Being a Viking wasn’t an easy life. Somehow, between the constant cold and drinking ale, they found time to pillage, conquer and otherwise be very angry, bearded men. Marching and growling across 9th Century Europe doesn’t sound like a great deal of fun, but after playing Stoic’s crowdfunded tactical RPG, they may have changed my mind about that. Giants, mechanical nightmares, and the end of the world may not sound like the makings of a good road-trip, and you would typically be right. The first act of the Banner Saga however, isn’t your typical game and has a lot of fun amongst the bleakness.
Opening with a caravan of Varl, horned giants, pulling into the settlement of Strand, The Banner Saga is immediately striking, both in visuals and in tone. The graphics may hold the same charm found during the golden age of Disney, but Stoic have pulled no punches at creating something dark. The populace are starving, the sun has frozen in the sky, and mechanical beings known as The Dredge are returning. It is all very heavy, but deftly created characters and an intriguing world never make it too much.
It isn’t long after this short introduction that you are thrown into a drunken brawl. Combat is relatively fast and brutal for a tactical RPG, very similar to XCOM and Final Fantasy Tactics. Taking turns to move and attack across an isometric map, anyone who is familiar with turn-based combat will feel comfortable jumping into the action, as the basic framework has been used for nearly two decades. Where it differs is with the use of armour and willpower.
To effectively deal any damage, you can’t just dash up and bash bandits over the head. Every attack can either target strength or armour. Strength is effectively health, which when reduced directly effects how much damage they can deal. If you want to do any real harm however, you need to take off some armour. Chipping away armour points may not immediately harm enemies, but killing tougher enemies is near impossible while they still wear layers of plate and chainmail.
This creates a new layer of strategy, so instead of just wailing on one guy until he drops, you need to weigh up the virtues of placing your guy in danger, just to knock off those few armour chunks so they can be taken down for good. There is no perfect way of doing things, and The Banner Saga can be brutally hard. Heroes will fall, battles will be lost, and you will have to make some difficult decisions just to survive.
Willpower is something that informs this tone, letting units use up a finite resource for extra movement or attack. This resource is something that isn’t easily gained once used, but it is required to make it through many of the struggles. Do you use it to get out of range of the next attack, or to lay on a bit more damage? You gain nothing from hoarding it, so it is needed to gain that critical edge.
Within the first two hours you get to see separate groups of characters. The first are the previously mentioned Varl, travelling across the vast world to collect tithes. Before long you are introduced to a handful of characters, including a human prince and his protective entourage comprised of your kinsman. There is plenty of chatting to these folks, and you do get to make dialogue choices. None of them are obviously good or evil, but rather just getting the job done. Some of them don’t even seem to have any obvious ramifications, such as telling your second-in-command whether he looks good in green, absolutely stupid, or remain indifferent. Even if some of the choices barely change outcomes, it does a great job of endearing you to the cast that you will be spending much more time with in the future.
The second group are a much more desperate lot. After the ravaging of their village by The Dredge, you control a marching band of refugees, slowly pacing from settlement to settlement as you attempt to outrun an ever-growing horde while gathering enough supplies to feed your kin. As the hunter Rook, you make choices that can damn your dwindling population. Thrown into the role of leader, you can attempt to balance wanting to keep his daughter safe, while also keeping an eye on the greater good.
Marching across the massive world map at first seemed like it would be a chore, but just as boredom set in, an ambush or interpersonal issue would appear. It keeps The Banner Saga engaging, especially during tense moments when you aren’t sure if your villagers will make it to the next settlement without starving to death.
Everything I played during the short snippet I saw was brutal. The combat is unforgiving and challenging, marching from A to B is a crawl, and the characters are worn-down husks. It’s a hard land, filled with hard decisions. While it thankfully gives you the time to mull over your choices, that doesn’t make them any easier. If this is a taster to only the first chapter in a planned trilogy, I have high hopes for Stoic’s Nordic adventure when it comes out January 14th. The sun may be stuck in the sky, but things don’t seem to be getting any brighter.