The Ban­ner Saga

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Gun­nulf is dead. His body lies twisted and bro­ken at the bot­tom of a snowy cliff, the wreck­age of a pre­cious sup­ply cart scat­tered about his still form. The worst part? It was our hubris that got him killed. We as­sumed that the Varl war­rior – a race of horned gi­ants, each one a ti­tan on the bat­tle­field – could eas­ily haul an es­cap­ing wagon back from the precipice if we bought him the time to do it. We looked at the list of op­tions be­neath the event de­scrip­tion and chose the one that matched our the­ory. We could not have been more wrong.

So when we say that your de­ci­sions feel like they mat­ter in The Ban­ner Saga, that’s no over­state­ment. Stoic’s Vik­ing-themed quest may not quite go to the ex­tent of dish­ing out per­madeath as an au­to­matic con­se­quence for fall­ing in bat­tle, but it’s still as un­yield­ing as per­mafrost, its text trees leading to losses that bite as deep as any Nordic win­ter. Such dilem­mas are an ex­hil­a­rat­ing shock to the sys­tem af­ter years of bi­nary moral de­ci­sions in games, the story’s pal­ette of greys only made harder to dis­tin­guish against a back­drop blan­keted in pure white snow as you’re driven on­wards by an­cient ob­sid­ian en­e­mies.

That story has its roots in refugeeism and the hard­ships of war, but it’s em­broi­dered with myth, deal­ing in long-dead gods, the mis­be­hav­ing sun, and a re­lent­less mechanoid force called the Dredge, who have re­cov­ered their strength af­ter a war aeons ago. There’s a lot of lore to ab­sorb, plus a large cast, and the writ­ing can creak like sheet ice un­der the weight of it all. There are also rare times when the de­sign­ers’ needs in­trude on your agency – though like The Walk­ing Dead, you’ll feel these more on a sec­ond playthrough. On your first run, you’ll likely be too en­tranced to no­tice ei­ther, the saga de­riv­ing sig­nif­i­cant emo­tional weight by mainly fo­cus­ing on the plights of two camps. One is a po­lit­i­cal pow­der keg, with a haughty prince rub­bing up against a Varl war­rior pro­moted to lead­er­ship by the death of his kin. The other is led by Rook, a fam­ily man who in­her­its a vil­lage to care for early in the tale and then slowly gath­ers men-at-arms to his ban­ner. Each car­a­van also ac­cu­mu­lates an ar­ray of named war­riors, most far more nu­anced than their tired fan­tasy genre peers.

Like the many-threaded story, the game it­self is a braid­ing to­gether of strands. One sees your camps roam­ing the coun­try­side, each troupe por­trayed side-on as the beau­ti­ful and in­tri­cately painted world par­al­lax scrolls by like a HD up­date of the Bayeux Ta­pes­try. Your task is to man­age your party’s sup­plies and morale, all the while be­set by a pa­rade of bril­liantly cruel choices. Do you give an ap­par­ently starv­ing group a home in your car­a­van, know­ing full well that they might be ban­dits, but con­demn­ing them to starve if they’re hon­est? Do you get in­volved in pre­vent­ing in­jus­tice, po­ten­tially tak­ing on the bur­den of yet more hun­gry mouths to feed? Noth­ing is clear cut. Even ap­par­ently triv­ial de­ci­sions, such as set­ting up camp for a day or two to boost the wilt­ing es­prit de corps, start to prey on your mind when the Dredge are nip­ping at your heels and you’re just five meals away from mass star­va­tion.

Since there are few right an­swers and Vik­ing blood runs hot, you’ll make plenty of en­e­mies in your quest for sur­vival. When the fight­ing starts, it’s turn based, play­ing out on square grids with a se­lec­tion of your van­guard ren­dered in beau­ti­fully an­i­mated cartoon form. The stats list looks daunt­ing at first, but the ba­sics are sim­pler than a glance sug­gests, with the key in­for­ma­tion dis­played on each unit’s ban­ner. The Strength bar en­cap­su­lates both its hit­ting power and hit points, mean­ing dam­aged units be­come less ef­fec­tive killers. The Ar­mour bar nat­u­rally re­duces dam­age taken, but the twist is that at­tacks to break ar­mour don’t deal nor­mal dam­age. And so skir­mishes be­come an­other del­i­cate bal­ance, each one an ex­er­cise in re­duc­ing your op­po­si­tion’s de­fences enough to get a few good hits in with­out let­ting your own units be whit­tled down. Deft sys­tems and the in­ter­links be­tween travel and fight­ing keep the easy-to-learn com­bat sat­is­fy­ing hours into the ad­ven­ture. Ev­ery­one has a stat called Willpower, for in­stance, which fu­els over­stretch­ing. You can use it to boost ei­ther kind of at­tack dam­age, power the cast’s ar­ray of spe­cial abil­i­ties and to move far­ther than nor­mal. Ju­di­cious use can turn the tide of bat­tle, but Willpower is di­rectly tied to your party’s morale. You’ll feel its loss if you don’t cater for hap­pi­ness.

Wars, mean­while, en­gage your en­tire car­a­van, com­par­ing them to the amassed en­e­mies and then let­ting you pick your ap­proach in bat­tle. Charg­ing into the dan­ger­ous heart of com­bat yourself saves lives, but he­roes who fall un­der your com­mand fight at re­duced ef­fec­tive­ness un­til they re­cu­per­ate, which takes days.

And you’ll soon start set­ting up dev­as­tat­ing chain re­ac­tions. Rook’s spe­cial abil­ity, for in­stance, marks a tar­get for ev­ery ally in range to at­tack at once, while strip­ping a Dredge of enough ar­mour in a turn will have knock-on ef­fects for units around it. There’s more than enough depth in these sys­tems to last be­yond the am­ple run­time – a tril­ogy is planned, with saves car­ry­ing over à la Mass Ef­fect – though we did start to wish that some of the in­ge­nu­ity that’s gone into the di­a­logue op­tions had also been ap­plied to var­ied com­bat ob­jec­tives, since fights rarely in­volve more than slay­ing all be­fore you.

Bold and dis­tinc­tive, The Ban­ner Saga is nonethe­less the work of ar­ti­sans. Few brand-new teams of three could so seam­lessly weave to­gether moral quan­daries, weighty strat­egy and a sump­tu­ous art style to build a world as rich as this. It’s a stern, harsh game – even a gru­elling one at times – but that just makes each lit­tle vic­tory you snatch one to savour.

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