Earlier this month, we wrote about the Kickstarter campaign for The Banner Saga Warbands, a board-game version of the popular tactical RPG available for Mac and iOS. That campaign has been a tremendous success, so while we wait for August 2016, we wanted to make sure you’ve played the computer version that inspired it. And so…
The sun has stopped, the gods are dead, your enemies are endless, and even acts of kindness can lead to tragedy and betrayal. The only thing to do is march. In the Nordic-flavored world of The Banner Saga, the heroes are dead and a leader’s job is just keeping as many people alive as possible.
Set in a post-Ragnarok fantasy world, The Banner Saga follows two caravans. One is made up of “Varl” (giants) out to collect tribute from the human kingdoms with whom they have an uneasy alliance. While this well-armed and provisioned party travels to the east (and home), they must contend with rebellious humans and the return of The Dredge—steampunk robots whose last great assault almost wiped out the living races from the land.
Traveling west is a refugee train made up mostly of humans fleeing a wave of Dredge that wiped out their city. Trying to escape the oncoming horde, they come across bandits and small villages where some want to join their caravan while others demand they stay and defend their homes. The only solution is to keep moving and hope that somewhere there is refuge.
Whichever part of the Saga you’re playing, the game is broken down into three parts. Travel consists of watching your group slowly make their way across a beautifully-rendered landscape. During travel, you’ll occasionally be presented with decisions, such as whether to let newcomers join your party (they can add strength, but drain resources and might betray you), how to deal with troublemakers, and trying to keep morale up.
In the camp/town portion you can rest, trade for goods, and, again, be presented with decisions that can have far-reaching effects.
Combat makes up about half of the total game. Combat is tactical, presented on a grid where your characters move to engage their enemies. Every fighting character has at least one special ability in addition to his/her standard attacks, and the key to winning battles, especially late in the game, is learning how to use these abilities to chain attacks on multiple enemies at once. Battering ram throws can knock an enemy back into other foes. Lightning bolts will strike anyone standing in a diagonal tile to a target (friend or foe). If you can get your opponents to stand in a straight line, one of your archers can “thread the needle,” striking all of them at once.
These multiple attacks are essential to winning because before you can kill your enemies by draining their health (in red), you have to weaken their armor (in blue). In addition, some Dredge have the ability to summon back up, which means you’ll be facing a fresh soldier when your characters are weak or knocked-out.
You also have the option in some battles of not fighting directly, but instead, directing your troops from afar. While this prevents your main characters from getting injured, it always leads to more casualties. And if you lose any battle, the game is over and you have to restart from an auto-save.
The decisions are presented as a dialogue tree; you’re given several options, select one, and see what the fallout is. The hell of it is that the effects of those decisions might not show up for a long time, when an act of kindness turns to betrayal, or a character you’ve been relying on (and building up their skill set) is ripped away in a heartbeat.
Yet despite the desperate air of the game, The Banner Saga never feels as miserable as This War of Mine, perhaps because it’s set in a fantasy kingdom, perhaps because the Dredge look a bit silly, or perhaps because of the gorgeous way the game is illustrated. Even in the tactical part of the game, the characters look like they’re hand-drawn renditions out of the Rankin-Bass version of The Hobbit. All the characters, human and Varl alike, are fleshed-out with their own personalities, which makes it all the more tragic when one of them falls as part of the story (though characters knocked out in battle survive, provided you win the fight).
My biggest knock against The Banner Saga is that the combat, which takes up much of the game, quickly gets repetitive. Characters get stronger, but keep their same skills, and trying to maneuver your enemies into position to take advantage of special attacks can be frustrating, especially in tight situations where Varl (who take up four tiles to a human’s one) cannot move into position. Still, when you manage to pull a coordinated attack off, it’s richly satisfying.
The developers said they wanted to create a “mature” fantasy game, where players were less focused on powering up and more on dealing with decisions and consequences. They’ve definitely captured that feel, with a Game of Thrones-like world where the villains may simply be Bad Guys (the Dredge, like the White Walkers, simply exist to hate the living), but the person who’s been marching next you for a month might just have a dagger pointed to your gut.