The gods are dead… – those are the opening words of The Banner Saga. This is a hell of a way to open up a story, but I approve. I’m immediately on board with this. I was expecting a Viking tale about Viking things, but instead I got a post-apocalyptic fantasy, and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Actually, post apocalyptic is probably the wrong word to use it. The world of The Banner Saga is actually in the early stages of apocalypse. But it is not Ragnarock – a great to end all battles that gods wage against the forces of nature. That battle, or a similar one has apparently happened already. But it was not as violent or destructive as one might have expected it. It did not destroy the known universe. In fact, it did not seem to inconvenience the the sentient species of the world. Men and Varl (tall, horned giants who are for all intents and purposes Dwarfs except the diminutive size) simply stood by and watched their makers slaughter each other until none were left.
The faithful of the world still sometimes congregate at, and leave offerings at the gigantic God-stones: huge monuments supposedly built by the gods themselves that used to act as shrines and focal points of their power. But it is more of an old habit than an act of faith. Everyone knows that no one will answer their prayers anymore. When they leave flowers at a God-stone it is akin to leave flowers on a grave: a homage and a sign of respect.
Despite the gods being long gone, their stones do seem to retain a little bit of their former power and majesty. They are safe spaces where no one dares to shed blood, and anyone looking upon the carved visage of the local deity can’t help but feel small and insignificant. But there is more: each stone seems to affect people around it, subtly altering their perceptions and bringing certain thoughts and feelings to the forefront. Is this influence an echo of a former power, a psychological quirk or something else entirely?
When the gods died the mortal men seem to have gotten the better end of the deal, and their race is poised to continue and prosper. The immortal Varl however got screwed. They are asexual and do not reproduce. They were being hand made by their patron God up until he died. Now, the Varl who still live are the last ones to ever exist. Their numbers are dwindling, because even though they do not die of old age they still succumb to diseases and acts of violence.
As the game opens, the sun has stopped in the sky. No one knows why it happened or what it means. There are no prophecies foretelling such an event. In other times, men would have sought the wisdom of the gods for answers. In fact, if the gods were still around they would have probably sent portents, prophecies long before such a world changing event. As it is right now however, men and Varl are on their own. They try to make due and hope for the best, seeing how there is nothing they can possibly do to make the sun moving again.
To make matters worse and ancient enemy: the Dredge (who are part darskpawn, part orcs and part stone golems) pour from the North where they were banished centuries ago. Was their magic responsible for freezing the sun? Or were they equally surprised by it? Is this an invasion or a migration? Is the frozen sun affecting the Northen lands differently than the south, thus forcing the Dredge to migrate? No one knows, and it is impossible to ask them because they do not communicate the same way that men and Varl do. The only meaningful communication between the people of the South and the stone-faced creatures of the North seems to involve swords and arrows. Any other attempts at communication from either side else has always been a failure.
This is the setting of The Banner Saga. It is wonderfully weird and strikingly original. I have not expected it to be this good. I’m a sucker for well developed, interesting fictional universes and this is definitely one of them. It mixes familiar accents of Norse mythology with pure fantasy, at the same time avoiding a lot of old and played out tropes. And the setting only gets weirder as you progress and new secrets and mysteries are revealed.
You take the role of several POV characters, each of whom is a leader of a small caravan, army or group of refugees somehow affected by the ongoing cataclysm or the Dredge invasion. Your task is to lead your people to safety by both managing the food and resources, negotiating with the locals and occasionally fighting turn based tactical encounters with the enemy.
Mechanically, the game is very, very simple. Most of the plot is communicated via still images and text. There is a bit of voice acting reserved for crucial cut-scenes or set pieces, but it is more of a rare treat. Most of the time you advance the plot via exploring dialog trees, which tend to be rather shallow. Most of the dialog options are purely informative, but some may actually have long lasting consequences. Saying the wrong thing or choosing the wrong action option can lead to permanent death of important characters, loss of resources and erc. What is worse, there is usually no way of telling which options are dangerous, or what their effects might be. In fact, many of the choices are counter intuitive.
