to boost this. They have two main stats during combat which are armour and strength. In order to cause damage you often need to first reduce the armour of an enemy. Strength is used for both attack power and health. When you take damage your strength is reduced and once you run out then that character falls in battle. They can be used in future encounters but will have reduced stats until they have rested.
Characters have a basic attack of either ranged or melee as well as special attacks. Special attacks may do things like extra damage, hit multiple targets or cause other characters to attack. Like with movement you can spend willpower to boost your attacks. The combat really takes some getting used to but is incredibly satisfying. Some camps have training areas to practice and as you get better things just get more rewarding. If you’re finding the game too easy or too hard then it is possible to change the difficulty on the fly.
In true RPG style characters can be levelled up by promoting them for their kills. This allows you to spent points to boosts their stats to make them more powerful and also affects how they can use items. Items can be equipped to give additional stat boosts. At times you might get the option of buying a really powerful item or spending the cost of it on supplies. It can be really hard to know what to do for the best. At times the game will surprise you with the death of a character. This can be upsetting if it was one that you’d put a lot of time and effort into levelling up.
Around halfway the difficulty really ramps up and battles become much more challenging. This difficulty also creeps into your decisions on how to spend your resources forcing you to choose between supplies and upgrades.
Overall we’ve been mighty impressed with The Banner Saga which is an astonishing achievement by Stoic. There’s addictive tactical combat, a brilliant story plus beautiful art and music. Some players may find it a bit too tough but we’ve found ourselves completely hooked on it. If you enjoy a challenge or are a fan of the genres then be sure to check out The Banner Saga.