In Norse mythology, the great void Ginnungagap preceded all life in the universe. This space spawned the primeval cow Audumla, who nursed Buri, first of the gods. Buri begat Bor, who begat Odin, who hanged himself from the World Tree Yggdrasil. Odin peered across the infinite vastness of the Ginnungagap to bring the gift of runic writing to mankind.
Stoic, a studio comprising three veteran developers from role-playing game powerhouse BioWare, has made excellent use of Odin's gift in constructing "The Banner Saga." This tactical role-playing game (RPG), which originated on Kickstarter, is not exactly a fantastical Viking adventure about battle and glory. Rather, the game is simple, refined and more than a little somber — and quite beautiful in its harshness.
"The Banner Saga" does not deviate much from the traditional strategy/RPG formula, but it does offer elegant combat, meaningful story choices and both the privileges and the burdens of leadership.
You'll divide your time in "The Banner Saga" more or less evenly between party-based battles and long marches. During the tactical battles, your Nordic warriors will take turns duking it out with bandits, hostile warriors and mechanical soldiers known as the dredge. The marches channel a more strategic element, as you'll have to manage your army, determine when and how long to rest and keep your men fed.
Hardened strategy/RPG fans won't find much that's new in the battles, but what's there is both polished and enjoyable. You'll control a party of six warriors, whose specialties range from axes to shields to bows. Each party member and enemy has both a health and an armor rating.
Hacking away at foes' health will eventually defeat them, but crippling their armor first is critical, lest they shrug off every blow. This balance ensures that battles never swing too far in either the enemy's favor or in your own, and encourages you to be mindful of your tactics until the very last turn.
Each party member has a distinct personality and set of special skills, although trying to stick with your favorites is a recipe for starvation. The battles are unforgiving, and it's not uncommon for half of your party — or more — to fall to the multitude of powerful foes on any given map. Although downed party members heal over time, stopping to rest means consuming valuable foodstuffs.
As you lead townsfolk and warriors alike across the vast northern wastes, balancing your party's needs with those of your overall tribe is key to success. This mechanic captures just how harrowing it can be to lead a war band across a hostile environment.
Using your supplies to heal your party after an encounter goes sour, and letting your townsfolk starve, can feel a bit punishing, however, especially since the game auto-saves frequently and does not support the use of manual save files. You're stuck with every heroic decision, and crippling mistake, you make.
Although "The Banner Saga" stars colorful Nordic warriors, burly giants and enigmatic witches, it's hardly a rollicking high-fantasy adventure. The characters in this game take themselves and their plights very seriously and encounter more tragedy than uplifting adventure.
The story concerns a few groups of warriors (you'll switch perspectives and parties often) who need to flee their homes and journey from town to town to evade the dredge menace — mechanical soldiers that threaten the land. Some characters want to fight the dredge, some want to protect their loved ones and others want to find a safe place to wait out the siege.
Although a more cohesive narrative emerges as the game goes on, much of "The Banner Saga" is about small plot events that occur as you and your army travel from place to place.
Your choices have immediate and irrevocable impacts on the plot: Will you recruit the headstrong prince into your party, or send him off to safety? Do you throw your limited forces against impossible odds to rescue a town from the dredge? Does a drunkard in your ranks get thrown into the wilderness or offered forgiveness?
Despite the game's storybook presentation, "The Banner Saga" is a dark tale, worthy of the Norse epics that inspired it. Alert fans will also find a number of nods to classic fantasy sagas, like "Lord of the Rings" and George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" (two stories also inspired by Germanic myth).