Full disclosure: I backed The Banner Saga through Kickstarter over two years ago for a mere (iirc) $10. I figured "why not?". This was just after the release of Faster than Light (FTL) and during the same time as the KS campaigns for Wasteland 2 and Shadowrun Returns, during those early days when Double Fine Adventure had just set a record for highest-funding on Kickstarter and everyone scrambled to get in on the cash cow.
Now, two years later, The Banner Saga has been released by Stoic. Made by former Bioware veterans, I thought the idea sounded really neat and the art style was very beautiful. Better yet, during the process of the Kickstarter, Stoic announced they were able to secure the composer for 2012's Journey, Austin Wintory, to do the soundtrack for The Banner Saga. Excited as I was, I simply expected the game to be okay. To be honest, I pretty much backed the game just because I thought the art was pretty, and that was about it.
But what I found was a tense, difficult, heart-wrenching journey that I am excited to replay again and again.
I'll set aside my thoughts on the window-dressing (art, story, music) for now. Let's focus on the mechanics.
The Banner Saga is a pretty straightforward game where you progress from Point A to Point B. Well, that isn't exactly the case. There are divergent story threads involving different characters, but eventually it gets to the point where you have this huge rag-tag caravan travelling across the land. A world map is nothing new in RPGs. Visiting nodes on a world map is also nothing new in RPGs.
What's new in The Banner Saga is that as you travel across the map, you have to manage an entire retinue of followers. You don't simply have a small, merry band of soldiers. You have wives and children and elderly and craftsmen and laborers. Though simple, I'm surprised other RPGs haven't taken this approach before. It definitely gives the game a more "epic" feel and it is because of this that I draw the comparison with Oregon Trail. You have food. You have to make decisions for the entire caravan (more on that later). People can starve. You have to keep people's morale up (failing to do so can affect your performance in battle). Etcetera. While there are battles, The Banner Saga is just as much about the adventure that takes place between battles, perhaps even moreso.
You will be doing a lot of battling, and I'm happy to report that the combat is pretty good. Banner Saga is more "Advance Wars" than "Fire Emblem". While your characters do rank up, they have very specific class-based abilities. You won't be getting a wide array of special powers and magic attacks. For the most part, even when you have more powerful soldiers, you need to be mindful of their inherent strengths, weaknesses, and special powers. Those hoping for a stat-heavy, in-depth strategy RPG are going to be disappointed, if I'm being honest, but if you can appreciate the combat for what it is, then you'll find that it stays interesting throughout the game, although seeing the same enemy types does get a bit old after awhile.
Your stats are straightforward. Strength/Health are tied to the Red bar, and Armor is tied to the Blue bar. Often, you will need to chip away at an enemy's Armor (Blue) before you can do any major damage, but the more damage a character takes, the less damage they dish out.
This is painful, but wonderful. It really forces you to make every attack count. Like I said, this game leans more in the direction of Advance Wars - where position and unit type are king. There are benefits to levelling up, of course, but players who - for example - played the recent Fire Emblem Awakening are going to be in for a rude *ahem* awakening when they realize they can't brute-force their way through battles. "Dying" in battle usually puts a unit out of commission for a few days and they'll need to recover their strength or else start the next battle with reduced Health/Strength.
Another mechanic that I found rather nail-biting is the universal application of "Renown". Renown serves as both experience for your soldiers, currency for unique items (that boost your soldiers), and money to buy more supplies. Level up a warrior or feed your caravan for a few more days, hoping you'll reach a town? This might seem very simplistic, but believe me, it works.
I was a bit annoyed by the UI. Stoic made it clear from the start that this game was going to be ported to tablets, and it shows. The interface, while workable, has that distinctive stink of a game meant to be ported to tablets. You click and drag to move the screen. Icons have to be double-tapped...er, double-clicked in order to proceed. Selecting an action is as simple as clicking and then clicking on a button that appears. It isn't painfully simplified, but it's definitely a game that made concessions during development to be more port-able to tablets.
===Art and Music===
Those who love to get lost in vibrant colors and wonderful music: stop reading. Please. On this merit alone, the game is worth owning. Just take a look:
And for those who are unsure, these are in-game screenshots. Screenshots that - while playing the game - are moving. The game is easily the most beautiful thing I've seen in a long, long time. Not only is the art style wonderful, but they did a great job with the camera angles (can't think of a better term). The panned-out, far-off view is incredibly thematic and atmospheric. Seeing your line of soldiers grow from a few to several hundred (and the prolific Banner grows in size, too) is just as much a part of the story as the individual characters you'll meet.
The music, if you enjoyed the Journey soundtrack, is top notch. It definitely sets the tone for the game.
Lastly, although there isn't a ton of voice acting, I really liked the heavy accents. It definitely helps to set the mood as well.
===Story and Choices===
As much as I loved the combat, The Banner Saga's crowning achievement is the story and the choices it gives you.
During this arduous journey, the game will throw so many different decisions at you, and often you have to choose between two horrible things. There's a lot of pain and a lot of clenched teeth as you ponder which path you should take (which, naturally, adds to the game's replayability). Although I've only played it once, I was flat-out stunned by how divergent the storyline choices get. My buddy who played his own copy of the game with me right after Banner Saga launched got totally different results in their storyline based on some key differences in our choices throughout the story. Some characters can die rather early in the game based on your choices, or they might live to the very end. Sometimes you might think it's a good idea to allow those beggars to join your group. After all, they're beggars, and you're a "good guy", right? But in the night, they steal your supplies and kill - yes, permanently kill - one of your soldiers. There are very few "right" or "wrong" choices, and this is something that The Banner Saga does so well compared to other RPGs.
Instead of the cliché moral choices of other RPGs (I'm looking at you, Fallout and Mass Effect) that give you the option between murdering the cat or giving the cat a loving home, The Banner Saga will often force you to (just to keep the example going) eat the cat to keep a family alive just one more day, or keep the cat around to boost morale.
My playthrough took about 10 hours to complete, but there are so many branching paths, I think that I could play through at least twice more and still see plenty of new dialog choices. There are some real nail-biters, and the developers' past experience as a part of Bioware is rather evident. This is a dark, depressing story that doesn't pull any punches, and it doesn't ease up just to "be nice" if you've been getting your butt kicked. You can feel the struggle of your caravan because the game is - surprisingly, in this day and age - actually difficult.
I knew I'd like The Banner Saga. Didn't know that I'd love it. When it comes to the art, this is a great example of "the screenshots don't do it justice". The game is really beautiful. The music isn't too bombastic. It fits the tone well. The combat could've boasted a bit more depth and detail, but the difficulty kept me from getting bored, which I suppose is a reasonable trade-off.
And the story. Goodness. I think the reason why I like the story so much is because it's YOUR story. Seeing a favorite warrior die in battle (unscripted) hits you just as hard as a storyline character dying (scripted). It's definitely about the journey, not the ending, so sit back and enjoy.