With all the events that unfolded last week I was expecting to spend my time enjoying a game of organizing pieces of candy by color, albeit to a stylized viking backdrop. Imagine my disappointment when Banner Saga not only deviated from the in-depth matching system we’ve all come to know and love, but the game in question didn’t even feature a candy in sight.  Needless to say, this is probably the worst game in the series for the makers of Candy Crush.  It’s almost as if it was made by an entirely different studio, with an entirely different game in mind.  That said, despite disappointment at the lack of candy and or matching, the game turned out to be beautiful in its own right.

Banner Saga got its start in kickstarter as a project from Stoic studios. The studio is compromised of more than a few ex-bioware employees, all with a passion for strategy and story telling.  Players follow the journey of not one, but several characters as they travel in caravan across a nordic landscape where the gods are dead and the sun no longer rises.  Through the game’s story, players will be met with difficult decisions that will influence the course of their adventure, with choices often having far-reaching consequences that might not be noticeable until it’s too late.

At its core, Banner Saga is a tactics game reminiscent of Fire Emblem. Combat is done on a grid, where each unit takes up a space.  Players have the option of placing their units in a particular formation before the battle begins.  Once underway, combat proceeds with each side taking turns to move or attack. The bottom left hand of the screen gives players a move order, so they can see when each character takes their turn.  This can be very beneficial when it comes to devising a strategy by letting players see the order of attack and who poses a bigger threat.

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Archers in the back. Always.

As the battle continues, players will start seeing how complicated it can quickly become.  A unit’s attributes are broken up into strength, armor and willpower.  Strength is shown in red, and signifies not only a unit’s health pool but also the amount of damage they can inflict.  The more damage that is done to a unit’s strength, the less damage they will do in return.  While it may seem like a straightforward tactic to just attack an enemy’s strength, the issue is complicated by the presence of armor.  Armor, shown in blue, mitigates damage done.  What’s more, for every point in armor that exceeds the attacking unit’s strength, it reduces their chance to hit.  Players can get around this by directly attacking armor, thus reducing its effectiveness to future attacks.  Adding to the system is also willpower, which can be used to bolster the power of attacks, or the movement space available during a turn.  However, willpower does not regenerate even after battle, so players will have to think of the best time to make use of it.  The downside is that the game can at times be cryptic with how abilities and combat play out, leaving the player to spend a lot of time training to figure things out.  Other times I found myself failing to understand certain mechanics during combat, only to have them explained at a later stage after, long after they would have been useful.  The pacing of the tutorial can seem a bit erratic at times.

Despite that, the attributes add a deeper level of strategy to combat, where players will often find themselves adapting different tactics based on the enemy at hand.  While some battles may be easily won by relying heavily on offense, others may see players forced into a defensive role only to incur heavy losses.  Luckily the game does not implement a permanent death system (at least not in combat, but more of that later).  Instead, units who fall during battle will get penalties to their strength.  Those penalties will last through other battles unless the units are allowed to rest for an allotted amount of time.  However, thanks to the choices made in the game, it is entirely possible for players to find themselves in the midst of battle without any reprieve.

When out of combat however, the game takes a different approach entirely.  What begins as a tactics styled game suddenly becomes Oregon Trail, but with vikings.  Between battles, players load a caravan with clansmen, soldiers, and supplies and head out to traverse a large landscape.  As the days go by, supplies dwindle and morale gets lower.  Players can set up camp to raise their morale, but at the risk of wasting time and even more supplies.   Throughout the trek players will run across other outposts, villages, and other NPC’s.  Brief interactions with them will often allow for choices to be made.  These choices can mean the difference between gaining a few more days worth of supplies, or entering into an unexpected battle of overwhelming odds. Those choices compromise a very important aspect of the game as well.

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16 days on the road, 12 days of rations left, 377 clansmen and 67 Fighters. Maybe I should’ve picked the Banker to start.

Stoic’s experience at Bioware shows that they’re no strangers to dynamic story telling , and it definitely shows.  The choices presented within the game take a more mature role than what is presented in most RPG’s.  The decisions made do not follow an arbitrary system of whether a player wants to be good or evil, but rather try to reflect the actual decisions a person would make.  For example, during my travels I made a costly mistake which caused me to lose several supplies.  Looking at the counter, I only had about 3 days of supplies left for my entire caravan and still another 8 days left until my next stopping point.  It was then that I came across a group of farmers with livestock and plenty of supplies.  My first option was to warn them of the incoming danger, and ask them to join our caravan.  The farmer refused to budge, stating that he would rather die than leave his land.  When I asked for some supplies he brushed me off and refused, stating that the supplies were for his family.  I was then presented with several choices; do I attack and take the supplies by force?  Do I threaten the farmer and take what I need so my people can survive? Or do I simply respect his wishes and keep on my journey, knowing that I won’t have enough supplies for everyone to reach the next town alive?

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“Letters of resignation” are handled a little differently

While for some it might seem like the obvious choice to look out for ones own and take the supplies, the choice has more far-reaching consequences than just a nameless farmer left to starve.  That choice can cause a loss in morale, which then can cause clansmen and soldiers to leave.  As the caravan gets smaller, other challenges can become increasingly more difficult.  A random encounter which requires a lot of man power might now be impossible and the end result becomes more lives being lost, all for a few extra days worth of supplies.  Of course choices are not limited to just random encounters, but make up a big part of the overall story.  Attending a meeting with an official can introduce you to a character that later on may cause the death of someone close to you.  Other times choosing to forgo a drink can be the difference between saving the lives of thousands or getting caught unawares.  Because the long-term impact of some decisions is impossible to tell, players are left with making the best decision at the moment and hoping for the best.  It helps create a more organic choice system which guides an already rich and interactive story that adapts to the player’s choices.

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And just like real life, there’s always that one guy who drinks way too much and ruins it for everybody

Visually the game takes inspiration from animators like Eyvind Earle, Don Bluth and other Disney animators.  Most of the animation sequences, backgrounds and characters are hand-drawn, adding a distinctive style.  While they take inspiration from Nordic themes, Stoic took the time to create their own mythology and lore. This added to the over all atmosphere of the game, giving a sense of wonderment and encouraging players to seek out the lore within the game.  Along with the art, the sound track accompanies it well reflecting the bleak, frozen land players traverse through.  What comes out is a beautiful blend in terms of design and story.  Banner Saga is the first chapter in an expected trilogy, so there are still two more stories to come.  Unfortunately, it seems that parts of the story were held off until future installments, leaving some plot lines unfulfilled. Regardless, the game itself is beautiful in its own right and worth looking into.

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GAH! Stupid twig in the way of my perfect panoramic shot.

Banner Saga: No Candies in Sight
Gameplay8.3
Story8.9
Art9.5
Sound9.1
The Good
  • Comabt is fun and in-depth once fully understood
  • Choice system allows for great replayability
  • Art and music style is very captivating
The Bad
  • tutorial can be erratic, leaving players to figure out things themselves
  • The game is chapter 1 in a trilogy, so parts of the story are brought up and not adressed or plotlines seem forgotten probably awaitng future installments.
9Overall Score
Reader Rating: (5 Votes)
8.3

About The Author

Enrique C
Editor-in-Chief

There's no problem that can't be fixed with fire. Doesn't matter what game. If that doesn't work, use more.