The Banner Saga Preview (PC)

Since its surge in popularity rising from the phenomenal success of the likes of Broken Age, Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity, Kickstarter has been the birthing place of some of the most interesting-looking gaming ideas this increasingly homogenised generation has seen. Now as the next generation of consoles stumbles into homes the first exciting wave of Kickstarter success stories have started to appear at last. Shadowrun Returns and Broken Sword 5 were fun, and the beta releases of Wasteland 2 and Broken Age have either released or are due soon. But one of the success stories that I’m most interested in is a strategy-RPG from the ex-Bioware team at Stoic Studios called The Banner Saga. It’s finally out next month and we got an advance play of the game to see how it’s shaping up.

Set in a Viking legend-inspired land (a popular place for fantasy games these days), The Banner Saga follows two sides – a group of refugees fleeing their hometown of Skogr as they search for both a new home and a way to protect themselves against the monstrous invading Dredge, and another group made up of horned giant warriors called Varl. Facing bandits, rebels, compassionless soldiers, and more with the ever-present Dredge forever on their trail, they must both stay alive and keep morale up if they’re going to make it through the invasion... but the one thing certain is that not everyone will survive.

The giant Varl are intimidating but are on your side... for the most part

It’s nice and easy to write a dramatic back-of-box story synopsis for the game, but it’s a lot harder to describe what type of game The Banner Saga actually is. “Strategy RPG” seems to fit it nicely, but is hardly specific. The short but most accurate way to sum it up is as a Viking fantasy Oregon Trail, travelling across the land making decisions that affect your whole group for better or worse, with RPG elements and the occasional turn-based battle. At its heart though The Banner Saga is a game about choices. You are constantly forced into scenarios where you have to make a choice about how to push forward, and the solution is absolutely never obvious. It’s a great joy that we still aren’t seeing enough of in games, and while I only got to see the first few hours of the game (so I didn’t see any long-term consequences) the short-term consequences occasionally left my jaw dangling open.

I don’t want to give many of these choice moments away as they’re best left as a surprise, but one early example involves deciding whether your daughter Alette and the chieftain’s son should be allowed to fight. Yes you get more pieces to play in the battles, but imagine what would happen if they die? Morale’s as important to the group as supplies, and the deaths of a couple of kids in battle could see it plummet. I got them both through the following attack by the Dredge alive, but there’s another choice moment straight afterwards as a large Dredge advances on the unknowing Alette... should you fire an arrow quickly, deliberately miss but distract it, or shout to Alette? The choice isn’t obvious, but it’s yours to make. And screw up if necessary.

While the decisions, dialogue and events take place in pop-out boxes with a range of replies, if you get attacked (by Dredge, bandits, soldiers, whatever) the game goes into a turn-based battlefield. You get several ‘hero’ characters with various abilities, and after choosing their starting location the battle begins. Each character has health and armour stats, which both can be attacked and neither can be restored during an encounter. Obviously the lower an armour score a character has the easier they are to hit, and when their health reaches zero they’re out of the battle. Varl are the powerful brutes, human males are quicker and have various battlefield skills, and women are skilled archers. In addition to attacking and moving each hero has a unique special move, including the ability to strike adjacent units or boosting an ally. So far, so typical.

Even with a huge grunt on their side these Dredge are done for, but never count them out

What The Banner Saga introduces is the concept of Willpower, which is basically a resource that pushes a character to make a greater effort. While heroes can move to blue squares and attack normally without using Willpower, moving to a yellow square further on or using a special move does. You can even use Willpower to charge up your attacks to do more damage, and after ranking up a hero even special moves can optionally use extra Willpower to make them more devastating. Using Willpower wisely is often the key to winning or losing a battle, and while it can be regenerated through resting or by killing enemies you’ll never have enough of it to make battles easy. It’s just one more level of tactics Stoic have added to the turn-based combat, but I’m happy to report it all clicks into place very quickly. The battles are intuitive, occasionally nail-biting, and usually fun. Oh, and how many games have a ‘Pillage mode’?

