The Banner Saga Intro:
The landscape is harsh and frigid. Presently, a caravan of men and giants trots on dourly, braving the biting cold and the savage winds. You come upon another group of people on the road.
Do you pass and let them be, or do you investigate and eliminate them if they turn out to be enemies? In The Banner Saga, decisions are never easy, and the outcomes are never certain. This is a game that would make George R. R. Martin proud. There is no clear moral path, and often tough and brutal choices have to be made to ensure the survival of your people. The Banner Saga integrated turn-based tactical gameplay and embellishes with a beautiful art style, stellar visuals and an engrossing story.
Developer Stoic Studios has nailed the essence of the day-to-day bleakness of surviving in a Viking winter. The vast ice-covered landscapes, stretches of land illuminated by a fading sun and mythical serpents the size of mountains make this an endlessly compelling game to look at. Much like Martin's great series of books, deaths in The Banner Saga are unexpected and moving. Your not-so-merry band of travelling companions has an intricate mix of horned Varl giants and human warriors. These unlikely allies interact in curious and entertaining ways during the course of the game's story. The game plays much like The Oregon Trail, if it was set in Nordic times, and there were lots of enemies who wanted to hack your limbs off.
The core of the game is the nature of leadership and the dual-edged nature of choice. You start off with simple decisions such as deciding whether to let an enthusiastic young warrior join the caravan, and move on to more complex decisions that make or break alliances with entire tribes. There are no manual saves, although the game will autosave your progress intermittently. This means that you have to bear the weight of the decisions you make during the game. Some choices might forge unlikely friendships, while others might lead to long-time allies facing each other in a battle to the death.
Whatever choices you make, you will have to live with when you get down to actual combat. The combat mechanic is turn-based, and will be immediately familiar to players who have played any of the XCOM, Total War or Might & Magic games. You face off against your opponents on a battleground which is arranged as a grid. You have to use the abilities of the different heroes in your party efficiently and position them correctly in order to ensure victory. If you fumble or pick the wrong hero for a particular clash, you will probably perish. Every faction and character in the game has a set of special abilities and characteristics. The Varl giants have a lot of hitpoints and hit really hard, but are slow movers. Human warriors and archers are weaker, but more maneuverable. While most of the character archetypes are RPG staples, the stories and voice acting for each of them gives them a distinct personality that transcends their stereotypes. If you try to brute force your way through a fight, you will probably end up losing. You will have to keep track of the health and armor points of both your own units and those of the enemy.
The Banner Saga gives its characters an additional characteristic called 'Willpower'. The Willpower stat allows your characters to push themselves beyond what the normal abilities of their character would allow them to do on occasion. This makes battles more unpredictable and exciting. The game will teach you the art of turn-based combat much like it would happen in the real world - by putting you into an actual fight. Certain gameplay mechanics could have done with a little more explanation though. The game never clearly explains how the supplies work or how you can use the items you pick up in markets along the way. Heroes level up after they've been in a certain number of fights, but here too the game doesn't clearly explain what putting points into a certain stat will do for the character.
The music of the game is uniformly beautiful, haunting and gives you pause during the more poignant moments in the game. Like all great soundtracks, it blends seamlessly into the background until you just accept it as part of the environment. It is grim, much like the world of The Banner Saga.
The Banner Saga is an interesting game that explores the themes of leadership, choice and combat in a way that not many games manage to pull off. The art and visuals are beautiful, the voice acting is solid, and the soundtrack is excellent. The combat is often tough, but then, so is life for a caravan in the icy, bleak Nordic landscapes.