2014 – The Banner Saga

“I was working at BioWare with my friends Alex Thomas and John Watson when the iPad came out. On the iPad was this totally cool game called Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery, and it was done by a small team. After working in large game development for 11 years we really wanted a change, so we determined to do a small game with just us, three guys.”

– Arnie Jorgensen,
Stoic Co-founder

The gods are dead, the sun has stopped moving, and now stone giants are raiding villages. This apocalyptic scenario is how The Banner Saga begins. Developed by a trio of ex-BioWare developers, it was one of the first big crowd-funded games, raising $723,886 dollars on Kickstarter in March 2012, a mere month after Double Fine’s Adventure appeared.

I was a backer, and it’s hard to explain today how bold their pitch was. Indie games were still novel and mostly stuck on retro pixel art, while turn-based games were considered outdated (this was before 2012’s XCOM helped revive the genre). And yet, just three guys were developing a trilogy of tactical RPGs with branching choices and a gorgeous 2D art inspired by Eyvind Earle’s work on Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.

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Released in 2014, the game can be split into three major elements: story decisions, caravan management, and the tactical combat. Despite being a tactical RPG, Banner Saga’s combat is rather controversial: units have armor, which absorbs damage, and health, which also doubles as the unit’s damage – so wounded units are weaker. That’s not bad, the problem is that the game uses a bizarre alternating turn system – if the enemy has two units and you have four, enemy units will play twice each. So killing a weak enemy means a stronger enemy now acts more, punishing the player.

It’s an obnoxious system, that dictates a strategy of wounding all enemies before killing any. The entire trilogy suffers from this but the first game is particularly bad due to poor enemy variety. You’ll get used to it, but it stops the combat from ever being truly satisfying.

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Still, it doesn’t ruin the game, for its combat’s true purpose is to frame the story. You alternate between two groups of characters – a hunter with his daughter, and a group of giants escorting a prince – as they try to survive the ongoing apocalypse. You’ll make several choices, such as sharing food with other survivors or not, and they have much heavier consequences than other RPGs, as over 20 unique characters can join you, abandon you or die depending on your choices.

That’s one of the biggest strengths of Banner Saga: its characters are believable and charismatic, but also actually vulnerable to your decisions – you might lose your favorite fighter right before an important battle.

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As the story progresses your caravan will travel across the world, rescuing villagers and dealing with random Oregon’s Trail-like events, such as thieves stealing supplies. It’s the weakest part of the game, barely impacting anything – the villagers don’t fight and the game won’t even react if they all starve to death.

Released two years after the first game, The Banner Saga 2 allows you to import your save file and continue right where the story left. This means not only that some characters might be dead depending on your choices, but even the game’s protagonist might be different. It is a daring choice, that lends weight to player choices, but also a massive burden to the developers, that now must write for two very distinct protagonists. The solution was a compromise: the main story is exactly the same for both, but some unique events and additional lines manage to make them feel distinct enough, especially in tone.

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Unfortunately, the story itself is a step back from the first game. As the second part of a trilogy, it’s so focused on setting up the finale that it ends up nullifying player choices in order to force certain events to happen. It also drags, having the same 8-10 hours length as the first game but very little real story progression.

While its story is a mixed bag, gameplay-wise the sequel is a solid improvement. New enemies and characters were added, bringing a much-needed variety to encounters, that now feature destructible obstacles and richer background art. The caravan management also saw improvements, but still fails to be interesting.

While the second part was self-funded, Stoic returned to Kickstarter for the final part of the trilogy. The campaign began in January 2017, already past the golden age of crowd-funding, raising $416,986 dollars – almost half of what they had achieved before. But it was enough, and The Banner Saga 3 came out in 2018.

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The pros and cons of crowd-funding are heavily felt, as the series’ art and animation reach their peak, but the extra characters promised as stretch goals are awkwardly thrown in. In fact, as a whole, the writing is at its weakest – if part two felt devoid of important events, part three throws them one after another, with no time to really explore them, often just adding “filler” battles between events to balance the pace.
By the trilogy’s finale the player has a massive rooster of heroes, but the new enemies are mostly just re-skins, failing to raise the stakes or challenge players. Similarly, new battle mechanics like enemy waves and environmental hazards don’t add much to the game.

The real improvement was replacing the caravan for a system where your actions, battles and choices with one party of heroes buys time for the other party to fulfill their goals. It’s a much more involved system and fits the trilogy perfectly, taking your entire saga into account – choices, the heroes that lived/died and even how many villagers your caravan had. This feeling of seeing choices across multiple games tie together into a conclusion is extremely powerful and rare, and that by itself might be enough reason to try the trilogy.

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The Banner Saga first appeared at the height of the Kickstarter craze, a bold indie title going against all industry norms with its 2D art & animation, turn-based combat and narrative focus. It’s success helped prove the viability of indie RPGs and was directly responsible for a new wave of tactical RPGs, such as Tahira: Echoes of the Astral Empire (2016) and Ash of Gods: Redemption (2018). The second and third parts of the trilogy didn’t reach the same cultural impact, but the entire saga is an impressive achievement and a must-play for fans of narrative-driven games. Felipe Pepe

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