Price: £18.99 Developer: Stoic Publisher: Versus Evil Platform: PC
A more appropriate title for Stoic's The Banner Saga would be "The Bastard Saga", because the game seems to be absolutely full of them. From bandits posing as needy farmers nicking your supplies to members of your own party trying to kill you and all your friends, it's got more betrayals, backstabbings and abrupt, unexpected deaths than a Game of Thrones convention sent back in time to Stalinist Russia.
It's emotionally draining enough in a book or a TV show when a character you've become attached to either gets bumped off or turns out to be a total arse. But in the Banner Saga this feeling of betrayal and loss is compounded by the fact that the little git who just knifed half your party and ran cackling into the woods might have been your best fighter, one you spent many valuable experience points on honing into the very centre of your battle strategy.
The worst thing about these events is they can usually be entirely avoided, such are the sprawling threads of the Banner Saga's story, based entirely on the decisions you make. The game's narrative certainly knows how to grab your attention, which is just as well because it's without a doubt the primary reason you'll want to play this mechanically rather limited RPG.
Don't misunderstand, The Banner Saga is an impressive creation, with so much of its design brimming with bleak flair and morbid brilliance. But its description of itself as a "Tactical RPG" is a slight misnomer. It's more of a Choose Your Own Adventure story with a turn-based strategy game clinging to its back like a child in a snowstorm.
Judged individually both of these aspects to the game are well designed, but it’s the former that really stands out. The Banner Saga's lore has clearly been considered in great detail and layered delicately atop its Norse-inspired realm. It's a world where the sun never moves and the gods are long dead. Humanity lives uncomfortably alongside the Varl, a warrior-race of horned giants who according to legend were created solely by the dead gods and thus have no means of replicating themselves, which you have to say is pretty poor planning on the gods' part.
Both humans and Varl are united by their fear of the Dredge, half-organic, half-mineral creatures who have warred the fleshier races on several occasions, and it's with another of their invasions where the Banner Saga's, er, saga, begins.
Plot wise it carefully navigates through many familiar fantasy conventions, prophecies of the end of the world, human-like races that don't trust each other, the interference of a small yet powerful guild of magic-wielders. All these narrative traps are deliberately sprung to suit the Banner Saga's unique style and tone, with some of the seemingly clichéd story beats changing rhythm in pleasingly original ways. It also paints a picture of a world in decline with both breadth and depth, but without boring the player through an exhaustive lore dictionary or streams of expositional dialogue.
Its presentation is exceptional too. The art style is beautiful and the music perfectly matches the game's tone with its sweeping, mournful orchestral score. That said, it's worth pointing out the dialogue screens are largely static with little twiddles of animation, and the dialogue is mostly unvoiced. The former isn't really an issue, but the latter can be a problem when discerning differences in character, since most of them seem to have the same terse, pragmatic, slightly resigned attitude toward their situation.