I can count on one hand the amount of times that a game has effected me so deeply that I had put the controller down and step away for a bit. This weekend playing Stoic’s Viking themed tactical RPG The Banner Saga, which makes its way to consoles this week, is the first time since Spec Ops: The Line that this has happened.
The death of one of my my most trusted, ( and well levelled characters) as a result of my own blind stupidity and wish to quite literally hang onto resources, which ended in a cart full of commissary and my prized party member falling off a cliff, hit hard and completely blindsided me.
This perfectly encapsulates The Banner Saga. It’s a game of tough choices and even harsher consequences.
Something as simple as trying to stop a cart from rolling off a cliff can quickly spiral out of control. Likewise an upstart in your ranks, that questions your leadership in an off hand manner, might seem like a mild annoyance to begin with, but if they’re not brought into line quickly, they could spark a mutiny down the line. But act too harshly and you could demoralise your men, which could lead to many leaving, when you reach the next town.
Regardless of your decision though you can never be certain of the consequences of your actions until they happen. Devoid of the binary good or evil morality of most RPGs, like The Witcher 3 and Telltales’ Game of Thrones, the world of The Banner Saga is one that understands that morality is made up of many shades of grey. Always doing what appears to be the noble or ‘right’ thing to do, may come back and bite you, while being callus or cruel may also have no repercussions at all, and vice Versa. In the end what is important is keeping your Caravan, fed, happy and alive. Killing every last group of monsters may seem like the right thing to do, but the time taken to combat a few stragglers may mean that others attack a village further along the trail. Likewise that group of refugees you refused to let join may have included some skilled fighters, that could help turn the tide of a battle rather than merely being more mouths to feed.
You are not judged for your actions, you simply make your choice and accept the consequences. The fact that each play through can be vastly different, every time and that no major character appears to be safe from harm, only adds further weight to your choices.
Based on the Icelandic Sagas, The Banner Saga Tells the tale of a land stuck in perpetual twilight after the death of the Gods. The adventure follows the trials and tribulations of the leaders of two Caravans as the undead forces known only as the Dredge return to the world of men and Vahl in order to consume it.
The first caravan is led by Hakon, a Vahl Tythe collector who is forced to choose between his duty to his Kin who are currently fighting the Dredge, and his employer, who has charged the caravan with escorting and protecting the Leto, the Prince of Men to the capital of the Vahl on a trade mission. The other Caravan is led by a Human hunter named Rook who is tasked with leading a caravan of refugees to safety after his village is attacked by the Dredge.
The bulk of the narrative is told via beautiful still images with text and occasional voice acting and the occasional fully animated cut scenes thrown in for good measure. This may not sound very exciting, but the art and style of the banner Saga is absolutely enchanting, sitting somewhere between the work of Eyvine Earl (Sleeping Beauty) and Ralph Bakshi (Fire and Ice) with slight overtones of Core’s classic Viking themed game Heimdall.
The score by Austin Wintory ( Journey) is also suitably epic, Low Horns mix with the rhythmic pounding of kettle drums and traditional string instruments that punctuate that help to heighten the games sense of tension and urgency, as well as the vastness of the world that you’re inhabiting. Helping to create a game world which is as beautiful as it is atmospheric.
As you lead your caravan through the plains, forests and standing stones of The Banner Saga it’s hard not to be in awe of the beautiful sweeping vistas, and rich and detailed surroundings. Even if you’re actual movement is set down a linear path as the world scrolls past you, what parts of the world do so is entirely down to the choices you make during events that caravan bring your caravan to a halt. Though how many of these scenarios presented to you are randomly generated and how many are set in stone is hard to discern, every last one of them feels organic and their potential implications far reaching, even if they don’t feel like it at the time.
Aside from when an event pops up, traveling from place to face is relatively straight forward. Your caravan is made up of three types of wayfarer: Clansmen (regular people), Fighters (human warriors) and Varl (which apparently are all up for a fight). Your job is to make sure that the caravan safely reaches the next village. In order to do this you need to ensure you have enough supplies. Initially this isn’t much of a concern however as the distance between villages gets greater it becomes important to rest in order to keep your Caravan’s morale up as well as heal wounded warriors, which delays the completion of the journey and in turn puts pressure on your supplies. If you run out of supplies than your Caravan will starve to death, but if you don’t rest occasionally, your warriors will fall in combat due to being injured or leave because of low Morale.
