The sun is frozen in the sky of The Banner Saga, but its rays have not yet melted its ice-covered landscape. However, it has thawed a genre of video games that has languished in recent years: the tactical role-playing game. Extravagantly funded by a voracious crowd of Kickstarter sponsors, designed by a team of former Bioware designers and artists, and noted by Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory, this is an exquisitely produced fantasy, which marries medieval war fiction in the style of Game of Thrones. complexities of a chess board game.
Outside the battlefield, the team’s narrative heritage is clear. These vast Nordic landscapes share a whisper of DNA with the lower Star Wars planets, which the team previously designed while working on Star Wars: The Old Republic. But the stories that fill them more closely share family resemblance. The game takes place under a broad sweeping narrative that involves nations and races (cunning humans, the gigantic giants of Varl and their common enemy, a dead-eyed statue known as Dredge) on the verge of war. But the wonder is in the vignettes closely, the pressures of leading an army of cold and hungry recruits, and the ever-present weight of having to make seemingly small decisions with unpredictable consequences.
As you move your soldiers from one place to another, watch them move through beautiful hand-drawn landscapes. The view is interrupted every few seconds with a narrative interlude, some problem or another must be addressed. One of your men can drink too much mead and fight. He must intervene, choosing to force an apology from the aggressor or laugh at the fight. Or maybe you find a group of ragged men, apparently lost in the forest. Does it allow them to join their ranks and obtain a valuable asset, or reject them?
You accept food from a benign merchant, but what happens if it turns out to be spoiled or, worse, poisoned? Some video games distribute a handful of these multiple choice decisions per chapter. Banner Saga is an endless flow of questions that requires immediate answers. The consequences must not only be lived, but also open new avenues of choice. Your men can fall. Do you discard supplies or wait to see if something else is causing the disease? Do you force men to fight in the next battle, weakened by stomach cramps, or do you send them home? The trip is history. This has never been made clearer than in The Banner Saga.
The burden of leadership is made stronger by the fact that you are free to make bad decisions: enter a battle in which you will be greatly overcome and your troops will fall. Instead of starting in the melancholic purgatory of a Game Over screen, the story adapts to its failure, which the narrative carries like a scar, forever altering its trajectory. Take some getting used to. But instead of looking for the ‘load’ button to undo their mistakes, it is convenient to live with them. Over time, the story feels completely its own. You are no longer a videogame player, pretending to be an active participant in a pre-established narrative. Instead, you are an accomplice protagonist, and the game doubles at your will, good or bad.
On the battlefield, this is a finely tuned but somewhat traditional tactical role-playing game. You choose a selection of warriors and take turns with the AI to move them one by one on the grid board. First choose where to place a unit according to its range. Then you choose to attack an enemy, attacking his armor or his health. The first indicates how many damage points a character can divert, while the second represents the amount of damage he can do, a number that ingeniously doubles his life points. In this way, as the units suffer damage, they weaken simultaneously.
Different characters specialize in different classes: sheild masters have a high defense and are useful to form a defensive wall in front of the weakest characters; archers can attack from a distance but are weak at close range; Lancers can attack enemies two squares away and so on. Your characters earn renown points every time they defeat an enemy and this coin can be used to increase their abilities or, alternatively, to buy accessories that improve statistics.
The strategic element for fights is rich. “Willpower” points can be used to increase the range of a unit or its offensive power (and this limited currency that improves movement can instantly change the tide of a battle). The strategic layout of their troops is key to success: the Varl occupy four squares in the grid each and will block the movements of their comrades and competitors. In the biggest fights, there is even an option to continue the battle after winning it, with the potential to defeat more soldiers of the enemy army, although at the greatest risk of fighting men already tired and injured.
However, the consequences of actions in the field feel less acute than they do. If one of your troops falls into battle, resurrect as soon as it ends, requiring only a few days of “rest” to fully recover. You cannot lose the key players in the battlefield drama, even if some can easily get lost by making the wrong decisions elsewhere. However, this is a game with a strong sense of place and the atmosphere elevates it beyond the immediate competition. The illustrated 2D art is expressive, while Wintory’s score is extraordinary: evocative, unusual and stimulating. Designer Sid Meier said a game is a series of interesting options. It is a maxim fully accepted by The Banner Saga, which joins those options in its own fabric to form a tapestry that is entirely yours.