Previews// The Banner Saga

Posted 8 Jan 2014 14:45 by
Games have evolved into something that none of us could have possibly imagined 10 years prior. Developers have become better and better at exploiting the increasingly powerful hardware they have at their disposal.

Many have assumed that this would generate 'photo realistic graphics' and looking at how things have progressed in this regard many would assume to be the case. But there is much more happening in the world of games beyond motion captured nose hairs.

Thanks to the vast storage vessel in the form of copious amounts of RAM games have way more depth to them. This is aptly demonstrated with The Banner Saga, a game that wades deep into the mine of data to create something can that can only be described as spellbinding.

The Banner Saga takes place in an alternate iron age Scandinavia, where humans rub shoulders/knee-caps with horned giants known as Varl. The humans and Varl live and work together mostly harmoniously via an alliance that is constantly under threat from being torn apart.

The only thing that binds these two people's together is the threat of the dredge. These are golem like creatures that were thought to be extinct but have now returned in vast numbers for reasons few can fathom.

The Banner Saga is a tactical RPG and like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force before it, the game uses the triumvirate of tactical combat, character development and story progression to engage the player and get them to forge ahead with battle after battle to the game's conclusion.

The Banner Saga differentiates itself from the host of tactical RPGs by two key components: branching storyline that alters the outcome of the game and a startlingly beautiful art style that is similar to the works of Don Bluth (Dragon's Lair) and Ralph Bakshi (The Lord of the Rings).

The game is split into three elements. The first is the 'rest areas' as I started to call them while I played the preview code. These are respites that afford the player to level up the characters, buy supplies and items and also engage in conversation with key people in order to progress the narrative.

The second is the travelling between these respite areas, which is represented in a wonderfully animated 2D caravan trail with a long fluttering banner hanging over it as the arduous march across the snowy Nordic wastes progresses.

During these marches incidents occur that require the player to make choices about what actions to take. These can vary from corralling deserting warriors to curing sick cattle. Every decision made impacts on the overall story as some actions earn the player renown, the main currency to the game and they can also result in some Game of Thrones-like ends to characters.

The third element is the very core of The Banner Saga and that is the combat. As explained previously this is a tactical RPG and therefore follows the traditional turn based system that is prevalent in this genre. The play area is an isometric square tiled map with humans and smaller dredge taking up one space and larger creatures such as Varl and heavy dredge taking up four spaces.

Characters from both sides of combat alternate between themselves and based on their agility have a limited amount of spaces than can move. Varl and large dredge move very slowly, but hit very hard. Humans and smaller dredge are very quick and some can launch ranged attacks, keeping them out of reach of many foes.

All characters are split into classes that have special abilities that when used judiciously can turn the tide of battle very quickly. Some of these abilities are offensive in that they cause significant amount of damage that can even be ongoing in some instances.

This is especially useful for smaller units as they can dart in, deliver a 'bleeding' wound and dart away leaving the enemy to die from their injuries. There are also defensive abilities that either aid ally characters or create enhanced defences for the unit casting the effect.

Attacks are carried out when enemies are in range and the player can choose to either take down their armour or their health. The higher the armour, the less amount of health is lost due to the attack. It's also possible to deflect the attack entirely if the armour is at a sufficient level.

This is represented by a percentage chance to hit within the health marker when choosing which attack type to commit to. It is this reason that during the initial stages of any combat, it's advisable to reduce the armour as much as possible before taking on the enemies health. But there is always renown to spend that can make things a little easier.

The Banner Saga makes use of renown during combat by giving characters that little bit more power to inflict more damage and/or to cast their respective special abilities. All characters start with a pool of renown, which is depleted very quickly during the initial stages of battle as the combat starts with a flurry of blows until it moves into a more slower paced attrition form of combat.

More renown can be earned during combat as foes are slain. This creates a pool of renown that all players can draw from as they collectively take heart from the victories their allies are accumulating, effectively simulating the effect morale can have on combatants.

I found this to be an extremely entertaining and gripping combat system and it did much to keep me sat in front of my PC into the twilight hours. You can experience this yourself for free via the multiplayer version of the game that is currently available on Steam.

As you can probably tell I'm rather enamoured with The Banner Saga. It is far more than the sum of its parts and the world Stoic have created with it is deep as it is fascinating.

This is despite the crashes, grammar/spelling issues in the text and placeholder code for the character's abilities, which I'm sure will be resolved upon its release this month.

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Asa 8 Jan 2014 15:19
Nice review. But you got renown and willpower confused in your review. Renown is the currency you gain by winning combats and spend to level up your units and buy items and supplies. Willpower is the currency you spend in-combat to move extra squares, do more damage and use special abilities.
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