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The Banner Saga - Review
The Banner Saga is perhaps better known for how it was funded than for what it is. Crowd funded using Kickstarter, The Banner Saga was developed by three former Bioware employees under the developer title Stoic. After asking for $100,000 to fund their game, the trio eventually received over seven times that amount. A crowd funding success story if there ever was one.
As you'd expect from the developer's association with Bioware, The Banner Saga is a story led RPG. Choices made throughout the game are arguably just as important as making sure you succeed in combat. In fact, this is one of the few role-playing games that seems to place more emphasis on user-decisions than it does on how well you fight.
Taking place in a fictional Scandinavian-themed fantasy world, The Banner Saga flits between varying characters throughout its 6-8 hour runtime. Stoic have effectively managed to create a world of epic proportions despite only having a modest budget and small team to do so. The art design from Arnie Jorgensen is gorgeous and draws as much influence from old fairytales as it does classic fantasy.
It sets the right mood too, as the developers have certainly not created a light-hearted title. Whether you're following Rook and his daughter Allette as they and their fellow clansmen attempt to flee from a hoard of Dredge, or playing as Harkon, a Varl prince attempting to maintain an unsteady alliance with humans, there's many difficult choices and even more deaths. In many cases, difficult choices will lead to deaths; throughout the game the developers hand you the reins to the story and leave you to decide what will happen.
Choices made at the beginning can still have repercussions several hours later. At one point I rescued an old beggar and allowed him to travel with my party only to not have this event come up again until two chapters later. It's common for many games to create the illusion of choice rather than allow you to repeatedly alter the course of events, and while The Banner Saga may certainly do that, there's plenty of different ways for certain plot elements to play out.
What's impressive however, is that the developers tie the choices to another part of the gameplay mechanics. The game has you travelling from city to city as part of a convoy, with supplies being consumed as each day passes. Whilst supplies can be purchased at most stops, it's not uncommon, especially later on, for you to be at risk of starving, meaning that the moral choices you may have taken when you were well-fed and happy, aren't the same once morale has dropped and you're rationing out the last loaves of bread.
Naturally talking isn't always successful at solving disputes and so in steps the games combat. It's a simple and effective strategy-RPG system that has your characters moving across a grid-based board. There's plenty of room for strategising too; each character comes with their own special ability as well as a unique passive skill. Take the archers, who all have the "Puncture" skill which provides them with a damage bonus provided they haven't moved that turn.
With a maximum of six characters at a time, later chapters will have you pondering who to take along and who to leave behind. The humongous Varl are hardy warriors and act as good damage sponges, whilst many of your human party members are likely to have useful support skills or long range attacks. Also, thanks to those player choices and countless, regularly unexpected, deaths, it's difficult to settle on a winning team, forcing you to regularly adapt to different situations.
Despite Stoic's constant efforts to mix-up the gameplay, it does become somewhat repetitive as things progress. Whilst strategy plays an important part, it's not uncommon for your weaker characters to easily become bogged down and killed, with the AI regularly adopting a piecemeal approach to dismantling your group. Similarly, there's very little variety in the enemies you fight against, with only three types of Dregde to speak of, as well as some enemy Varl and humans that you run into.
Also, the game's turn system has its issues, with stronger enemies gaining turns more frequently as you (most likely) pick off the weaker foes first. As a result, fights can sometimes feel slightly unintuitive as it's sometimes in your favour to leave many of your attackers alive simply to deprive the bigger threats of more regular turns.
The Banner Saga is billed as the beginning of a trilogy, meaning its ending is understandably open-ended. Several of the game's plot strands remain unresolved in preparation for the ensuing second instalment, so it's difficult to come to a conclusive opinion on the quality of the storytelling at this point. As an opening chapter however, Stoic have hit the ground running, telling an engaging fantasy story that, whilst somewhat heavily influenced by Game of Thrones, feels fresh and new next to most big budget RPGs.
It's perhaps best to think of The Banner Saga as a pen and paper RPG that you happen to be playing solo on your computer: the story and the decisions you make are far more important than how well you do in a fight. With two more games with which to shore up some of the weaker mechanics, this is certainly a series well worth keeping an eye on.
The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 was released on January 14th for PC and Mac. Linux, iOS, Playstation and Xbox versions are planned for later releases.
This review is based on the PC version.
© 2014 LudoLogic