Pop quiz, hot shot: if I tell you that this week’s Indie Wonderland is about a fairly high-profile Kickstarter game that’s finally come home to roost — and assuming you haven’t already seen the title or the featured image, both of which kind of give the answer away immediately — which game would you guess I’m talking about? Yeah, that’s right: clearly, the single most influential name in Kickstarter gaming as of right now is Stoic Studio‘s The Banner Saga, their purportedly epic turn-based tale of giants and Vikings and pretty, pretty artwork.
We’re all on the same page here, right? I mean, I wouldn’t even know how to break an age. Do you just… tear a calendar in half, or something? Is that how it goes?
(Spoiler levels: Narrative, low. Mechanical, fairly high.)
The Banner Saga drew quite some attention in Kickstarter-land during its funding run, as the 623% achieved funding attests to. Some of that attention was due to its entry into the relatively sparse (particularly on the PC) turn-based tactical RPG genre. Some of it was due to its setting, which promised a Nordic world of giants and ice without falling into tired Thor and Odin and Valhalla tropes. And some of it was due to its amazing game and concept art, which promised a game that would, in its own way, be a treat for the eyes.
I bring this up here because this is The Banner Saga’s opening screen:
As fancy as the title screen is, though, so lack-a-fancy are the options. And by that I mean that these are they:
No graphical options at all, no control options at all, and the extent of the audio options offered is the ability to mute the sound effects and/or the music. In fact, let me boldly reiterate that: the only option of note The Banner Saga gives you is turning off the sound completely. What are volume control sliders and subtitles? I don’t even know.
What does it say about a game when the difficulty settings are the most in-depth option panel you’ll encounter?
No, but that’s a lie: there’s a whole infrastructure in place for creating your own heraldry. Which, you know, I can sort of see being a big deal for a game called ‘The Banner Saga’. That said, don’t expect anything like Diablo III’s create-a-flag system: The Banner Saga just offers a massive list of predesigned flags. Some of them pretty fancy, some of them… less so. ‘Thanks to the Kickstarter backers for the crest designs’, the screen states, and it’s actually pretty easy to pick out which flags have come from that particular pool.
Disappointing options and mixed-bag flags are only a small part of the overall experience, though. Let’s see if the actual game manages to provide a better first impression.
The intro is a two-parter. First, in moving text over a blurred-out map, I’m hit with a brief crawl of The Banner Saga’s most important backstory elements. Which go like this: the gods are dead. Men and giants have teamed up to fight and defeat something called the dredge. Now everything is fine and it will be fine forever, except for that the sun has stopped moving in the sky.
And hey, wouldn’t you know it? That does provide a better first impression. I’m intrigued.
The second part of the intro follows what looks like a small caravan of tall horned fellows — giants, I assume? — as they walk past incredibly beautiful hand-crafted visas. A voice talks over this section: first in a Norse variant I can’t understand, then in English. And while I’d love to be able to tell you what that voice is saying, the fact of the matter is that I’m a little hard of hearing and I can’t really hear it very well. Maybe if I could’ve adjusted the sound effects and the music volumes, or if I could’ve opted for subtitles… but alas. Let it be known that the intro-voice is probably saying very interesting things.
As the caravan reaches a city, The Banner Saga switches to full-on animation mode for a moment. I get a close-up of the stoic, thousand-yard-stare giants as they lumber past silent, staring humans. The giants walk up to a large central building, but find it locked: apparently, a battle of sorts is going on inside!
Of course, when talking about giants, ‘locked’ is a relative term.
And then suddenly the animation ends, lines grow a little crisper, a coloured grid is drawn, and I find myself in the middle of battle.
No, but seriously. The transition from intro to battle is almost seamless.
Using the time-tested method of heavily scripted tutorial battle, The Banner Saga wastes no time in getting me into the thick of things. But not before showing off its graphical prowess just one last time:
Combat in The Banner Saga is a turn-based round-robin kind of affair. Turns alternate between characters on different teams: each turn, one character from a given team can act, based on an in-team initiative order. And these two initiative orders are woven together. I have two guys, while the enemy team has four: that means the current order is MyGuy1, TheirGuy1, MyGuy2, TheirGuy2, MyGuy1 again, TheirGuy3, MyGuy2 again, TheirGuy4.
Of course, that’s the way the turn order is right now. As soon as some of their guys start dropping…
In-turn, The Banner Saga’s options are fairly limited. A character can move, or not, and they can perform one (other) action. Regular movement allowance is visualized by the blue squares on the screen. I can also opt to move into the yellow squares, but that drains something called Willpower.
I move my giant — ‘varl’ — Shieldbanger in range of the one human unfortunate enough to actually be in range. As for my actions, I can either end my turn there, or attack the human in one of two ways:
The red option, Strength, is a direct attack of sorts. All characters have a Strength stat, which serves as both their hit points total and their physical prowess in battle. Reducing an enemy’s Strength makes them less dangerous in battle as well as being the main way of taking them out of it.
