The Banner Saga Review: Tour de Norse
Kickstarter games wear influences on their sleeves by necessity. The best way to attract potential backers is by promising to emulate something those backers already like. The result can start to feel like pastiche, a kind of game design gumbo, with familiar tropes and features combined willy-nilly and then liberally seasoned with hype.
At first glance, The Banner Saga appears similar — Final Fantasy Tactics! XCOM! Norse Mythology! Classic Animation! — but the result is surprisingly cohesive, a purposeful, considered piece of game design in which every element fits together seamlessly. It’s an indie triumph, and a tribute to the talents of upstart outfit Stoic Games.
Stoic was founded by three former BioWare developers. Though designer Alex Thomas and programmer John Watson do fine work, it’s artist Arnie Jorgensen who has received most of the attention, and for good reason. The Banner Saga simply looks gorgeous, from its epic backdrops to its striking, colorful characters, whose hand-drawn faces express more emotion and pathos than most state-of-the-art AAA character models. The art style is inspired by three titans of mid-20th century animation. Disney artist Eyvind Earle, best-known for his work on Sleeping Beatuy, informs The Banner Saga’s sweeping landscapes, full of jagged, wintry peaks and fantastical, stylized foliage; the influence of Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth (another Disney alum) can be seen in the arresting character portraits, depicted using a hard-line drawing style not often used in video games.
The Banner Saga uses Norse mythology as an obvious jumping-off point, with plenty of longships, mead halls and other trappings of Viking lore. It’s not a rote adaptation, though, nor is it freighted with the kind of portentous blather common to most fantasy settings. After a brief text introduction, players are thrust immediately into an arctic world populated by hardy humans, horned giants known as “Varl,” and their common enemy, the relentless, unfeeling Dredge, which transpose a kind of robotic hivemind into the game’s Norse context. Stoic trusts people to pay attention and work things out for themselves, aided by carefully chosen bits of heavily accented voice acting, a bevy of consonant-heavy Scandinavian spellings, and the beautiful mis-en-scene.
Avoiding long passes of exposition, Stoic lets the characters speak naturally, establishing the uneasy alliance between humans and Varl and the strange, apocalyptic circumstances: the sun has stopped in the sky, and the Dredge — thought to be vanquished for good — have reappeared in great numbers. Conversations play out in text, between portraits that remain mostly static, but the sharp writing and excellent art ensure a satisfying dramatic weight, no matter the subject. Players are offered a range of different dialogue responses to choose from — the BioWare pedigree is clear — and what you choose to do and say has far-reaching consequences.
The narrative alternates between two storylines. In the first, a group of Varl — indomitable, long-lived warriors — escort a snotty human prince to the Varl capital, hoping to address the burgeoning crisis. In the second, a man named Rook — single father and expert hunter — becomes the de facto leader of a group of refugees (including his daughter Alette, precocious with a bow) as they flee the growing Dredge menace. The two storylines intersect and diverge multiple times, and the game carefully switches the player’s perspective to provide a broader view of the plot.