This epic is EPIC
The word ‘epic’ gets thrown around a lot these days, and it’s starting to undermine what that word really means. Your Cheetos are not epic. That skateboarding porcupine, while adorable, is not epic. ‘Epic’ is a literary term used to describe a certain kind of story. One that takes us on a journey into a richly detailed universe; one that’s existed long before we got there. And more often than not, the fate of the world is hanging in the balance.
The Lord of the Rings is an epic. Star Wars is an epic. And this first chapter of The Banner Saga kicks off one of the finest interactive epics I’ve ever known.
Set in a world of varls, humans and dredge, The Banner Saga can best be summed up as Tolkien by way of Scandinavia (if it were adapted by Don Bluth and Intelligent Systems). The developers at Stoic Studio have managed to blend these seemingly disparate influences together into something wonderfully original, creating a world that’s even better than its gameplay.
The story begins long after the Second Great War has come to a close; a war that helped strengthen the bonds between the humans and the varl as they banded together to fight the scourge of an armored race known only as The Dredge. Now the dredge are back and the Third Great War looms, but is a threat even more sinister at the doorstep?
In an effort to keep this review spoiler free, that’s as much detail as I’m willing to go into. But let me assure you, it’s a set-up that delivers on its promise in every way you can imagine.
Judging only by screenshots, you might assume that The Banner Saga is a strategy RPG. And while that’s true about the combat, the sum of its parts is so much more. You’ll spend as much time in the narrative as you do fighting, and as the story progresses you’ll find yourself making all sorts of decisions – little and big – that will affect your story in profoundly important ways. You may settle an argument amongst clansmen that prevents one of them from stealing your caravan’s much-needed supplies. You may send away a petulant prince, losing him from your party when his skills could have helped you in a tough fight. You may embrace a foe and welcome them to your team, never knowing what their true intentions are.
In this way, The Banner Saga is very much like a gamebook or a visual novel. A Choose Your Own Adventure where your choices will help or hinder your overall journey throughout the game. And like a great gamebook or visual novel, the story is engaging and incredibly well-written. I cared about the characters in The Banner Saga. When a decision I made accidentally killed off a trusted varl, or led to the violent betrayal of a comrade, it evoked a genuine emotional response. The storytelling is, for lack of a better word, perfect.
The combat’s no slouch, either. Delivering on the promise of a great strategy RPG (SRPG) like Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, The Banner Saga offers up an easy-to-grasp combat system that will require a good deal of brain power to master. Every character that joins you on your journey will have their own unique skill-set, even if some of the basics do overlap. For example, you might have four archers on your team, but each will have their own stats that can be upgraded to your liking, and each will have their own special power. You might want one of your archers to have a higher strength rating, for example, while you may upgrade another to be stronger at shield breaking. One might be able to shoot multiple enemies in a line at once, while another might shoot a fire arrow that creates burning slag for the opposing army to march through.
You’ll find that there are certain types of characters you’ll want to use for certain things. Varls, being horned giants nearly twice the size of men, are your tanks. Archers are great at breaking armor from a distance. Special characters, like your mender, are squishy and easy to lose – but if you keep them safe they can repair armor and dish out a devastating chained lightning attack.
No matter what type of mix you choose for your team, they’ll all adhere to the same rules of combat. There are really only two stats you need to worry about: strength and armor. Strength in The Banner Saga is neat in that it pulls double duty: it’s both your attack power rating and your health. If you take damage, your attack rating weakens accordingly. To land a blow against an opposing combatant, you’ll need to have a higher strength number than their armor number. If you don’t, you can always choose to attack their armor and lower that stat, making it easier to deliver damage going forward.
There’s a third stat you’ll need to keep an eye on – the one that powers your special moves – but there are some easy ways to earn it back (resting a turn or killing an enemy both earn you a point), so you won’t need to stress too much about keeping it stocked.
In addition to the storytelling and combat, there’s a third element that you’ll engage in during the course of play: managing your caravan of fighters and clansmen. Like any good epic, there’s a lot of walking in The Banner Saga, and as you come across villages you’ll find that many of its inhabitants will join your group. As a result, you’ll need to keep food supplies well stocked to keep everyone happy and fed. You’ll do this by visiting markets along the way and spending “renown,” the game’s currency, to buy new supplies.
The twist, though, is that renown is also what you’ll need to spend to level up your characters. This creates a tough balancing act that helps to cement your place in the story even more: you’re the leader, how are you going to handle a food shortage? Will you take a bribe of supplies if you’re asked to look the other way in a conflict? Will you rob someone on the condition that you’ll get a better price on food? And can you really afford to promote your varl if people are starving?
In addition to the game’s other exemplary components, you can’t really talk about The Banner Saga without bringing up the game’s overall presentation. While big sweeping animations are few, the overall look of the game is like something out of the golden age of 1970’s animation. Visually, it’s like a sword and sandals answer to Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop. And the dredge feel like something out of a Miyazaki film or something Team Ico would dream up. And it’s not just the cut scenes that impress; every attack and movement in combat is accompanied by a fluid animation that looks straight out of a film.
The game lasts around 12 hours, and by the end you’ll be desperate to know when the second installment in the trilogy is coming. There's no word yet on when that will be, but in the meantime you can always jump into the free-to-play multiplayer spin-off The Banner Saga Factions.
The Banner Saga looks great, sounds terrific, reads brilliantly and plays perfectly. What more could you ask for in an epic? Buy it now.
- A unique blending of visual novel and strategy role playing. Visually stunning. Satisfying combat that's accessible, but still smart.