Dozens of Vikings have died under my command in The Banner Saga: Factions. They died due to misclicks. They died due to my failure to make a decision within the 60-second turn limit, leaving them stranded and out of position. They died piecemeal as I accidentally advanced them to within striking distance of my opponent’s archers.
They died so I could get the mechanics of this game through my horned helmet and into my stupid skull. Tactical RPGs are often deep, and The Banner Saga: Factions is about as deep as the wreckage of a longship, resting somewhere in the murk of the North Atlantic. Whereas most tactical RPGs feel like fleshed out puzzles, The Banner Saga is nearly as stark and abstract as chess.
“Heroes aren’t supposed to die”
Wave The Flag
This finality is what makes The Banner Saga an extremely interesting game. I would almost say it’s too intense for me; I actually began to dread playing after a few losses. I was scared by the potential for fatal errors that haunted every one of my turns. My fears were exacerbated by my inexperience and the game’s current lack of a matchmaking system based on player experience. Stoic intends for The Banner Saga to be an RPG for adults. I know nothing about the lore yet, but the multiplayer iteration of the game feels bleak enough without the details of the forthcoming dark fantasy story. The animation is intentionally reminiscent of Disney’s classic Sleeping Beauty. I was initially confused by this, but then I remembered the climactic battle, when Maleficent surrounds the Prince and Princess in a forest of thorns and transforms into a dragon (one of the most fearsome creatures in animation history). Yeah, that’s the Disney vibe that The Banner Saga is going for.
The feeling of doom certainly extended to my experience with the combat. It’s harsh, and the gorgeous animations and sounds only emphasize this harshness further. In most RPGs, when you see a dead unit you equate it with the experience points you gained. In The Banner Saga you feel the cost of every unit weighing on you. The scariest, most eye-opening part of Saving Private Ryan is when the door on the landing craft comes down and the German machine guns immediately begin ripping through the American soldiers. That moment serves the movie so well because it’s completely unexpected. Heroes aren’t supposed to die en masse in the first five minutes of a movie. This de-heroization of the soldiers by means of terrible, sudden, and impersonal violence makes you feel the loss of their potential stories. Some soldiers weren’t lucky enough to make it to the beach on which their fellows died.
With that in mind, The Banner Saga: Factions might be the Saving Private Ryan of RPGs. The units that I thought would be safe were the least likely to be. There are giant units that take up four squares on the map (rather than the regular one unit), but in my experience players overestimate their stamina and get cocky, leading to frequent early demise. Then there are the archers, who are always kept in theoretical safety behind the devastating melee-type Vikings. But it takes excellent positioning to keep your opponent from sneaking through your line with a disruptive axeman. No unit can remain unsullied by battle unless you take extreme care to guard it, especially when you play against an experienced opponent who knows how to exploit his units’ special abilities.
Die By The Blade
In most tactical RPGs, you keep weak units safe and have them retreat from the front so that you can use their attacks and abilities in the future. The Banner Saga applies its irrevocabality to damage, too. Health and damage are the same stat: strength. If you lose one, then you lose the other. There is no such thing as a glass cannon here. It is very important to protect your strength supply (the sum total of the strengths of all six of your units), and for that you must build your units with sufficient armor. The points you apply in strength and armor, as well as special abilities, are all drawn from the same pool. There is potential for enormous variations in builds, and the community is already busy comparing them on the forums.
“…a cold, cold Viking death”
There is so much original depth here. The Banner Saga seems primed to attract a hardcore demographic. On Stoic’s forums there is already a healthy amount of theory being written about the game. On the other hand, I’ve faced some of these extremely knowledgeable players with min-maxed builds, and it is utterly discouraging for a newcomer. But even if you are (like me) afraid to see many a cold, cold Viking death that you should have prevented, it is hard to deny that it all has a certain beauty. The Banner Saga: Factions is a dark challenge, and one I believe the Vikings would have appreciated.