I was ready for the harsh, unforgiving tone of The Banner Saga's turn-based battles; what I wasn't prepped for was the relentless danger of the world in which those battles take place.
The Banner Saga, a streamlined strategy game from new Austin-based development outfit Stoic Games, peels away much of the complications that the genre is known for. Both its tactical considerations and role-playing game customization elements boil down to just a handful of relatively simple mechanics. It's easy to learn, difficult to master and, on occasion, remarkably brutal.
Each hero in your stable has a number of defining attributes affecting their movement, special ability and so on, but most of the proceedings in combat hinge upon just two stats: Strength and Armor. The first not only determines how hard a hero can hit their opponent; it serves as their health, too. As it depletes when the hero takes hits, their own ability to deal damage is diminished. The latter protects them from big hits — if your Armor rating is higher than an attacking enemy's Strength, their blow will do a pathetic amount of damage.
When attacking, you're given the choice to target either of these stats; do you try to weaken the enemy and bring them closer to death by hitting their Strength, or set up attacks from your teammates by lowering their Armor? If you leave either stat unchecked, you'll be in hot water, facing off against an army of heavy hitters or impenetrable walls. It takes the judicious targeting of both — along with each hero's limited set of special abilities — to win the day.
It's a deceptively simple system; one you might smugly consider a breeze, until your first misstep. Getting wrapped up in the arithmetic of your enemies' attributes will sometimes draw your attention away from those of your own, leaving a vulnerable archer or magic user undefended. Heroes that fall in battle will require a few days rest before they can fight at full strength — and those who fall too many times will die permanently.
It's a deceptively simple system; one you might smugly consider a breeze, until your first misstep.
It's punishing, but like the best gaming punishments, it follows its own rules. Death is a result of a player's lack of judgment and foresight, and not a means of artificially boosting difficulty. According to Stoic designer and co-founder Alex Thomas, that difficulty is a powerful resource for developers to tap into, so long as it has meaning.
"When we started working on the game, the hand-holding, easy gameplay trend of today was a main reason we wanted to take the advantage of going independent," Thomas told Polygon in a recent interview. "It really boils down to making the game that we wanted to play, instead of trying to guess what everyone wants. Our first goal was to make sure nothing is unfair. Nothing happens that didn't have some kind of context, or that gives the player an option to react to a situation."
Battles aren't the only places where your heroes can fall. The Banner Saga follows the caravan of several factions as they travel from town to town on their own discrete quests — though their stories are tied together by a thread of survival. Everyone is being chased by the Dredge, a monstrous foe that has begun to blanket their land. Your marching party, composed of soldiers and peasants alike, is on the run from a wave of enemies that, if it overtakes them, will spell disaster. The journey is a distant cousin of that of The Oregon Trail; but instead of a city of gold at its end, there's a wall of death at its rear.
Your constant decisions will determine how your caravan stays ahead of the horde. When the town you've arrived in is attacked, do you gather supplies and take on a string of difficult fights? Or do you turn tail and run, facing possible starvation? Do you push your caravan to give yourself breathing room from the Dredge, or maintain a slower pace to keep your caravan healthy?
The consequences of your decisions are often quite dire — it's not just your trail of peasants that can be swallowed up as you travel. Sometimes, heroes — even main story characters — can be assigned heroic duties, like sacrificing themselves to buy your caravan some time. According to Thomas, it's just one way Stoic makes sure that players have some skin in the game.
"Ultimately though, with a large cast of characters, we can afford to have things happen to them," Thomas said. "There's no right path through the story, just the one that you end up with. I think the resurgence of games like Dark Souls or FTL have shown that there's a real audience who want a challenge, and stories like Game of Thrones are what inspire us to pose choices that have real consequences.
"Most importantly, we want the player to be connected to what happens to their characters," he added. "If there's nothing at stake there's nothing to invest in."
"If there's nothing at stake there's nothing to invest in."
Banner Saga sits at a peculiar crossroads in terms of accessibility. It's core mechanics are so easily understood, even for strategy newcomers; but the constant sense of danger and loss don't exactly make it an inviting experience. It's a risky first project for the new studio, one that has shown no shortage of gall when it comes to taking risks. The biggest being the order in which The Banner Saga's single-player and multiplayer modes were released — the first chapter of single-player campaign will drop Jan. 14, 2014, while the multiplayer component was released this past February as a standalone, free-to-play game titled The Banner Saga: Factions.
Most games that incorporate both modes introduce single-player first, using their campaigns as an extended tutorial before players dip their toes in the multiplayer offerings, which have the potential to have a much longer tail. The Banner Saga essentially did the opposite — but Thomas explained that it's what made the most sense for the game, due to its roots as a successful Kickstarter project.
"Given our Kickstarter beginnings, we wanted to deliver something to our community to show them we were hard at work and also to give them a taste of what the combat system would feel like in the single player game," Thomas said. "It generated an incredible amount of useful feedback and allowed us to do a much more polished version of combat than we could have done otherwise.
"The free multiplayer game ‘Factions' was one of the first pieces to really come together (we needed to work out and lock down how the tactical combat would play out first and foremost). Launching the multiplayer game first was kind of a thank you to our community as we dove into the other core pieces of development."
Stoic garnered a lot of helpful, extremely transformative feedback that it was able to put into the game's narrative-driven campaign. It's playtesting that Stoic, with its core team of just three developers, wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. From a development standpoint, the benefits of the model are clear — but in terms of tapping into that potentially lucrative long tail, releasing those modes out of order was a gamble.
"It was definitely risky," Thomas said. "But everything about this project has been unconventional compared to the norm, so although it was a risky, we felt it was essential to the overall process, and I think it did pay off. We did a couple of things to help Factions, the most important of which was being super honest that it was solely a PvP experience with no story. We didn't want to set expectations that it was anything else, and we believe our fans understood exactly what Factions was and remains to be."
Both Factions and the single-player Banner Saga experience — which is the first chapter in a planned trilogy — will be supported by Stoic well into the future. It's an important game for the team; it's the game that the studio's founders left their gigs at more established companies like BioWare to make. And it's a game that Stoic is itching to launch, Thomas said.
"I don't think we could have done much better than what we've made," Thomas said. "Even if it's not a runaway hit it's the first thing in my professional career that I've ever felt unabashedly proud about."