Wednesday, November 2, 2016

How "The Banner Saga" conveyes a sense of doom

It's really hard to tell stories of downfall and doom in a video game, since so many games revolve around fulfilling power fantasies, at best creating a sense of ludo-narrative dissonance when trying to reach for that feat. It's even harder to tell a story by gameplay mechanics as well as written dialogue. If all this succeeds, you get a product like "The Banner Saga", the first part of (currently) two tactical roleplaying games. 

A quick synopsis first, before we delve into what is so interesting about the game: the gods in a Scandinavia-like fantasy world are dead, and after several devestating wars against the golem-like Dredge invading from the north, the giant Varls want to mostly be left alone. But soon enough, a war band of Varls initially only intend on collecting taxes faces off against a renewed Dredge invasion, the same invasion that on the other side of the country sends a village of humans setting out into the wilderness, barely one step ahead of the invasion. Soon it becomes clear that the Dredge themselves are being pushed by an even greater menace from the north...

The caravan moving
The gameplay is rather straightforward. You control a group of heroes that you can level up once they killed a certain number of enemies, using the universal ressource "Renown" that is earned killing said enemies or through some actions in the game. You alternate between city screens, where you can talk to people, buy supplies and magical items and level up heroes on the one hand and a depiction of your caravan moving through the country, encountering other people and enemies. Whenever there's a combat, the game switches to a tactical view, where you fight round-based battles in a luck-free, demanding system, making use of the strengths and weaknesses of every character. 

So far, there's nothing out of the ordinary, although the whole affair is expertly executed. The tactical combat remains interesting, the power curve works and the enemies are demanding but can be beaten. Where things get interesting is in the decisions the respective leaders of the two caravans - a Varl named Hakon on the one side and a human named Rook on the other - need to make. 

While Hakon needs to contend with the fact that Varls can't procreate and therefore any loss is permanent, he still has a sizeable army and sheer limitless supplies on hand. With him travels the heir to a southern human kingdom, which created all kinds of cultural conflicts between human and giant. Whether to play with a "Varls First"-mentality or be more understanding towards humans is entirely up to you. 

Round-based combat
On the other side, you have Rook, who has a large treck of refugees that can't fight nearly as well as the Varl army and has almost no supplies. Trying to keep the people alive means weighing your options. Do you take supplies by force from a local farmer? Do you stop to care for a wounded girl, or press on, knowing full well that she will die but that it likely saves other lives? Such are the decisions Rook needs to make. The game doesn't provide you with any annoying moral system and doesn't hint at any consequences. You'll never know if nastiness comes back to bite you, or if mercy will be rewarded. 

Over all hangs a sense of doom. The Varls are talking last stands all the time, and they are weary. No one really wants to fight, and they sense that this is basically their last hurrah. Their reactions to it differ. The humans on the other hand don't understand what's going on, trapped between forces too great to comprehend, and try to survive. Mistrust and hostility are everywhere. When Hakon reaches a city, his host can't be denied, but Rook and his fugitives are turned down more often than not and need to get what they need by force, guile or pleads.

Moving past a god stone
All of this is aided by a haunting soundtrack and astonishingly beautiful landscapes. The drawings that make up the bulk of the game are asthetically pleasing. Snow falls and obscures the sight. Movement is slow and deliberate, giving you time to take in the details, and can't be abbreviated. Time and time again you stumble upon the god stones, huge monuments to the now dead gods, barely remembered but still awe-inspiring. Harsh snow wastes give way to mountain ranges, who in turn open up to lush forests. 

This is an incredibly atmospheric game, telling a great story. You'll feel a tinge of sadness all the time, clinging over everything, but never turning into outright despair. This is a difficult balance to strike, and The Banner Saga pulls it off. You should definitely give it a try. 

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