Review: The Banner Saga – An Epic Viking RPG

The Banner Saga from developer Stoic Studio and publisher Versus Evil is the result of a successful Kickstarter. $723,886 was pledged, far surpassing the $100,000 goal. Stoic is made up of only three people (all former Bioware employees who worked on The Old Republic), which makes their accomplishments with this game even more impressive.

Watch the trailer:

Plot

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“Live through an epic role-playing Viking saga where your strategic choices directly affect your personal journey. Make allies as you travel with your caravan across this stunning yet harsh landscape. Carefully choose those who will help fight a new threat that jeopardizes an entire civilization. Every decision you make in travel, conversation and combat has a meaningful effect on the outcome as your story unfolds. Not everyone will survive, but they will be remembered.”

The men and the varl (a race of giants with horns on their heads) must work together to drive back the darkness taking over the land. Along the way, you meet a huge cast of characters, get embroiled in politics, and will have to make a lot of hard decisions as leader of your caravan. The story is initially split between two groups, but eventually they meet in the middle.

The women in this game are not damsels in distress – every woman you meet can defend herself, whether it be with a bow and arrow or magic, and they’re just as fleshed out as the men. There’s even a section where some of your clanswomen want to start learning how to fight, which I thought was awesome. The treatment of women in the game is excellent.

This is the first game in a planned trilogy, and the decisions you make in this game will carry over to the next two. Think of this portion as The Fellowship of the Ring. The game took me nine hours to complete and has 39 Steam achievements (27 of which I completed on my first playthrough). There’s a lot of replayability here (to see if you can get a better outcome by making better decisions), but since there is only one save game slot, you’d have to go into the game’s files and save one of your games before starting another, otherwise you’ll lose that playthrough. I’m hoping this might be addressed in the future. [edit 4/26/2016 – I replayed TBS before reviewing TBS2, and there are now more save slots!]

Graphics and Sound

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The graphics are unlike anything I’ve seen in a game before; they look more like a high-quality 2D cartoon. Everything is highly detailed – when you’re in a dialogue, characters will blink and the wind blows their hair and clothes. The animations are fluid whether in combat or trekking along the landscape, and there were a lot of times where I just admired the view. I loved watching my characters fight because of the combat animations. Even though the sprites on the battlefield are tiny, you can still tell exactly what they’re doing.

The soundtrack is of equally high quality. The score was composed by two-time BAFTA award-winner Austin Wintory, performed by the Dallas Winds Orchestra, and features Peter Hollens, Malukah, and Taylor Davis. Tracks never seemed to repeat, and there was a huge variety of instrumentation and themes. It’s definitely a soundtrack that is worth listening to outside of the game. There is not a lot of voice acting, but what is there is excellent.

I only experienced two game crashes, once after a battle and once during the end credits. These were not highly impactful, as the game just brought me back to the last checkpoint in the case of the battle.

Gameplay

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Gameplay consists of three main parts: combat, dialogue, and traveling. Traveling is reminicent of The Oregon Trail – you have to keep your caravan in good spirits by resting often and keeping supplies in stock. If your morale is down, you’ll be penalized in battle, and if you run out of food, your followers will start to die off. At one point, there’s a very clear wink to Orgeon Trail – you need to cross a river, and your options are the same as in Oregon Trail, which made me laugh. During travel, you’ll encounter events that often require you to make a decision, and that decision can lead to trouble and loss of supplies/people or gaining the same. When I ran out of supplies and people started dying, I felt really guilty and hoped that the next town was close by. It’s too bad you can’t hunt like in Oregon Trail!

Dialogue holds consequences too; sometimes you have to be careful about your choices, and sometimes dialogue is just a way to get more information and story. Dialogue can be initiated by your companions when you’re traveling or you can do so on certain occasions when you’re resting in a town. Those dialogue sessions are optional, but they flesh out your characters more. I found myself getting attached to almost everyone. You might not find every playable character the first time through; I know that I missed finding at least one person, and I think one of the people I found would be closed off to a player who didn’t make the same choice I made.

I am not a big combat fan, normally seeing every battle as a necessary evil, but The Banner Saga‘s won me over. There are a lot of tactics and strategy involved, even on easy, but if you take your time and plan out what you’re going to do, you shouldn’t have a problem (at least on easy; I believe the game is much more punishing at higher difficulty levels). The end boss is quite challenging even on easy – it took me three tries to beat him, but I didn’t feel frustrated because of that, only challenged. Battles are fought on a 2/3rds isometric battlefield, with the turns alternating between your warriors and enemy warriors until there is a side with only one warrior remaining. This activates the pillage stage, which makes it so the side with only one soldier left goes, then all the remaining warriors on the winning side. Needless to say, the lone survivor often doesn’t get a second chance. You can attack a unit’s strength or armor, and they’re easier to hit if their armor is damaged. If a unit’s strength is down, they don’t hit as hard, and they fall easier.

When battles are won, you get renown, which is the only currency in the game. Renown allows you to buy supplies and trinkets at the market and also upgrades your warriors. You will rise in rank from level one to level five, each level costing more renown. Each warrior has to kill people in order to level up, starting with two to get to level two and expanding exponentially from there. The renown system took some getting used to, and it’s hard to balance at times, but I think it helps contribute to the feeling that you need to make compromises to succeed in this game.

Final Thoughts

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The Banner Saga is a fantastically gorgeous, fun game that you should play without hesitation. The amount of detail put into every aspect of it is amazing, and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. I can’t wait to see further games in the series, along with whatever else Stoic has in store for us.

Score: A

Get The Banner Saga on Steam for $19.99. You can also get it with the soundtrack for $24.99 (the soundtrack separately is $7.99). It’s available on GOG here, and you can check here for more retailers. Visit the official site and follow the team on Google+, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. You can also check out a taste of the game by playing The Banner Saga: Factions, a FTP multiplayer version of the game.

[Disclaimer: A review code was provided for me to review this game.]

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6 thoughts on “Review: The Banner Saga – An Epic Viking RPG

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  5. I’m glad you liked this game so much. A good friend of mine has told me that this is an awesome game and that I need to try it, and your review makes me wish to do that doubly-so! 🙂 It’s refreshing to see games like this being made, it gives me more hope in the industry.

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