A special word has to be given to the look of the game, because it’s lovely. The 2D art is striking and the animation is highly reminiscent of early Disney movies such as Sleeping Beauty. There’s a lot of attention to detail, including being able to see individual heroes in the caravan while travelling and the characters continually moving during seemingly-static dialogue scenes. The designs are meant to be believable, even in the case of the massive horned Varl, but it’s the Dredge that catch the attention most for being so terrifyingly alien. They’re like a cross between the Cybermen from Doctor Who and the Darknuts from Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess - expressionless, powerful warriors. While there’s definitely a hint of the Darkspawn from Dragon Age about them in the storyline (hopefully there won’t be an Arch-Demon) design-wise they can’t be faulted. Black with a face you can’t see = evil. Classic.

As your company grows your banner becomes more impressive, but make sure to watch your supplies and morale or you’ll start to lose people

I don’t want to say much more about The Banner Saga since it’s out next month, but before I wrap up I want to lay out a few of my concerns for the game in the hope that Stoic is reading this and can sort them out in the next few weeks. Nothing too major fortunately, and barring catastrophe the game should represent a fine start to 2014, but a few tweaks wouldn’t go amiss. Firstly while I don’t begrudge the game not having voice-acting (a few cutscenes have it but the majority is just text) it does need more music or sound to compensate, since there are currently many dialogue scenes that play out in total silence. Secondly, there are a few bits which could benefit from more explanation. It’s not obvious what you’re using to buy goods in markets (it’s Renown, strangely), that you can move heroes before the start of a battle, or that “chasing down fleeing Dredge” after a battle (which happened to me once) will immediately extend the battle with more Dredge but leaving me with the same amount of heroes at the same level of health, which was hardly fair.

Even with it not being the final version The Banner Saga already has its grip on me, so that I found myself eagerly looking forward to playing it when I wasn’t doing so. I was excited about it before but now that I’ve played a few hours I’m itching to get my hands on it properly. If Stoic can iron out the last few little faults, implement the choice/consequence system satisfactorily and carry on building the tension right through to a great ending The Banner Saga might turn out to be one of those annoying January games that you have to keep in mind all through the year so you can say how great it is in December. Make sure to check back for our review next month to see how it fares, but now you’ll have to excuse me, I’ve got a huge banner to sew.

Most Anticipated Feature/Element: How deep the consequences go. Will letting that drunk troublemaker live come back to haunt me?!


By kaballah (SI Member) on Dec 19, 2013
It could be a really cool game, especially if ex Bioware folks made it + turn based, I dunno, but every time I read turn based Fallout pops before my eyes. And that's a "buy" mode :)
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Dec 20, 2013
Definitely a really interesting game. The combination of turn-based combat in a choice-based RPG is very appealing indeed.

TOTALLY off topic but I can't help myself:

Felis catus is your taxonomic nomenclature,
An endothermic quadruped, carnivorous by nature;
Your visual, olfactory, and auditory senses
Contribute to your hunting skills and natural defenses.

I find myself intrigued by your subvocal oscillations,
A singular development of cat communications
That obviates your basic hedonistic predilection
For a rhythmic stroking of your fur to demonstrate affection.

A tail is quite essential for your acrobatic talents;
You would not be so agile if you lacked its counterbalance.
And when not being utilized to aid in locomotion,
It often serves to illustrate the state of your emotion.

O Spot, the complex levels of behavior you display
Connote a fairly well-developed cognitive array.
And though you are not sentient and do not comprehend,
I nonetheless consider you a true and valued friend.
By LS35A (SI Veteran Member) on Dec 22, 2013
Very good looking game.... I just hope the gameplay is there. I love the art style.
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Dec 25, 2013
SirRoderick, have you been drinking again? :D
By SirRoderick (SI Elite) on Dec 25, 2013
What do you mean AGAIN? D: