“The gods are dead.”
So opens Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga, a low-fantasy tactical RPG with a cool and unique combat system. It’s so different as to be divisive; but the more I play it, the more I like it.
By way of overview, Banner Saga follows two separate groups as they trek across a land ravaged by shadowy, armoured monsters called dredge (second from the right). Between battles, the current group’s caravan rolls through the countryside (see below), banner streaming behind, and gameplay consists of text events: how do you respond to stubborn villagers, or a troublemaking drunk, or a fire in the distance? These choices affect caravan morale and hence stats in combat, but more importantly, party members can join, leave, or permanently die in these events. And clearly, the developers meant decisions to have consequences, a la XCOM ironman – there is only one quicksave slot, and save ‘checkpoints’ are widely spaced. This is perhaps too effective: I’ve started looking up guides after discovering that I neither enjoy character loss, nor have the time or patience to reload. The actual writing is clunky at first (why are quasi-Vikings saying “OK”?), but picks up steam. As at the 60% mark, I find the story interesting, albeit not the main draw.
That honour belongs to the combat. Compared to other TRPGs, there are two unique mechanics: first, turn order, and second, how wounds are handled. In other games, turn order is either “Side A moves, Side B moves” (XCOM, Fire Emblem, Valkyria Chronicles) or else “Character A moves, Character B moves”, with the order determined by a speed/initiative stat (Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre). In either case, more characters is better, either because you can move them all at once or because it gives you more chances for their moves to come up. Not in Banner Saga, where each side alternates moving one character at a time, and if one side has fewer characters, then they move more frequently. For example, imagine a battle between the heroes (H1, H2) and the dredge (D1 through D4). The turn order would look like this:
This will not be to everyone’s liking: I’ve seen complaints that this is unrealistic, because the side with twice the numbers should be able to move twice as often. But personally, I think it fits the game’s theme. Aren’t epics normally about outnumbered warriors accomplishing the extraordinary? I’ve even experimented with deploying a small, elite party so that each character could move more often, although I’m not sure the tradeoff (reduced durability, less scope to feed kills to weaker characters) was worth it.
Banner Saga’s second key mechanic is that wounded units do not fight at full strength. Specifically, the “Strength” stat represents both hit points and attack power: in a regular attack, damage is calculated as (attacker’s strength + 1) – (defender’s armour), and the difference is taken off the defender’s strength. So low-strength or injured units have a hard time piercing armour; high-strength units hit like a locomotive unless they’re whittled down.
Combining these two rules, turn order and wounds=weakness, is what makes Banner Saga play so differently. It’s a bad idea to clean out chaff first, because that will just give the stronger survivors more turns. So is the solution to just injure enemies so they can’t pierce your armour? Sometimes – but there’s another twist. The “armour break” stat (exactly what it sounds like – it’s how much damage is inflicted by targeting armour instead of strength) is not affected by strength, and neither are many special abilities. So with high armour break or the right ability, even a strength 1 unit can still be dangerous!
Combat, then, becomes a set of trade-offs. Below, I’ve attached a screenshot from near the start of my most recent battle. Note the three stats displayed over everyone’s head: armour (blue), strength (red), and willpower (yellow star – affected by caravan morale, this is burned to trigger special abilities, boost attacks, or run farther than normal):
My party included several archers: Alette (8 armour and 10 strength, in green on the left), Oddleif (8/8, wearing white and crouching down), and Rook (11/10, on the right, wearing the reddish-brown cloak). I also brought two varl, horned giants allied with humans against the dredge: they’re the big 9/13 and 15/10 guys occupying 4 squares each. Lastly, I brought a spearman, Tryggvi (10/10, off to the right by himself).
On the opposing team, most of the dredge were slingers with 8-9 armour and strength – not enough to hurt my characters at max armour, but a threat to anyone with damaged armour, and also capable of wearing down armour from a distance. Also note the two large and well-armoured dredge: 21/13 in the purple armour (top left), and 19/11 (top right), who at max armour would have been impervious; I deployed as far from them as I could. Lastly, there was one melee dredge near where I deployed – you can’t see him clearly in the screenshot, but he was the 9/10 towards the bottom left.
Now, for the other group of heroes, this battle would have been VARL SMASH. With this party, I had to play differently – and that meant paying attention to everyone’s special abilities (1).
First threat: If I let that 21/13 purple dredge close, I would have been in serious trouble. I had to neutralise it, but how? Answer: Oddleif the archer’s special ability, which booby-traps a target square; any unit walking into the trap has to end its turn. Against the small dredge, that would have been pointless: it’s too hard to predict which way they move. But against a big, lumbering 2×2 dredge? Much easier. Every turn, I ran Oddleif backwards, firing off traps. And every turn, the dredge took one step forward – right into her trap. It didn’t last long; Oddleif ran out of Willpower after several turns. But keeping the big dredge out of the fight for those turns was absolutely critical.
Second threat: the slingers, a real pain to chase down as they automatically retreat several squares once hit. The obvious counter is archers… but there’s an even better one. Enter Tryggvi the spearman, who has three great advantages: he’s nimble, his spear has range 2, and his special ability inflicts strength damage for every step the target takes next turn. That includes the automatic steps the slingers take. So that meant Tryggvi could de-fang slingers by using his ability to deal several bonus points of damage.
Third threat: the 9/10 melee dredge, nothing compared to the big dredge but strong – and close – enough to hurt my archers. But he was nowhere near strong enough to hurt Fasolt, the 15-armour varl in red, and Fasolt can force adjacent enemies to spend their next turn attacking him. So that was what I did; Fasolt moved up, and the dredge’s attack glanced off.
Even with those abilities, it was a tense, challenging fight – both my varl were KO, which doesn’t lead to perma-death, but does inflict stat penalties for several game days. If I get into another fight soon, should I bring them anyway? Or should I switch them out? And the aftermath of a fight brings other decisions – characters need a certain number of kills before they can level up, but actually levelling them requires the use of experience from a shared pool…
Overall, the above fight was the best I’ve had in The Banner Saga, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence. The more I understand the battle system, the more I appreciate it –individual rules are straightforward, but together they produce an intricate web of “interesting decisions” (with one exception – there is too much guesswork in deployment, as the game doesn’t give enough information beforehand. If you read this, Stoic, my suggestions are at note 2). So far, this is a promising tactical RPG, and I’m glad I bought it.
(1) When playing Banner Saga’s other party, I use fewer special abilities, but there’s more of a focus on juggling high-armour versus high-strength characters. As far as I know, the last RPG to feature multiple parties with distinct playstyles was Suikoden III, all the way back in 2002.
(2) For the next Banner Saga game, we should be able to see the map, the enemy deployment, and the enemy turn order before we select units and our own turn order. It matters if a high-strength enemy unit moves early or late, or is 1 turn away versus 3 turns away! While we’re at it, why not let us spend renown to level up characters before battle? Why do we have to wait for the camp screen?