‘Banner Saga’ paints a pretty epic picture

Jon Mercer
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The Banner Saga
PC

“The Banner Saga,” the debut effort from indie developer Stoic, is the sort of RPG that will thrill players who cut their teeth on fair such as “Ogre Battle” or “Final Fantasy Tactics.” At the same time, it will crush their hopes and dreams with its bleak tale of a meagre survival against overwhelming odds with constant toil.

A screenshot from the game “The Banner Saga.” — Submitted image

Stoic is the brainchild of Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson, a trio of game makers who recently departed from industry superstar BioWare.

In “The Banner Saga,” players will learn firsthand the crushing weight of the crown, and the consequences of their actions as they grow attached to characters that are never guaranteed to make it to the next level. But — and here’s the funny thing — they’ll have a great time doing it.

The game’s setting is almost devoid of hope, existing in a world without gods, without day or night, just a constant blight of snow and dim grey light.

A monstrous army known as the Dredge are moving from settlement to settlement, slaughtering all they encounter. As the leader of a small but growing caravan of survivors, gamers are forced by occasional text prompts and cut scenes to solve a problem that has erupted in their encampment.

Be it one person stealing extra rations of mead, or an argument between two warriors seeking the affections of the same woman, things often get tense between a motley crew that includes humans and a race of horned giants known as the Varl.

Punishments must be meted out; compromises must be found to keep the peace. But it is never easy, and sometimes the obvious choices hold dire consequences. Pleasing a squad of valiant warriors with gifts might mean that others perish between battles.

“The Banner Saga” is as fond as “Game of Thrones” of giving characters a dirt nap, and it is hard to watch heroic fighters get snuffed out in bombastic fashion, while fodder seem to live through sheer luck.

Combat is a series of short, white-knuckle skirmishes across grid-based terrain. After selecting up to six party members, players have brief freedom to position their attackers to try and gain a tactical advantage before the battle begins. Once engaged, they choose between attacking, and using a character’s special ability — doing so consumes Willpower, a finite resource which must be regained by either resting turn or successfully taking out a foe.

An extra layer of strategy is spread across the top, as the option is given to either attack an opponent’s armour, or their physical strength. Sapping the former lowers the amount of damage they can absorb, while the latter will lower their hitting power, and of course KO them once depleted.

Party members can only level up by actually vanquishing enemies, so it pays to soften them up with stronger characters, before letting weaker party members claim the kill, and the XP.  There are many other facets to the combat, especially given the difference in size between humans and Varl (the big buggers taking up a massive four squares of real estate on the grid), so things remain exciting to the end, but can get pretty hairy if one gets sloppy in their approach.

Oddly enough, losing in battle rarely means a character death, as they are merely wounded and must rest a few days before they can slay once more – a bit of a disconnect given how easily “The Banner Saga” doles out despair outside of battle.

Crisp and clean

Serving the dire nature of the game’s setting is the slick art design, which feels inspired by the animation techniques of the 1970s and ’80s.

It’s very akin to Ralph Bakshi’s “Fire and Ice” (in my opinion, his only passable movie), or Don Bluth’s earlier work. The lines are crisp and clean, and the animation is dynamic and fluid. This can make the static text sequences a little jarring in comparison to any time action breaks out, yet at no point is “The Banner Saga” anything but visually pleasing.

Also, it is important to note that despite painting a picture of harsh existence in cruel times, the script is alive with a dry, almost gallows sense of humour. This goes down surprisingly well with the cool look and the rich, melancholic score by Austin Wintory.

“The Banner Saga” paints a pretty epic picture, even if it centres on a group of calloused barbarians trying to bludgeon their way to just one more day of breathing the cold air. There’s a sad reflectance felt during the gorgeous animated portions of the caravan trudging across the tundra, and the battles are just exciting enough to keep one playing just a little while longer and salivating for the upcoming, yet to be released chapters.

At $25, it’s a bargain and a great time killer until we get closer to the summer, and all the hits that entails.

Platform: PC

Developer: Stoic Games

Publisher: Versus Evil

Release Date: Jan. 14, 2014

Rated: M for Mature.

Walking through the wastes of the digital frontier, Jon Mercer fights a lonely war against the nefarious agents of boredom and mediocrity. If you seek his help, or wish to join his cause, send a communiqué via

thejonmercer@gmail.com.

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  • Mikki
    July 10, 2014 - 09:00

    KI