When performing a Strength attack, the game deals damage equal to my Strength minus enemy Armor to enemy Strength. So right now, my Strength is 9, enemy Armor is 4, so I deal 5 damage. Which is actually a pretty good result, because it turns the enemy soldier from a semi-credible threat into a crumpled heap on the floor.
The blue option, Armor, simply reduces enemy Armor by the given amount, without any sort of opposed calculation. It’s not something I need, right now… but the enemy soldiers, already at low Strength, can’t really do a whole lot against my varls’ formidable Armor.
My Shieldbanger smacks a human. Another human walks up and attacks me, but deals minimal damage. Then, my Warhawk — who actually has a name, Gunnulf — moves in range of two additional soldiers, and uses Willpower to activate his special ability. This special ability involves swinging his massive sword in a massive arc to deal massive damage.
Every character has one active special ability, and one passive one. The active ability costs Willpower to activate. Willpower is actually sort of an all-round emergency resource: next to abilities and extending movement range, it can also be used to boost Strength or Armor damage in an attack. Handy thing to have, that, so it’ll obviously be limited. Characters are also limited in the amount of Willpower they can spend on any single action.
Dropping these two humans means only the bandit chieftain is still around. This activates ‘Pillage mode’, which changes the turn-taking system: instead of the complex interweaving of teams of earlier, each turns just consists of each character moving in initiative order. A good thing for me, I guess: the Chieftain would have been able to move and attack twice as often as me otherwise. Even moreso if I’d brought more varl.
I don’t have to spell out how this battle ends, do I?
Victory spills into another short cutscene, consisting of the mayor of this village monologuing while my varl stand silent. He asks for my help, in a roundabout way. I don’t see an option to accede or refuse, but then, does it ever work differently in games?
The cutscene drops to an overview shot of the town. Before I can do anything, though, I’m quickly yanked back into… no, this isn’t a cutscene. It looks like it — it definitely has the same level of graphical quality — but this is actually a dialogue intermission. In it, I find myself taking the role of a purple-garbed grey-haired giant called Ubin.
In dialogue, I agree to help the mayor and his bandit problems. I still don’t think I could actually have refused, but it’s nice to feel included.
The screen cuts back to the city again, and I finally get a chance to look around.
Mousing over the UI at the top, I can see I have 5 ‘Renown’ — which I actually won in the battle I just fought — 100 ‘Days of Supplies’, 32 varl in my caravan, and ‘Great Morale’. I don’t actually know what any of this means, yet, but hey. I also click around the city for a little bit, but nothing seems to happen. Do I… do I do anything?…
Oh, hey, look at that: one building has a bright blue outline, and a bright blue scribble floating over it. It takes me a little while to puzzle out that the scribble says ‘Market’, and even longer to recall that that is where I’m supposed to be going.
A dialogue scene, in which I intimidate a man with a swanky hat. Back to the cityscape, where I have to click on the ‘Mead House’. A brief popup, where I’m presented with three choices as to how to proceed. And blam, we’re in battle again.
I actually get to change my starting formation before engaging here. Besides that, it’s second verse, same as the first: they have a bunch of poorly-armed humans, I have literal giants — as well as some humans, this time — so the eventual outcome is pretty much guaranteed from the get-go.
Okay, that’s not entirely true: as this battle is against a large number of actually prepared fighters, I have a much harder time with it. I whittle their numbers down fairly fast, but I can’t prevent two of my number — Gunnulf, and What’s-His-Name-What-Just-Joined — from falling. This upsets me, a little, because I know what games like this like to pull. I’ve played Fire Emblem. Does them going down in this battle mean they’re gone from my roster forever?
Apparently not, because Gunnulf reports promotion readiness at battle’s end.
More dialogue cutscene. More giants, with more names. As well as a smug-ass human prince, I guess. I don’t want to go into the story too much here, partially because of spoilers and partially because I’m not entirely sure what’s going on, here? But my best guess is that my caravan is making trading / tithing rounds, and there’s also something going on with a human-varl alliance in the making, and since there’s no reason to hang around in this brigand-infested shithole of a town any longer we might as well bail.
Not far from town, The Banner Saga hits me with a massive lore-dump in the form of an interactive map. I… on the one hand, I appreciate the effort that’s obviously gone into all this world-building? But on the other hand, we’re talking an immense, scrolling map, where clicking on any and every part provides a little history-related vignette. Do you have any idea how dangerous something like that is to someone like me?
I click around here and there in my direct vicinity, until I feel I have a good idea of what the names I’ve seen pop up mean. I still don’t know exactly what’s going on, but I do know that for reasons of human-varl alliance, this caravan — now +1 Prince — is going to Grofheim. And if I know my political thrillers, Viking or no, this is going to involve splinter factions, intrigue, and the occasional assassination attempt. Right?
It’s probably not going to involve any robots, is what I’m guessing here.
Be back once my caravan safely reaches Grofheim, I guess!