It’s perhaps a stretch to label the ten odd hours of the original Banner Saga as an actual saga. From the length and the ending it was clear there was always going to be a sequel. If you’ve still got the save files from the original you can start this installment by importing your characters and the aftermath of your choices. If you didn’t, or you played it on iOS like me, or you just want a chance to reset the bleak mood, you can begin with a pregenerated slate.
Not that starting over has much of an impact on the grim tale that’s unfurling like a ragged banner in this saga. It’s hard to talk much about the story without giving stuff away. Let’s just say the whole world is collapsing around you and most of the characters are deranged, depressed or dangerous. And that’s just the people in your party.
You’re charged with leading a band of warriors and civilians toward the tenuous possibility of safety. The game is a peculiar and creative mixture of strategy, role-playing, resource management and chose your own adventure book. It reminds me more than a little of the classic King of Dragon Pass, although the story is both more epic in scope and more restrictive in choice.
It also shares with that venerable game a tangible sense of otherworldliness. Of being set in a time and place quite different from our own yet recognisable and real. The Banner Saga draws heavily on Viking culture for its striking visual style and some of its mythology. Many other elements such as the all-male, horned, giant-like Varl, who play a major role in the story, are unique. Either way the lore seems deep and plausible.
That sense of authenticity helps to draw you into the unforgiving world and makes you care about the characters under your charge. Much of the game involves watching your caravan move across the world, punctuated by multiple-choice decisions and the need to camp to regain morale and provisions. It’s a lot more engaging than it sounds.
That engagement comes from the astonishing presentation. The cartoon like graphics appear simplistic at first, but the scrolling backdrops that drift past as you play are astonishingly beautiful. Backed by a fine, evocative score, just watching the game is a pleasure in itself. Partly it’s down to your investment in the choices you’re presented with. There’s rarely much you can anticipate about the outcomes of these decisions, yet each feels crucial. Pick well, and your people will stay safe and prosper. Choose poorly and people will starve and die.
So we’re halfway through a review on The Wargamer, and we’ve said nothing about war. The greater part of the game outside of travelling is fighting tactical battles against the various foes pursuing you down the river. This is standard grid-based combat with some interesting twists. Characters have two essential stats, Armour and Strength. The latter acts as both health and damage. But when you attack, you can strike against either stat, with Armour reducing the damage down to Strength. So every blow is a choice between less damage now against more damage later.
There’s more to it than that, of course. There are different weapons like swords, spears and bows, with different range and reach. Everyone can equip an item too, for stat boosts or additional effects. Each character also has a special ability which you can activate by spending a pool of willpower. You can also use these points to increase damage or move distance, and replenish them by killing enemies.
What these battles lack is much in the way of tension or surprise. None of these factors are random, and foes generally deploy and behave in a predictable manner. Battlefields tend to be cramped, so strategy is as much about number-crunching as it is positioning. This gives the combat a dry, almost abstract feel. There’s immense depth in planning a good encounter, from deciding initiative order to chaining up mutually beneficial ability activations. But for all the challenge on offer, I found this by-the-numbers approach quickly became repetitive and dull.
That was a major failing in the first game, which had little to enrich the turgid combat encounters. This sequel has learned some important lessons. Battlefields are more cluttered with scenery, giving you more to think about. And partway through the story the palette of enemies diversifies, which helps a lot toward keeping interest levels up. Ultimately, though, it was the desire to see more of the text-based elements of the game rather than more stat-crunching which drove me toward the conclusion.
Depending on your taste, you may find the austere purity of the deterministic combat more interesting and engaging than I did. If so, I’ll wager you’ll enjoy the semi-random nature of the adventure game elements rather less. Either way, there’s an awkward disparity between the two at the core of this game.
It’s fortunate that the setting, characters and writing are more than enough to throw a unifying duvet over these awkward bedfellows. The unfolding tale is a struggle for survival which presses primal buttons and elicits powerful responses in the player. Yet it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s a strange humanity in watching a world die and the characters under your care bend and break under the strain. No matter what dark places this saga goes in future installments, it has the power to remind us of the value of life.