Why make regular vikings, draped in furs and capped with historically inaccurate but still impressive helmets, when you can have varls?The varls in The Banner Saga are massive bastards with uniformly luxurious facial hair and actual god-damned horns sprouting from their heads. They don't walk onto a scene, they sweep. There's a bit midway into the slice-of-turn-based-goodness Stoic sent me last week where Iver, a saturnine varl with truly imposing cranial ornamentation, plods into a building confrontation and everyone just melts back that made my toes curl euphorically. Varls aren't just big for the sake of being big. Varls, in every way that count, have weight.
And so does The Banner Saga. Made by ex-Bioware developers and collectively funded by the Internet, The Banner Saga's a tactical, turn-based RPG squashed together with The Oregon Trail. It's quiet and restrained, eschewing vulgar displays of wizardry in favor of subtle, sly hints of the fantastical. The varls are afraid of fire, but no one really knows why. Their world is swallowed in winter but no one also knows why. And the golem-like dredge and the red-garbed witch who gives entire camps panic attacks? No one knows what's going on with them either. Yet
Similarly, the plot conveys a kind of quiet, realistic gravitas. The looming global threat around which much of the game revolves isn't something to be neatly solved by a magical artifact or a Chosen One. Here, the characters feel like they're trying to make do, to survive, to do the best they can against the inexorable forces pushing against them. Which is always wonderful next to the constant volley of "You are Special Snowflake" narratives.
Not that The Banner Saga even attempts to make it apparent who exactly you should be rooting for. The chapters alternate in focus. First, we're introduced to the historian Ubin, a grizzled varl made rounded by the years. His journey begins on a relatively pedestrian note but it soon escalates as a death and the approach of the dredges raise the stakes. In the second, we meet Rook and Alette, a human father-and-daughter pair who seem find themselves leading refugees from Skogr as the dredge envelop their home. And the third? Well, you need to see it for yourself. I'll say this much, though. While convention suggests that the twain will eventually meet, there's little that loudly proclaims how. They could just be two little stories, two independent sequences existing in the same tapestry of life.
If there's anything that the Banner Saga is good at, it's making you feel small. Combat, though turn-based and therefore not reliant on snap judgement, is a perpetually tense affair as there are no real opportunities to grind for levels, to build your characters so they become grotesquely overpowered. Each confrontation is often a reason for dread. You are almost always certain you're outclassed and always outnumbered. Questions like, "Can my convoy survive the next encounter?", "Will there be new and frightening enemy types coming up soon?" and "Should I waste supplies and allow my injured heroes to recover or take my chances with the inexperienced roster?" quickly become incorporated into your vocabulary. It doesn't help that The Banner Saga enforces a save system not unalike Ironman mode in XCOM: Enemy Unknown. If you choose to reload, you'll be immediately sent back to the beginning of the chapter, invalidating any progress you might have attained so far. Unless you're inclined towards the patience, the most efficient route will be moving forward -- even if it means living with a corpse on your conscience.
But I'm digressing.
Let's talk about how battles work. Each fight starts with you first determining where your characters will be positioned. From there, it becomes a cyclical thing, with active control migrating from you to the A.I and back. At first glance, combat can feel somewhat simplistic. Characters have the ability to attack, to utilize a special ability, rest, and wander around like an absolute nimmyhammer. Nothing too interesting. In the beginning, most of my time was spent trying to clump up around a particular opponent, beating on them till they gave up and laid down before moving to the next. Needless to say, that solution didn't really work out too well and after some trial and much error, I started figuring it out.
One of The Banner Saga's key idiosyncrasies is how Strength works. The stat serves as both damage and health. As characters get battered, their Strength will dwindle, making them progressively more inefficient in combat. Which is absolutely genius, really. Because why should you be able to trade blows as well as a healthy adversary after you've been trounced by his friends? Being wounded should bleed you of your vigor. It makes so much sense that I'm amazed this isn't a fixture in every game. As you might have already guessed, it's imperatively to accurately position your shieldbearers in front of your damage dealers, to use long-ranged spearmen to peck at an unsuspecting enemy's armor (your strength minus their armor equals damage caused) even as you rain hellfire with your archers from the back. Failure to do so can be very, very costly.
Should you succeed in winning a battle, you'll then be assigned a certain amount of Renown points to distribute as needed. What's interesting here is that Renown, for all intents and purposes, functions as the currency for everything. From purchasing levels for your heroes to buying supplies for your caravans, you name it, it's probably going to cost you Renown points. To make matters more urgent, your heroes won't automatically level up. They can become qualified for a new level when they've killed a sufficient amount of foes but will remain lowly peons until you finance their personal growth. No one said being a leader was easy.
And in between juggling all of that and striving to ensure your characters survive each encounter, you're going to have to concern yourself with the health of your caravans. This part of The Banner Saga plays out a lot like a more focused version of The Oregon Trail. Supplies and morale dwindle with each passing day. To recuperate the former, you'll need to find merchants with suitable wares. To replenish the latter, you'll need to make camp and rest. Of course, such actions aren't without their costs. Rest periods will eat into your supplies, potentially making the end of your journey impossible. Along the way, text prompts depicting various in-game situations will pop up, demanding you make certain decisions. Some of these scenarios are trivial in nature. Others? Not so much. Make the wrong choice and some of your heroes will die, victim to your personal ineptitude.
Like the frozen diorama in which all these events play out, The Banner Saga is very, very pretty. Eschewing photorealism in favor of a 60's Disney vibe, The Banner Saga brims with panoramic shots of a hand-drawn, slightly squiggly landscape. The linework, though masterful, isn't perfect. Colors are light, animation sparse but precisely delivered. The music is gorgeous too, lonely and befitting the quiet magnitude of the snow-capped mountains and growing pandemonium. Then again, could you expect anything less from Journey's Austin Wintory? The Banner Saga can be vexing and the story aggravatingly opaque but there's a strange, beautiful world here that all but demands discovery. Make you sure you pack warm.
Plus, there's a guy there that totally has to be a tribute to Vikings' Floki.