For example, at one point in the game I found myself surrounded by enemy, and was given an option to either make a last stand fighting a hopeless battle against an absolutely overwhelming odds or to set up an ambush or create diversion to even the odds. The dialogs that lead up to the choice emphasized the hopelessness of fighting in the open field, and seemed to suggest a sneaky option would be the best. Unfortunately both the diversion and ambush option would result in death of one or more of your party members and huge loss of both resources as well as magic items available. Choosing the open battle on the other hand resulted with a medium difficulty encounter that could be won with just a little bit of effort and planning without actually suffering any long term losses.
This in my opinion was the weakest part of the game: a Mass Effect like mismatch between what the dialog option said, and it’s actual effect. But in Mass Effect picking the wrong dialog option did not randomly kill three or four of your party members. The Banner Saga on the other hand loves to do exactly that. I get why they do that: it creates tension, and makes your choices meaningful. It makes the player feel like a lot is at stake, and no one is ever safe… Unless of course you choose an open battle every time, because then you can actually mitigate damage and manage casualties on your own terms. I kinda wish the dialog based calamities were telegraphed more clearly. In fact, I wish losing a party member was more often made an explicit choice: a trade-off or a moral quandary, rather than an almost random event.
The combat system is simplistic, but I rather like it. I have often complained we don’t see enough of turn based tactical squad combat these days, and The Banner Saga scratches exactly that particular itch for me. The heroes you control have RPG like stat progression and can be equipped with various magic items that boost their efficiency. They all have special combat abilities that can sometimes be chained to a devastating effect (though they are all very situation dependent, and useless unless your heroes are placed just the right way on the board).
There is something to be said about making the characters hit points also being their damage output capacity. In a way it makes perfect sense, especially with a lot of Varl an hulking Dredge giants scuttling around the battlefield. It does however change the way you play and think about the encounter. In most turn based tactical games you usually want to concentrate your damage on big threats and eliminate them as soon as you can. In Banner Saga you actually want to avoid eliminating the biggest threats. Instead you want to maim them to the point they can’t effectively deal damage to your heroes anymore and then use their body as a shield for your ranged troops. Since all movement is done on a grid, and only few units have the ability to walk “over” the squares occupied by another unit, you can effectively bottleneck enemy force by specifically not killing their largest units.
The turn order is a bit unusual as well. In most games you move all your units, and then the enemy moves theirs. Here you alternate with the enemy, each moving one character at a time. This means you have much less space to plan your movement, and you always have to be aware of the initiative order anticipate the enemy moves. You can easily leave yourself open and vulnerable by simply forgetting that your archers may not be able to move out of the way before an enemy unit descends upon them.
The game is rather unique both with respect to the gameplay and especially the story. Despite the flawed “moral choice” system the plot is still pretty gripping and I am in love with the setting and the mythology of the world. I think I have literally spent a few hours just panning around the world map and reading the fluff about all the different locations. That said, I wish the game would actually mark the places I visited and plot my movements on the map because it was sometimes hard for me to find the landmarks I passed some time ago with nothing but just the current location as a reference. The best and simultaneously worst part of the game is that the story isn’t finished yet.
On one hand, I’m now eagerly awaiting the sequel, if it ever happens, because I really want to know what happens next. On the other hand, the next installment will have to innovate a bit. At the very least it will need to address the almost random way in which it kills off important combat characters without giving player enough information to make a hard choice. If you sacrifice a character you like for the greater good it generates pathos, but if said character dies to a random event it is more annoying than tragic. Combat system will have to improve a bit too. Not that it is bad right now, but it is a little bit repetitive and I’m not sure if it will carry a whole next game. Creating a separate unit/army based combat system for the large battles the story claims are happening in the background would probably do a lot to shake things up.