It is hard to believe that it has almost been a year since Stoic quietly released the free-to-play multiplayer game The Banner Saga: Factions. I enjoyed the game, but, in my ignorance, I didn’t understand its purpose. There wasn’t much story or explanation as to why players were meant to throw these strange Viking-like people at one another. It didn’t seem like it had enough juice to progress as a popular stand-alone multiplayer game, so what was the point?
The point, which I am only just know seeing, was to familiarize us with Stoic’s art and combat design so that our tiny gamer brains didn’t collapse upon playing the shining masterpiece that is The Banner Saga.
The package that the developers are set to deliver to PC/Mac users on January 14th is just astounding. It is certainly an indie game, as Stoic is comprised of just three members: Alex Thomas, John Watson and Arnie Jorgensen. The project was funded through Kickstarter and set the modest goal of $100,000 in donations. It hit this goal in a day. It would eventually receive more than $700,000 from over 20,000 donors.
The small company has repaid the enthusiasm of its fans and supporters with an indie game that will forever change the genre.
There is no denying the game’s triple A polish. The three members of Stoic are seasoned professionals. They worked on the art, programming, character and setting design, story and cutscene writing, and game design for BioWare’s Star Wars: The Old Republic.
The triumvirate left the security of BioWare to design their dream game, and they certainly took their skills with them. They enlisted the help of many fantastic programmers, voice actors, animators, sound people, etc. to help bring the game to life. The icing on the cake was securing Austin Wintory, the composer behind the Grammy-nominated (first and only for a video game) score of the indie hit Journey, to do the music.
Alright enough fluffy background, lets get to the game itself.
You will immediately be struck by The Banner Saga’s visuals. Arnie Jorgensen and his team compiled a dazzling array of hand-drawn characters and settings that are on display while your characters are not on the battle screen, which is quite often. The limitations that come with this choice are apparent: characters don’t really move or speak as you interact with them. It feels a lot like a motion comic, which makes sense as Jorgensen was once an artist for DC.
The art also felt familiar to me. The world that The Banner Saga creates is certainly unique, but I couldn’t shake a feeling of attachment to the imagery. It was only upon reaching the end of the game that I saw a credit given to someone named Eyvind Earle for Art Inspiration. An important character in the game is even named after this person. After smashing some letters into Google, I learned that Earle contributed the art for Disney’s 1959 classic Sleeping Beauty. I felt like an idiot because the similarities are so obvious. The quality of this Earle-inspired art helps to cover up the absence of what we typically expect in the way of animated character movement and dialogue.
This lack of movement didn’t really bother me because I was so focused on the decision making processes in the interactive storyline. That, and the cutscenes were so beautiful that it more than made up for any limits. Want to see? Boom.
It is almost criminal to present those images as stills rather than one flowing sequence, but they are just so pretty. I set one as my background. My girlfriend set another as her’s.
The pictures also have no way of communicating the brilliant musical arrangement that accompanies the scene. The melancholy feeling of the cutscene in its entirety is reminiscent of the “To Zanarkand” scene of Final Fantasy X. I felt sad, but I also felt a sense of wonder and fulfillment.
The music in the game is a rival to ANY video game score ever created. You will know that immediately. If you mute this game at any point, you are denying yourself a critical aspect of the gameplay experience. The score, like every other aspect of the game, draws heavily from Scandinavian influences. However, the music is unique and feels as if someone from the imaginary world of The Banner Saga had created it himself.
As I mentioned before, Austin Wintory is the only composer to have ever received a Grammy nomination for a video game score, and he could very likely do it again with The Banner Saga. Here is a little taste:
In The Banner Saga, you play the role of several different lead characters who are all just trying to do the best they can during a global crisis. There are two races: humans and horned giants known as Varl. The Varl live a much longer life than humans, so many Varl serve as voices of wisdom during your travels. They are also four times the size of humans, so they play a significantly strong (perhaps a little too strong) role in your battles.
The story is best explained as a sort of interactive Game of Thrones novel. The characters you control are all local leaders who are attempting to survive invasion from a mysterious and deadly Northern race, but they are also simultaneously trying to amass power through decisions based on personal interest, the needs of their people, political intrigue, emotions, etc.
This decision-making process is the core of the game. Your character will be presented with hundreds of issues, each with multiple solutions. It is your job to select whichever answer you think is best. The results of these selections are remarkably varied. You may add a fearsome warrior or needed supplies/currency, or you may die. The developers stress to you early on that EVERY decision must be taken seriously, and they really aren’t kidding. I would guess that around 70% of your time is spent in this way. If navigating your way through treacherous, story-driven interactions doesn’t sound fun to you, then this game may not be your tankard of mead.
The other 30% is spent on the battle screen. This is where the Factions players will feel at home. The combat is very basic and intentionally similar to that of Final Fantasy Tactics or other grid-based strategy games. You assemble a team of 6 unique warriors, and they battle it out with a variety of foes on a grid. It is functional, but the combat basically serves as a change of pace for your journey through the story. There are some minor balance issues, specifically with the strength of the Varl. If you are able to, you should select 6 Varl for your party. There are archer and mage classes within the human race, but they are pretty much insignificant when compared to the massive Varl.
One of the most unique features of The Banner Saga is that you are supposed to lose battles and cope with the consequences. There are some battles that are can’t be won. There are some that can’t be lost. But most battles can go either way, and it is Stoic’s intention that the player deals with the victories and defeats accordingly. Sure, you can select a previous save point and try the battle again, but I believe that this goes against the spirit of the game.
The Banner Saga also allows you to change the difficulty at any time. Stoic doesn’t want players to be overly frustrated with a particular battle or interaction. I have found that normal feels the best. Easy battles are almost impossible to lose and Hard battles are almost impossible to win. But, to each his own.
If it isn’t obvious by now, I highly recommend this game. It is strictly a PC/Mac user’s treat right now, but Stoic does plan to port it to PSN and Xbox Live. I think it is noteworthy that the developers seem committed to insuring the game meets all expectations. I didn’t encounter a single bug, but there were several updates during the reviewing period to fix a few issues encountered by other writers. I think this bodes well for future service.
I have saved the best part for last: this game is only the first installment of a trilogy.