[27 January 2014]
The gods are dead. Building on the ancient tradition of Nordic storytelling, Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga manages to tell a story that is both epic and intimate. The Banner Saga doesn’t bombard the player with backstory as many RPGs do. That isn’t to say that there isn’t a well-fleshed out world to explore, just that you just have to trust the story and go with it. In fact, this is a refreshing take on fantasy storytelling, which so often bogs the player down in history before getting to the meat of the game. Those that just have to know everything shouldn’t fret. The story does slowly unravel as the game progresses. However, in the beginning all that we know is that the Gods are dead. This is a time of transition and growth. There are three factions divided by race: humans, horned giants known as varl, and the dredge. The humans and the varl have formed an uneasy alliance against the barbaric dredge. And for some reason, the sun has disappeared.
The player mainly controls two parties, each represented by the banner they carry. The Banner of Princes party primarily consists of varl, and their objective is to escort a human prince to the varl capital to seal the alliance between humans and giants. The second party is a band of human refugees, carrying the Banner of Skogr. The focus here is on the relationship between a father and daughter. Humble hunter Rook is reluctantly forced into a leadership role and torn between doing what is best for his clansmen and keeping his daughter Alette safe.
The Banner Saga conjures up imagery from The Lord of the Rings saga in a number of ways. In keeping with a literary style, point of view switches between characters, which is reminiscent of Tolkein’s novels after the fellowship breaks up. This isn’t the only instance of such inspiratiob, however. The art style, while reportedly inspired by Disney animation, may even more so resemble that of Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings animated film. The level of detail in the varls’ wrinkled faces even brings to mind the animated Hobbit. Opening the game map will reveal the awe-inspiring scope of the size of the world and look very familiar to the maps of Middle Earth originally published with The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The pacing of the game even feels like old-fashioned fantasy. While the game isn’t excessively long, clocking in at about 10-12 hours, the pace of travel and even battle is measured, without ever becoming plodding. These similarities don’t detract from but actually add to the high fantasy feel of The Banner Saga. Interestingly enough, Tolkien was inspired by the Viking sagas when writing The Lord of the Rings, creating a circle of influence of sorts.
Sound design plays an important role in The Banner Saga. Because cutscenes are mostly made up of still images, ambient noise adds a nice layer of verisimilitude. Banging shields and the clanking of swords really accentuate the battles. Environmental sounds such as waves accompanying the arrival of Viking ships also adds a nice touch. The most effectual use of sound is the howling wind during snow storms. These tempests really convey the dire state of the world, as your clansman begin to die from the lack of supplies and the harshness of the environment.
While there is little of the spoken word, the game begins with a narration that still sets the tone. The narration continues as the game plays out, often punctuating chapters or announcing arrival at an important setting. Including more narration would have added to the theme of oral storytelling that the Vikings were so known for. However, in all fairness, Ubin, the narrator, is also writing your journey as you play through it, adding a meta-storytelling level to the overall narrative.
The music of The Banner Saga is really exquisite and adds just as much to the storytelling as sound or the written word. Nordic singing and chanting lays the foundation for the emotional weight of the game. Austin Wintory, composer of such games as Journey and Monaco, created a cohesive soundtrack the really drives the story forward. Melancholic in tone and traditionally Nordic in form, the music captures the sentiment of a culture on the brink of loss, but left with enough hope to carry on. The soundtrack varies from battle to battle, barely repeating itself. This composition variety keeps the action fresh even when battles become repetitive.
Battle itself is turn-based. The player controls each character individually in a chess-like fashion. This grid-based tactical battle even resembles chess in a way, reinforcing its medieval aesthetic. Because battles range in size, it is almost as if the individual characters are meant to represent larger camps of fighters. Either way, the combat works.
Leveling up comes slowly. For each kill, you gain renown. Renown is used to level up and buy equipment for your characters. But in the end, equipment is expensive and is mostly unnecessary. Different races take up varying number of squares, which will inform your strategizing. A little more variety in tactic options and turn order would have added to the experience, but battle is still satisfying. The addition of permadeath would also have increased the stakes in battle, making the player even more cautious before moving. Notably, permadeath is incorporated into your decision making during the narrative sections.
Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga takes its cue from the classic Nordic tradition of the saga and expands on that through an interactive medium. The Banner Saga balances narrative, strategy, and tactics carefully enough to tell an engaging tale that uses the storytelling tradition to inform all parts of its design. Its parts, while differing dramatically from cutscene to travel to battle, compliment one another with a beautiful art direction and a haunting soundtrack. There is room for growth in The Banner Saga, but what is presented is an impressive, cohesive feat. While the limited voice acting and enjoyable combat will leave you wanting for more, it is only because what is included is so good. Your narrative decisions will customize your story, determining which characters you will meet, keep, and consequently lose, creating an incentive for multiple playthroughs. The Banner Saga also doesn’t tie up all of its story threads, leaving room open for sequels, and I for one can’t wait to see what the next chapter holds.