You find yourself at the edge of a road, to your left is a man yelling at another man in what looks like the next instalment in an ongoing verbal matchup that has dragged on for years. A crowd is beginning to form around the heated argument. Suddenly, it looks like the accosted man is drawing a weapon; a gun, with the intention of using it. As you are with your family, in addition to a crowd full of women and children, you do not want anyone to get hurt. Do you?
1. Shield your immediate family and keep watching
2. Intervene and try and grab the weapon
3. Try and talk some sense into both men to calm them down
4. Quickly turn around and leave the scene
(Answers at the end of the review)
Player-choice is an interesting thing. In The Banner Saga -- at its most basic -- the choices are usually binary with players given the option to take the path of piety or evil. When things get a little grey, however; when morality gets in the way of self or group preservation, player-choice becomes a lot more interesting. In The Banner Saga, which touts player choice as one of the defining aspects of how the story unfolds, things are kept grey, changing moment to moment, and usually unexpectedly -- much like in the example above. In fact the method of the choices are presented in this exact fashion, in the guise of what seem like multiple choice questions that an FBI recruiter would use to weed out the crazies in a psych evaluation. Coming from a small team of ex-BioWare employees, this focus on player choice is expected and always welcome. Even though the main plot unfolds in a strict, linear fashion the journey itself is very much like a Choose-Your-Own Adventure, with moral conundrums popping up at regular intervals.
The Banner Saga is a turn-based tactical RPG in the vein of Nintendo’s Fire Emblem series, but one that brings its own set of rules to the table -- all wrapped up in what can only be described as breathtaking hand-drawn visuals. Being one of the early Kickstarter success stories, The Banner Saga is a relatively small project with grand aspirations. Animation, although present, is kept to a minimum with most player and character interactions limited to still images with basic effects and text. Although they are limited mostly due to the budget and small development team, the end result is more than serviceable whilst still managing to be quite immersive. Thanks in part to the great art and music throughout the game, the world itself, steeped in Norse mythology and fantasy, is extremely well realised. The game also doesn’t shy away from this fact by throwing you into a war with many players, all with weirdo names like Eyvind and Gunnulf -- in a world where man, giant, and a menacing mechanical robot race are all fighting for survival.
Broken into chapters, players take control over caravans featuring both fighters and regular civilians making their way across vast sections of winter swept land with the enemy close at hand. The majority of the game is presented in this fashion, with the days ticking away as you slowly make your way from one small village or town to the next, but with a distinct focus of survival. With supplies becoming a concern, caravan morale, and difficult choices presented at every turn, The Banner Saga succeeds in conveying the weight and difficulty of actually being on the run. It’s also relentless, as there doesn’t seem to be any real way to keep everyone alive, fed, and happy -- with the consequences usually being quite harsh. The fact that the game doesn’t let you save your progress but instead follows a checkpoint system, is a clear design choice that actually adds a level of finality to your decisions in the game. Because there’s no going back, the result of you trying to save a life actually causes a more profound and unexpected loss and can become an almost reflective exercise.
Other than trying to keep people alive and failing for the most part, there are also regular battles that take place in an arena -- presented in a turn-based fashion. The key difference to the battle system as presented in The Banner Saga as opposed to the one seen in a game like Fire Emblem is that the turns alternate on a unit by unit basis -- as opposed to one whole side making all their moves before the opposing force has a chance to retaliate. This means that before a battle begins you’ll need to select the attack order of your group of fighters, so after your first fighter off the ranks makes his move, your enemy’s first fighter will then do the same -- and it will keep alternating from there. It’s a clever approach that adds some new strategic dimensions and alleviates, for the most part, any sort of ganging up on weaker units that usually happens in these sorts of games. The rest of the battle system is designed specifically around this concept from the way damage is calculated in an almost Dungeons & Dragons like fashion to the grouping and use of ranged and melee units.
As with any good tactical game, the system takes a few turns to get the hang of, with new strategic moves being learnt even after your umpteenth battle. As with the presentation of the story the battles ramp up significantly as the game progresses, where the more heroic you try and be in your decision making, the more difficult the battles will become. It’s a delicate balance that the game plays throughout the story, where the feeling of hopelessness and dread spills over into the battles themselves -- all without ever feeling ridiculous or overly difficult. That is of course right up until you reach the final battle of the game which unfortunately follows an old-school design methodology where in addition to an insane difficulty spike you’ll also be forced to employ a single specific strategy and rely on ‘luck of the dice’ to take down an overpowered boss unit.
Although called The Banner Saga, the story itself is incomplete and ends with a clear implication that this is the first chapter in a much larger overarching story. It could be argued that because the title and all official descriptions of the game allude to this being a complete RPG story-driven experience, the game itself is a little misleading. If it were titled The Banner Saga: Chapter 1, then there’d be no argument worth mentioning in relation to its length or aspirational goals, and at this stage I can only assume that there is a new Banner Saga game, or Chapter 2, in the works. If there isn’t then the choice of buying and playing this great game would become as futile as the ones made within the game itself -- namely, a lot of people will get hurt.
(Answers to the question posed in the introduction)
1. By shielding your family you have no choice but to watch as the accosted man reaches for his own gun before he is shot dead. As he pulls it out with his dying breath he pulls the trigger – accidently shooting your wife in the leg. She’ll never walk again.
2. As you reach for the gun the man notices this and quickly turns the weapon in your direction. You freeze and quickly try to think of something to say that may calm him down. Before you can speak he shoots, and as both men run away, you realise the bullet was fatal.
3. As you approach you calmly advise the man to lower his weapon and think through his actions. After much deliberation the man decides to place the gun on the ground, much to the delight of the many onlookers. As you try and broach some sort of agreement you hear a gunshot. It seems your son has picked up the weapon and shot the man in his chest.
4. Before the fight escalates any further you quickly turn your family around and walk briskly to the next street, which gradually turns into a run. As you move away from the scene you can hear the distinct sounds of gunshots, and people screaming.