In a year overrun by great role-playing games like “South Park: The Stick of Truth” and “Dragon Age Inquisition,” it’s only fitting that my favorite game of 2014 was the beautiful and striking “The Banner Saga.”
“The Banner Saga” is the first-born son of Stoic Studio, an independent game development company created by three former BioWare employees who had worked on “Star Wars: The Old Republic.”
The trio followed the increasingly common trend of abandoning steady work at a large studio to start their own company, and they raised nearly $750,000 in a crowd-funding campaign to get them on their way.
When I reviewed the Viking-inspired sword-and-sorcery title back in January, I was struck by its four main strengths: a dazzling art style rooted in a familiar place, a harsh storyline fit for times of war, the resurrection of “Final Fantasy Tactics” combat and the best musical score in video game history.
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I’ve often said the best way for an indie game to level the playing field against big-budget competition is through great art, and “The Banner Saga” cements this idea.
The artist of Stoic’s great triumvirate, Arnie Jorgensen, raised the bar on video game aesthetics with some of the best animation ever seen in a game. The greens, reds and yellows of your Viking hordes are bright and vibrant, while the sinister enemies are cloaked in what seems like the darkest colors I have ever seen.
I was sure that I hadn’t seen anything like “The Banner Saga” before, but it still felt familiar. I later learned this was because Jorgensen drew much of his inspiration from Eyvind Earle, the artist behind Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty.”
It’s easy to see a correlation to one of Disney’s darkest fairytales as I look at still images taken while I played through the game. It’s Disney-inspired art in an adult role-playing game — how can you beat that?
The imaginative and brutal storyline of “The Banner Saga” also drew me in. Players are cast into a harsh political climate similar to that found in “Game of Thrones.” Multiple factions of humans and Stoic’s own Norse-like giants, the Varl, squabble among themselves while a supernatural army builds the strength to wipe out civilization.
Players control several caravans traveling throughout the world to amass allies, warn the populace and battle Dredge, the dark, ghost-like enemies in “The Banner Saga.” Most of the decisions players make on behalf of their roving bands affect whether your soldiers, townspeople and leaders live or die.
This is similar to the prompts found in Telltale Games’ titles, only the agony is prolonged for more than 20 hours, not two. It’s only fitting that a Viking-style game be far more brutal than puny American or Western European storylines.
As a 26-year-old gamer, I’ve been groomed my whole life to believe that I can have my cake and eat it too in every role-playing game. The bad guys may say that I have to choose between my best friend and my girlfriend, but I know that I can save both.
“The Banner Saga” cuts right through my fat-and-happy upbringing. Throughout my journey, I killed some of its cherished main characters. They didn’t have to die; it’s possible to save them or do things differently. But — through my own mistakes — I killed them, and now I must live with those decisions in the forthcoming second and third acts of “The Banner Saga.”
“The Banner Saga” marked a return to turn-based grid combat, which was a favorite of mine when I played “Final Fantasy Tactics” as an adolescent.
Players select a handful of skilled soldiers to send to a checkerboard battlefield to battle the best of what enemy armies have to offer. Each soldier has a unique set of skills and can be further customized to suit whatever goals you may have for the man or woman.
The battles unfold in a chess-like scenario, with each side taking a turn moving and striking with these diverse warriors. I don’t know if today’s young people have the patience for this once-prevalent combat style, but I still love it.
My favorite part of “The Banner Saga” was famed composer Austin Wintory’s musical score. Wintory — the only person ever nominated for a Grammy for music found in a game — showed me and thousands of other uncultured button mashers just how important music can be to a game.
The score ebbs and flows with the storyline. The victories become more triumphant, and the losses get sadder.
I’ve heard great music in the Final Fantasy and Zelda franchises before, but no musical score has ever added more to the gameplay experience than that found in “The Banner Saga.”
The storyline, combat, art and music of “The Banner Saga” are symbiotic — one could not live without the other. This creates a sensory experience that delivers the total package. I don’t know if I have ever seen that before, and I hope I see it again soon.