If nothing else, The Banner Saga, a Kickstarted game from Stoic, a three man team of ex-BioWare developers, seems to have invented a new hybrid-genre; TRPR, or tactical role-playing roguelike. It combines a great many elements in a sort of grand fantasy blender; the tactical combat focus of Final Fantasy Tactics, the character focused narratives of Neverwinter Nights, the roguelike elements of the original roguelike, The Oregon Trail, the dark, mature tone of Game of Thrones, and the hand-drawn animation of Don Bluth and Eyvind Earle. That it is able to spin all of these classical influences into a something that feels fresh and unique is an accomplishment into and of itself, regardless of its ending quality. Of course, it helps that The Banner Saga, while not without flaw, is a powerful character epic, driven by small things on a large canvas, with gameplay that will haunt and enthrall you in equal measure.
The Banner Saga takes place in a world where the sun has stopped setting, and where a tedious alliance has been made between the races of men and Varl, or horned giants in order to halt the advance of the deadly Dredge, the tall, armored, and ancient enemy of the gods. For a while, they were gone, but now they’ve come back, and they’re winning. The majority of The Banner Saga’s sprawling narrative is spent running in a desperate attempt to establish a defense against the Dredge’s onslaught, and it effectively creates an atmosphere of dread and isolation that follows you throughout the game.
That atmosphere trickles down into the two real gameplay aspects of The Banner Saga; intricate, delicate conversation with members of your caravan and resource management as you lead them across the land, and in the turn-based, grid-locked combat sequences. The real meat of The Banner Saga is the former; caravan management is as much about economic evaluation and resource management as it is about managing the dozens of characters y0u follow on the journey, jumping back and forth across the dramas of men and giants over the course of several chapters. The resource management relies on the keeping of morale and supplies across these multiple day journeys with few stops in between. The comparisons to The Oregon Trail were not made in jest; replace the crossing of rivers and cholera with the decision of whether or not to banish a troublesome clansmen or far more serious matters that I won’t spoil for my want for you to experience them yourself, and the experiences are eerily similar.
The conversations are, obviously, a bit more comprehensive than The Oregon Trail, recalling BioWare and Obsidian in their depth and quality, and Telltale’s The Walking Dead in their importance to the story. The most minor conduct made in conversation early on can come back around several hours later to totally screw your plans for the caravan. The decisions you make in conversation will weigh heavily on your mind even in success, and double so in failure, which will be plentiful; you will never feel confident in your decisions, and being fraught with peril makes them feel like boss fights in the best way. These conversation are aided by some of the best writing of recent memory, which wrings darkness from every corner, creates memorable characters and charts themes of retaining history, fate, and family honor with a deft hand, tying together to an ending that is wrapped in doom and leaves you breathlessly awaiting/dreading Part 2. All of that is doubly impressive when you take into account the minimal voice acting; only very briefly will voices be heard in narration, so briefly that they are jarring.
That desperation and darkness bleeds into the turn-based combat as well. This is classical tactical strategy; simple, yet incredibly difficult. Combat is based around simple system that hides great depth. Every character on the grid carries armor and strength points. The more armor a character has, the higher the likelihood any attacks on it will be deflected, making destroying armor the first priority of you and the Dredge (and the few other enemy types there are, which is a minor quibble). Complexity arises from finding the fastest way to do so, and once that is done, finding the fastest way to kill your enemies before they kill you, which they are very, very good at. The Dredge are formidable enemies, and will not hesitate to destroy you quickly if you are not set to go.
The Dredge, and the combat, present perhaps my biggest issue with The Banner Saga. Not that they are too difficult, but how their difficulty impacts the narrative. You see, The Banner Saga takes another leaf from The Walking Dead; permadeath of characters. It fashions itself that your combat decisions have an equal impact on narrative as conversation. A character can, and will, die in combat for good. You can lose a character that would otherwise last the entire 15+ hour adventure in 20 minutes, and good luck saving him thanks to the deliciously evil autosave system that is borderline X-Com-esq in its ability to screw you, only autosaving every few hours and when you exit the game (and, by the way, you have no manual save). That’s cool, and roguelike-y, but my problem lies with the amount of railroading taking place with this mechanic. It becomes painstakingly clear which characters can and cannot die and that you are being pressed into a specific moment for that specific character to die. It makes total and complete narrative sense, and many of the deaths are very affecting, but the trick of railroading is to not let the player realize they are being railroaded. In The Walking Dead, this is handled perfectly. In The Banner Saga, its completely obvious, and it really begins to wear on you as the endless days of traveling go on.
From there on out, however, The Banner Saga is solid gold. Technically, it is absolutely flawless. The art direction of The Banner Saga has no peer in independent development; every landscape could be framed for its glory, every town feels positively alive with people and history, and every character feels like they walked straight off the pen of classic hand-drawn animators. Just as well, the music by Austin Wintery is astounding, and cements him as the star composer of video games right now. He may have been nominated for a Grammy for his work on Journey, but his score for The Banner Saga, understated and mythic, quiet and haunting, is an all-timer. He’s aided by original songs of his own composition performed by YouTube greats like Peter Hollens and Malukah, whose “Onward” is an absolute emotional knockout.
The Banner Saga has flaws, but that does not stop it from being a worthwhile epic that gets so much right that its issues with railroading and combat variety are minor obstacles in the path of this dark, compelling giant of an RPG. It is available on Steam for 25.00 dollars American, and it goes absolutely recommended.
[Impressively bleak, dark atmosphere][Writing is powerful and evocative][Caravan conversations and resource management create great tension][Combat is simple yet deep, insanely difficult yet very rewarding][Art direction is unparalleled][Score is an all-timer, original music is a showstopper][Slight lack of combat variety][Rather obvious railroading of characters][Minimal voice acting is good but jarring]