When I sat down to write about The Banner Saga, there was one thing I knew I needed to point out. More than the fact that the game is a perfect example of when Kickstarter Projects work, more than the fact that it is a superb tactical RPG, the game is gorgeous in nearly every way you can imagine. Music, art and story combine to make an experience that feels unique yet incredibly nostalgic. So, instead of a standard review of this game in terms of the gameplay, let’s talk about the aesthetics of The Banner Saga, and why they deserve your attention.
I think it makes the most sense to start by talking about the narrative of Stoic’s RPG. The whole thing bleeds Norse Mythology, but does so without falling into any real fantasy tropes (except for Vikings having beards….but that more than excusable, it’s required.) Sure, it’s a fantasy setting, but there’s so many fresh takes on the standard archetypes that the entire tale doesn’t fall into any fantasy cookie cutter molds that you might be expecting. It’s just different enough for you to have sit up and pay attention, but remains familiar enough that your not going to be taking notes. The world of The Banner Saga is inhabited by Humans, Varl (think uber-Vikings with horns), Menders (an enigmatic group of sorcerers with varying powers) and The Dredge (a mineralogical race of pillagers). They’re all brand new concepts, and it’s a breath of fresh air to have an entirely new universe to get lost in. Don’t mistake me; when I say it’s a universe, I mean it is a universe. The world building at work in this game is phenomenal, and all the evidence you need is revealed when you open the game’s map.
You touch maybe a third of what is shown on the in-game map, but you owe it to the team at Stoic to spend some time with a cup of tea, slowly exploring this cartographic work of art. Tiny hamlets and rivers have been given rich back stories. Swamps you never see in-game are the sites of great historical battles and legends. The best part is that nothing is given to you outright. This creates the wonderful sense that there is real depth to the world, which immediately add credibility to the setting. One of the best examples of this is the Godstones, which sort of serve as markers of your progress throughout the game. Each is a testament to a god; some Human, some Varl, and each has nuances and hidden meanings that are almost entirely hidden behind a wall of conversation options. Sure, your likely to delve deeper into the tales and events that occur at each of the Godstone, but you are never forced to. By giving us the option to ignore them, Stoic is earning major points in storytelling.
I was torn as played the game, since so much of the story and lore is left entirely up to the player to encounter, dig up, or stumble across, and all of it is really very good.I’m a complete lore junky, and I just know that some players won’t encounter half of what has been written and carefully constructed, and that saddens me. Nevertheless, it’s a very mature and tempered decision on the part of Stoic to not shove the universe down our throats, and instead let us slowly uncover it for ourselves as the story unfolds.
The story and lore of The Banner Saga frame a gorgeous, colorful world. The art direction of the game is incredible, and I can only describe it as nostalgic. The bright colors and a crisp animated style reminds me of some of my fondest cinematic experiences as a kid; the 1977 Hobbit film, Classic Disney animation like The Sword in the Stone or The Black Cauldron, and Studio Ghibli films (had they been made in Norway or Iceland). Huge parts of the game will be spent watching your caravan slowly trudgethrough a number of different landscapes; some are blanketed in ice and snow, others densely forested, and still others ruined, charred countrysides. I expected snowy tundra’s (I mean, it is a Viking game…snow is as likely to show up as mead…), but was pleasantly surprised by the variety of environments you encounter.
I was particularly impressed by, yet again, the Godstones. This time, it wasn’t as world building devices, but purely as works of art. While the majority of the game has a clean, crisp feel to it, the Godstone’s have been drawn and created in a way that convey’s incredible age. They look worn, gritty and overgrown, while the rest of the game world looks fresh and crisp. It’s a great dichotomy of style that, while the characters and environments looks relatively new in their artistic direction, the Godstones look they could have been taken from a Nordic tapestry. This incredibly effective dissonance instantly makes you realize that your’e looking at something ancient, which is of course, the point.
When you inevitably do end up fighting in the game, the battlefields are beautifully laid out, achieving a balance between scene setting and functionality. While I often got pulled into the combat, I tried to absorb the borders of the battlefield, which was of course made difficult by the fact that Dredge kept throwing firebombs, or beating a characters face in, or swarming my caravan (Hint: I wouldn’t say that I’m *hrumph* good at Tactical RPG’s) . Some of these battlefields were dense forests, devoid of life, but other times you’ll see figures fighting their own battles in the background , immediately making you feel like you are part of a larger narrative.
If the story is framed by the artistic direction of the game, than the entire thing is perfectly lighted by the stirring soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory. Flowing, orchestral, and slightly brooding at times, the music has a very old world feel about it. There’s a substantial amount of chanting, which alone would set the mood of a viking-fantasy pretty damn well. The strings carry slightly morose themes throughout the game, bolstered by horns.
The best part is that a pretty big chunk of the game is spent just walking. This means that you’re pretty much forced to acknowledge the music. Lots of people love video game music, but there’s something special about The Banner Saga’s Soundtrack: it’s not all that uplifting. This game isn’t exactly happy, and the tale is at times downright depressing. The music is very good at creating a sense of doom and desperation, which is exactly what you should feel when you’re leading a caravan of refugee’s away from what could be the ending of the world.
Aesthetics are a funny thing; art is entirely subjective, and in the eye’s of the beholder. Yet, there’s something special about the combination of narrative, art style and music in The Banner Saga that stood out to me. Plenty of games look good, but you don’t always find a game that truly feels beautiful. Stoic should be congratulated on their vision of this new fantasy world. The game is fantastically designed on top of that, combining caravan management mechanics along the lines of The Oregon Trail (but with a tad more Ragnarok) with deep, sometimes frustrating, but clearly well thought out tactical combat. The game is fairly short, but hints at enough possibilities in the story line to warrant a second playthrough. Stoic has also affirmed that, even despite their recent legal battles with King Studios over the ownership of the word “Saga”, that more adventures in the world of The Banner Saga will be coming down the line. And, if anyone has the right to use the word Saga, it’s the poetic, painterly epic that is The Banner Saga.