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.
After finishing The Banner Saga, I thought I’d expand on the conclusions I reached last week. I’m still happy with the game and its tactical battles, which become deeper and richer with each new character introduced. I do want to revisit story, an area where Banner Saga is ambitious, inconsistent, but ultimately successful, notwithstanding flaws in its narrative structure – specifically, its use of two distinct stories told from two main points of view.
Now, I should stress that the problem is not with multiple storylines or multiple POVs. The idea itself is great, one I’d like more RPGs to adopt – it works in other media, it works in books and TV, it works in the handful of other games to use it. The problem is Banner Saga’s implementation: one is clearly the main story, with the other being a sideshow. The former is a video game example of an epic, a term wonderfully defined by the Encyclopedia of Fantasy:
An epic is a long narrative poem which tells large tales, often incorporating a mixture of legend, myth and folk history, and featuring heroes whose acts have a significance transcending their own individual happiness or woe. The classic epic tells the story of the founding or triumph of a folk or nation…
This gives the main story a purpose, escalating tension, an arc. The side story lacks these, and isn’t even well integrated into the larger tale. From a mechanical perspective, I like the side story – it was there that I got the hang of the battle system. But it drags on narrative pacing, and should have been either plotted better or else cut down to brief interludes.
As for the main story itself, it’s good. It is clearly part 1 of an intended trilogy, all but screaming TO BE CONTINUED, and suffers from several niggles. At times, characters will say something jarringly modern (1), or Abruptly Drop Proper Nouns. The characters themselves are tersely introduced, with the non-plot characters only receiving a single conversation to flesh them out. But Banner Saga redeems itself with moments of emotional power – desperate, heroic, poignantly beautiful.
It’s those moments that stick in my mind as I write, moments that made me breathe “wow”, and “this is awesome”, and “that was perfect”, and my complaints pale next to that. Taken together with the very good battle system, The Banner Saga is an impressive outing by Stoic Studio, and I look forward to the next in the series.
The basis of my comments: I finished the game after 17 hours, per Steam.