The Banner Saga review
No good deed goes unpunished in this crowdfunded passion project from a trio of ex-BioWare devs. The Banner Saga is a Kickstarter game that takes the first part of the word all too literally, repeatedly laying the boot in while you're at your most vulnerable. It may ostensibly be a turn-based strategy game with light RPG elements and some Walking Dead-esque moral dilemmas, but in your slow march across an inhospitable landscape, it most often resembles The Oregon Trail. Progress is arduous, supplies are continually dwindling, and members of your caravan repeatedly cark it. The main difference between the two is that here you're more likely to contract pneumonia than dysentery.
The harsh conditions it enforces are a perfect fit for this world. Stoic's semi-fantastical Norse setting is beautiful, but by golly is it bleak. "The gods are dead" are the first words you'll see as the story kicks off, and it only gets worse for your band of bedraggled heroes. The sun has gone, leaving the world in a perpetual half-light, while just about everywhere you travel is covered in a thick blanket of snow. Meanwhile, a race of armoured enemies called The Dredge are massacring anyone and everyone, forcing you to hurriedly abandon each settlement you find. People here aren't living, but surviving - and barely.
Though the narrative shifts between the perspectives of a handful of characters, whoever you're currently playing is always the chief decision maker. As you guide a caravan of clansmen, fighters, and the imposing Varl - a race of horned giants who've formed an uneasy alliance with humankind - you'll see your troops trudging wearily along, a counter at the top of the screen showing the days passing by, your supplies depleting every time the number ticks upwards. Every so often, your journey will be interrupted with a text prompt, forcing you to make a decision that may or may not have a significant impact on your quest. You might have to mediate in a quarrel between unnamed clansmen, choose the punishment for a mead-stealing companion, or decide whether or not to allow your group to rest their weary limbs in a suspiciously abandoned and dilapidated village.
The beauty of The Banner Saga's choices is that the consequences are unpredictable. There's no "Eyrind will remember this" here. You simply won't know at the time whether the call you're about to make will be of minor importance in the grand scheme of things, or end up having a calamitous long-term impact on your caravan. What seems like the smart choice can end up biting you on the backside, and Stoic do a devious line in misdirection. At one stage, I spent an hour or so worrying about a particularly volatile addition to the camp, only to discover that I'd been keeping an eye on the wrong man, while a later attempt to raise the morale of the party backfired horribly. And in a world where death is around every corner, it's no surprise that Stoic's scriptwriters are as quick to kill off key characters as George RR Martin. Likeable party members perish heroically (and sometimes ingloriously), while apparent cannon-fodder characters linger on.
Failures can be devastating, and it's frequently tempting to reload your last save (the game periodically records your progress to allow this). And yet screwing up is kind of the point. You're not really a hero - in each case you're a reluctant leader tasked with making impossible choices under extreme pressures. The results may at times seem random, and yet its apparent capriciousness feels strangely honest. Trying to do the right thing doesn't always work out, and living with your mistakes can be hard; yet you must press on regardless. These are pretty universal truths, and it's refreshing to find a game that doesn't try to sugar-coat them.
These dilemmas aren't the only interruptions to your journey. Every so often you'll be thrust into battle, tackling a selection of Dredge (or, less often, human and Varl opponents) in short, grid-based skirmishes. Select your party members - up to a maximum of six - and you'll be given a limited space to position them before it all kicks off. Then you'll take it in turns with your enemy to move a single unit, choosing whether to attack or use that character's special ability. The latter uses willpower, a finite resource that can be regained by resting for a turn, or by slaying an enemy. You can also use it to boost your movement range or increase attack power, which opens up a number of tactical possibilities.