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The Banner Saga

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By Bobfish20-12-2013
StuntmanLT (editor)
MrJenssen (editor)
The Banner Saga

The Defence

Developer:
Stoic Studio
Publisher:
Versus Evil
Genre:
Indie, Strategy
Release Date:
14-01-2014

The Prosecution

CPU:
Intel Pentium 4
AMD equivalent
VGA:
Nvidia GeForce 8600
AMD equivalent
RAM:
4 GB
HDD:
6 GB
DirectX:
9.0c

Vikings, cel shading, beards, blistering cold and driving snow tumbling down from the mountains. Makes for a setting that promises stunning, though bleak visuals and kickass facial hair the kind of which even Tolkein would be jealous. And with good reason, because The Banner Saga is here to carve a bloody swath in the way only supremely bearded Norsemen can.

As the name implies, the tale being woven (literally, but more on that in a moment) here is not one of trivialities. Or, rather, it is, but the trivialities that truly matter in the grand scheme of mortal ken. Having followed development closely for several months, seeing the promise of former BioWare staff branching out to be free of the shackles the 'AAA' industry seems hellbent on chaining developers too. I went into this expecting something, for lack of a better word, epic. I went in, and I was not disappointed.

Because it's dangerous to go alone.

Because it's dangerous to go alone.

The game opens with a small caravan of Varls (Human shaped giants with horns) approaching a small town for their tithe. Heralded by a beautiful musical score and a suitably reflective, powerful opening narration that immediately sucks you in and tells you that this is something so much bigger than a passing visit. Though the Varls themselves do not know it yet.

What I was not expecting was, after spending some time with the Varl caravan, seeing their trials and tribulations, watching their tale go from one of idle wandering to a roll of utmost importance to the tenuous alliance being drawn up between them and the Human nobility. Roll on the second chapter and, suddenly, everything changed. Switching from the powerful, stoic, comfortable and safe Varl caravan to a Father and Daughter hunting duo of Rook and Alette, cowering in the trees hiding from the murderous Dredge - giant, armoured monstrosities than even the Varl are wary of.

In an instant, the tone had shifted ever so slightly. Becoming far more personal, far more immediate, far smaller, but ultimately, infinitely more grand in scale. Rook and Alette are not great, ancient, nigh invincible warriors, they are simple village folk, living off the land, scraping together a rough, but satisfying existence. And the first time we are introduced to them is the moment when they are driven from their homes with nowhere to go.

Eat, drink and be merry. Tonight, we're having chicken and chips.

Eat, drink and be merry. Tonight, we're having chicken and chips.

The game then swaps back and forth between the two caravans. The Varls starting on the West heading East, with the Skogr village folk, now lead by Rook after the death of the village elder, starting on the East coast and heading West. As the full game is still to be made available, it is still unclear precisely what, if any, relevance these two tales have to each other, beyond the most obvious. The return of the Dredge. But the setup promises that the two will intersect in some way that is equally grandiose.

Everything about the game has been crafted from the ground up to create, reinforce and emphasis the epic nature of the tale. This is a saga, after all. A saga of Banners. Something which is more than simply an interesting name to catch your attention. Each of the two caravans has a banner fluttering the breeze behind them as they travel. A banner which grows and shrinks in size as the company swells and contracts. But also a banner that has the history of the people woven into it. The Varls have some form of magical enchantment which does this for them automatically, but the Skogr villagers do it the old fashioned. By hand, with needle and twine.

The differences between the two peoples is massive, but virtually unnoticeable at the same time. The inherent nobility in both camps is clearly shown through their actions and the way they speak. The dialogue, mostly written, not narrated, is superbly crafted, giving a real sense of archaic gravitas to what they do. Interspersed, too, with a colourful array of old Nordic words (skraelings for example) that shines through as testament to the amount of research and preparation that has already gone into the game...

The power of beard compels you to DIE!

The power of beard compels you to DIE!

Whilst the cel shading, handdrawnesque art style perfectly suits the wistful, bleak, but ultimately hopeful story of hardship and resilience both of the plot threads are weaving. It also makes the game a lot less demanding than it otherwise could have been, which is a good thing because there are currently no graphics options, at all, beyond resolution size. With no apparent plans to introduce them at any point. This may turn some people away completely, but really, the game doesn't need them.

The vast majority of it is in lightly animated portraits with text for plot development, whilst much of the rest is either the caravan slowly marching across the land, or static images of the town, village or whatever that you are visiting, with a mouse cursor icon for you to choose which particular part you want to visit. Such as the inn to check on and equip your heroes, or the market to buy new equipment and supplies. Even stopping your march to setup camp with the caravan itself is a variation on the town screen, just smaller and with, well, caravans and tens rather than buildings.

The actual gameplay sections of the game take the form of a chessboard, turn based strategy arena battles. Something which is simple enough to easily grasp even for a novice. You click where you want your unit to move, click the thing you want him or her to do, such as attack, rest, special ability. Choose if you want to bump them up, such as their attack, with willpower to do more damage. Done. It is simple, but there's a lot of complexity woven in beneath the surface, offering a lot more to the more dedicated player.

Eat, drink a...we already did that. More drink!

Eat, drink a...we already did that. More drink!

One of the really interesting things about The Banner Saga is that combat almost always takes place with alternating turns. No matter how many units each side has, it will always be you, then the enemy, then you and so on. With the order each unit acts being decided by an unseen initiative roll, meaning there is some degree of random chance involved. This makes your unit placement, the one thing you have control over at a combat outset, being critical. I had several occasions where I placed a weaker unit just a little too close to the action so that they were already knocked to the ground before having a chance to act.

Thankfully, units defeated in combat are not outright killed. Instead being injured for certain number of days based on how much punishment they received. This adds yet more complexity as they can still take part in future combat, but will be weaker. You could march on, allowing them time to recover, but potentially being hit another attack before they are in fighting shape again. Or you could simply set up camp and rest long enough for them to recover, thus using up your food supplies and stalling your progress. Tough choices.

There is also a full on war section, where your entire caravan will face off against another army. See, during the chessboard combat, only your heroes go into battle. Whilst your caravan as a whole has dozens, even hundreds, of other people along for the journey, which includes both soldiers and peasants. These caravans are nomadic colonies, not roving warbands. So war, if handled poorly, can lead to a massive loss of life. The outset is, again, simple on the surface, with everything being a series of text options such as forming a defensive line or turning to retreat. Though the battle almost always ends with your heroes going into a head on collision with, effectively, the other army’s heroes.

Maybe it's a magic trick.

Maybe it's a magic trick.

Really, the one thing to be taken away from all this is that The Banner Saga, whilst incomplete, is already a finished product. The backbone of the game, its plot and gameplay, are expertly crafted and irresolute. Truly, the only thing remaining is for January to roll around and for the game to go live. It is already fantastic, with everything being exactly what it should. The final build promising only more joy as it fleshes out the full story to its inevitable climax. The final build promising only more joy as it fleshes out the full story to its inevitable climax. And beards, oh yes, there will be more beards. There are Dredge to be slain and tales to be spun.

Our saga is just beginning.

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