The bulk of the games combat is settled via turn-based skirmishes in which you choose up to six characters to enter into each battle. These are a mixture of humans and Varl, with each race having their own strengths and weaknesses. The Varl in your party are mostly tanks used to soak up the bulk of the damage, while humans usually take on support roles providing buffs or doing damage from afar (apparently women instinctively know how to use a bow for example). What characters are available is dependent on your choices made during the rest of the game and luckily warriors cannot die from falling in combat itself, instead they are merely injured and will have reduced stats until they have rested for a set number of days. Though as previously stated, it is possible (and all too easy) to kill your best warrior by picking the wrong option during a random event while travelling.
Once you’ve picked your party, play alternates between you and your AI your opponent, taking it in turns to try and knock as many lumps out of each other until only one side is left standing. This follows the basic rules of most turn based SRPG systems. Moving a character into place then either using an ability or attacking your foe, before they then move their next character. It gives proceedings a nice back and forth like a brisk game of chess, and like chess, is surprisingly deep.
In an interesting twist, your strength stat is what governs both the power of your attacks and remaining health. This means that getting hurt also reduces a character’s effectiveness in battle. How much damage you take is decided by your armor stat, which like your strength, can be chipped away at by your opponent to reduce its effectiveness. The basic way damage is calculated is strength – opponents armor, if the result is less than zero the attack will be deflected. This makes targeting armor, and building your armor stat in turn important, as it allows your troops to take more damage while being able to dole out more punishment in return.
Meanwhile your Willpower is used to power your special abilities, or can be spent in order to move further or boost the power of your attacks. How many points you can add is governed by Exertion. How big a pool of Willpower you start with is influenced by the caravan’s morale, raising or lowering depending on the mood back at camp.
Though I don’t know how it stacks up against the controls of the PC version, controlling your party on PS4 is fairly intuitive and the relatively complex controls are well mapped. The left stick used to move your character, and x to select actions while left and right on. The d pad is used to select your target, and up to see the strength and armor of everyone on the field.
You can also use either the trackpad ( though I wouldn’t recommend it) or the right analogue stick to move the camera, and zoom in and out using using R2 and L2 respectively. While R3 can be used on most screens to provide additional information. Only thing I did find odd though was that there was no way to rotate the onscreen action. This meant at times it was hard to judge distances when there were larger sprites in the way.
Along with turn based battles you can also declare War on larger bands of Dredge that you come across. These larger battles involve you pitching your Fighters and Varl from the caravan against a huge enemy force. In reality it’s a numbers game that involves you either running onto the fray yourself or choosing to sit back and let your caravan handle it for you. Jumping into battle yourself starts a turn based battle where you have to fight several rounds of dredge, helping you accrue kills to help your party level up, while reducing casualties to your caravan. While sitting back saves you from having to fight anyone, saving your party from potential injury but will result in more members of the caravan being slain and smaller rewards for victory.
Unlike most RPGs where characters get experience simply for taking part in a fight, in The Banner Saga how fast a character levels up is dependent on how many kills they rack up. With each new level unlocked after they have reached a certain threshold. This makes it easy for warriors to level quickly, while support characters can be trickier since they usually don’t enter the fray, and do less damage. Once you have enough kills, you need to spend Renown to advance to the next level and increase your stats. This is earned through battle and from making the ‘right’ decisions elsewhere in the game.
It is also used to secure additional supplies and stat boosting items for your characters. In theory having one currency that works for everything is a sound idea, but the game simply does not give you enough over the course of the game, making it incredibly difficult to balance using funds to get essential supplies, leveling up characters and purchasing useful items for them. As a result you can end up in a position where it is impossible to defeat the final boss as your team isn’t a high enough level and you don’t have enough Renown to upgrade them.
In a game about making tough decisions and living with the consequences it makes sense that this would include limiting available currency, but it shouldn’t stop you from finishing the game. However this can be overlooked for the best part, especially now you’re aware of it, because the rest of the game is such a compelling and unique delight,
Even two years after its release on PC, The Banner Saga remains one of the most unique fantasy RPGs available, regardless of platform. It feels just as at home on consoles, with no technical problems, well implemented controls and gameplay that feels like a natural fit for the platform. If you’re looking for a game that gets morality and choice right, full of characters you cant help but care for ( and is a bloody good challenge to boot) you should give The Banner Saga a whirl.