Just 10 more days until Banner Saga 2 arrives, the second game on my must play list of 2016. Let’s just say, I’m excited and it’s not just because it’s a pretty game world, but because it makes you care as you trudge across the snowy landscape.
For those who haven’t delved, Banner Saga is a viking-inspired fantasy world with an RPG strategy set up that focus on a branching narrative, where your choices matter.
The sun is frozen, in the sky, resulting in an eternal twilight and the gods are long dead. We don’t know why either of these things have happened or why the characters seem resigned to it all and its the game’s reluctance to info dump backstory that I love. But I’m skipping ahead.
Here are my reasons why I love Banner Saga:
The first reason I love Banner Saga is because Vikings. Vikings rock. Maybe it’s because I’m from the Scottish Gunn clan, on my mother’s side or maybe it’s just a sailing and swords fetish (it’s not that), but I like anything with Vikings. Anything except ITV’s Beowulf travesty.
When it comes to gaming, Vikings have got it all. They are kick-ass men and women with swords, a yen for conquering far-off lands, a complex culture to be explored, awesome mythology and a gift for storytelling. Despite all this awesome, Vikings and Norse culture gets overlooked in games, unless you count identikit fantasy settings with a bit of Celtic knotwork on the save screen.
Banner Saga brings us Vikings without the bombast and swagger you’d expect, if you saw the concept written on paper. There are no horned helmets or people shouting for mead and throwing wenches over their shoulder. This feels like a team that knows its source material and hints at the depth of story through elements such as the godstones, the clothing, music and nuanced writing.
Okay, so it is Fricking Gorge
Yup, there’s no denying Banner Saga is one of the finest looking games ever to grace a screen. The beautiful hand drawn style harks back to the golden days of Disney. In fact, Eyvind Earle, the man responsible for the backgrounds and style of Disney’s 1959 Sleeping Beauty, is a direct influence on Banner Saga’s art. His brooding and starkly beautiful landscapes are echoed in the backgrounds of the game, to great effect.
The slow pace of the game fits the long, sinuous style of the art and the windscreen landscapes really bring home the feeling of a journey.
Normally, the bits where gameplay pauses to give you the stats are boring, but not in Banner Saga. The food, morale, money and people you’ve lost or gained all update as you watch the weary caravan of people trundle across an epic landscape of equally epic beauty. These are the moments that you realise how your choices have played out and the tangible consequences tally on-screen. It’s beautiful and tragic at the same time.
Equally, the character design is superb, as are the cultural details, such as jewellery, hair and architecture. From the Varl (giant horned men), to the individual humans and the overarching enemy, the Dredge. During dialogue scenes, snowflakes drift past or the wind ruffles the bearskin worn by a Varl, in partially animated scenes, which give the whole thing a graphic novel feel.
We all know I’m a sucker for cel-shading and Banner Saga more than satisfies that. In fact, I want Banner Saga art on my wall, it’s that good.
The howling wind, the crunch of the wagon wheels over the snowy wastes or the crackle of a fire and the low, Norse voices of the choral soundtrack – all these things work to immerse you in this bleak world.
Stoic have written a story that trusts you. We’re never given the long prologue explaining the world and introducing the characters, we’re just dropped into the story. There’s no hand-holding, just subtle characterisation. And in part, you’re responsible for building those characters. You can decide how Rook reacts, when you find travellers on the road who ask for help and whether you settle an argument with a fight or diplomacy.
Rook’s relationship with his daughter, Alette, is central to the story. She rejects the traditional role for girls and picks up a bow and arrow (not a sword, but hey). In fact, she was one of my best fighters and always went into battle, often turning the combat in my favour. It would have been nice to see a female Varl and a shield maiden, but maybe that’s coming in Banner Saga 2.
Needless to say, I think everyone’s heart broke at the end of Banner Saga. Thanks, Stoic. Banner Saga is bleak without being Fallout-style depressing and I think that’s down to its pacing and focus on the characters, rather than the shooting and carnage. And it’s bright, cold beauty helps.
If you haven’t played Banner Saga yet, you’ve got 10 days before the sequel hits. It’s not a perfect game, but it’s got a lot going for it. I’m expecting Stoic to improve on the first game and really hit the mark with Banner Saga 2. Somehow, I don’t think it’s going to be a happy ending, though.
What were your favourite bits of Banner Saga? What are you hoping for from Banner Saga 2? Let me know.