I don’t think I’ve ever been properly introduced to Viking culture. I’m certainly aware that they existed, and most of the stuff associated with them was really cool, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually spent any real time with them. I never got around to watching the show Vikings, but I’m pretty sure there were Vikings in Thor, right? It just so happens that The Banner Saga 2 was not only a game I wanted to play, but one filled with Vikings!
When the Xbox One and PlayStation 4 were announced last year, a large part of their respective reveals focused on the new consoles’ technological prowess. Microsoft and Sony were quick to identify just how advanced their hardware was, showcasing the two machines’ ability to render realistic guns, cars, and faces through clips of games like Forza Motorsport 5 and Battlefield 4. Watching the light reflect off the hood of a nearly lifelike Lamborghini and seeing a perfectly rendered version of Michael K. William escape a sinking car is impressive, but it was hardly the most exciting thing in the world. Videogame technology improves all the time, after all, and the kind of visual improvements that our current crop of new consoles afford are far less drastic than they have been in the past.
Last week, on the other hand, saw the release of two long-awaited games that are bound to be remembered in large part for their exceptional looks, even if they aren’t technologically astounding. Both Double Fine Production’s Broken Age and Stoic’s The Banner Saga were funded through Kickstarter campaigns, their releases eagerly awaited by project backers and interested players. The two games don’t have a tremendous amount in common — The Banner Saga is a Viking inspired strategy/role-playing game while Broken Age is a point-and-click adventure — yet they share a love for organic, hand-drawn animation that isn’t seen all too often.The Banner Saga
Broken Age‘s aesthetic is largely the result of Nathan “Bagel” Stapley, an artist who has contributed to the look of most Double Fine games to date. The mainly static environments of the game are based on original paintings, giving the cloud cities and spaceship interiors explored by the two hand-drawn protagonists a warm, lived-in feeling that would be difficult, if not impossible, to accomplish through computer-generated polygons. Stoic’s Arnie Jorgensen pulled off something similar with his role as the artist behind The Banner Saga. Heavily inspired by Eyvind Earle’s work on 1950’s Disney films like Sleeping Beauty, the Nordic world imagined by Jorgensen is captivating for the strength of its environmental design — snowy plains and icy mountains dotted with enormous pagan “god stones” — and memorable character design.
Both of the games are very well written, but it’s their visual style that makes the most immediate impression. Videogame graphics are often judged purely by their technical fidelity with little consideration paid to the art direction that gives their characters and settings life. Broken Age and The Banner Saga are incredibly endearing because it’s impossible to ignore the hand of the artists who created them. The presence of visible line work and brush strokes makes each of the games feel essentially human. Just as a fantastic 2D animated short can still inspire awe, we connect more readily to the visuals in a hand-drawn videogame when we can identify a person’s touch.Broken Age
The cel-shaded effect employed in the similarly beautiful Okami and Ni no Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch have proved the validity of a more organic aesthetic approach in the past, but games like these are still few and far between. Ultimately, it’s probably safer, when millions of development and marketing dollars are on the line, to seek the largest audience possible by sticking to art styles without so distinct a personality. After all, Insomniac Games famously overhauled 2013’s Fuse visuals before release, replacing its unique cartoon style with a more generic, realistic look, in order to hedge its financial bets. Even Nintendo, a developer/publisher with immensely devoted fans, seemed wary of repeating The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker’s gorgeous cel-shaded aesthetic when it came time to create the next installment of the series. The resulting sequel, Twilight Princess, featured a less colourful world and a Link with more natural proportions.
Of course, none of this is to say that realistic, high-fidelity graphics are somehow undesirable, only that hand drawn visuals are a welcome change of pace that it would be nice to see more of. It’s understandable, given how expensive games are to create, that not every title can feature art styles as distinct as those employed in Broken Age and The Banner Saga. My only hope is that these games will demonstrate just how successful a hand-drawn approach can be to developers considering that path in future.
The Banner Saga, like the ancient epics and legends it draws inspiration from, is about journeys. Just as Odysseus sailed home from the Trojan War, Tripitaka journeyed west from China, and Gilgamesh ventured to the Cedar Forest to fight a giant, Stoic’s fictionalized take on Scandinavian myth is a larger-than-life tale of perilous quests and arduous travel. This focus on reinvigorating the past — of inventing a whole new epic for the modern age — is what makes The Banner Saga unique, and what makes its characters, combat, and plot feel bigger and, ultimately, more important than they would otherwise seem.
From the very beginning of the game, The Banner Saga is grandiose. A group of giant men called varl, huge horns jutting from their heads and enormous hands clutching axes, arrive in a frozen city off the coast of an imagined Nordic landscape. They’ve come to link up with a band of human royalty and finally cement an alliance between their two mutually distrustful races. Though the story starts in linear fashion, the narrative moving forward through beautiful, hand-drawn scenes of conversation between the wide cast of characters, it quickly introduces a level of player choice that impacts what follows. Shortly after the humans and varl form a caravan and set off on their journey, The Banner Saga introduces situations where the player must decide how to handle events like bandit attacks, group infighting, and encounters with strangers met while on the road. Depending on the approach taken, people — including playable characters — may die, the group’s morale may lower or increase, and renown (the currency used to buy skills, items, and supplies) may be gained. While the main storyline will always unfold in a fairly specific manner, The Banner Saga‘s emphasis on player choice makes an already engrossing narrative feel extremely personal.
The tough decisions that must be made throughout the game wouldn’t be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t for Stoic’s excellent character work, however. The game’s story, with its invented place names and allusions to events that have taken place before its beginning, is initially confusing, but the cast of wonderfully illustrated and well-written characters anchors the plot. By the time the pieces have started to fall into place and the stakes are made clear— an invasion of stone monsters and the threat posed by a mysterious, mountain-cracking serpent — the audience has come to know the people living in The Banner Saga‘s world and care about their wellbeing. While the game doesn’t permanently remove characters once they’ve been killed in battle, watching a favourite cast member being taken out by a vicious bandit or injured due to a bad dialogue choice carries almost the same amount of weight as more hardnosed strategy titles like Fire Emblem and XCOM.
This is in large part due to great characterization, but also because of the life breathed into each battle through Stoic’s top-notch audiovisual design. The Banner Saga‘s battles are turn-based and see opposing troops wearing down one another’s colour-coded armour and strength/health metres in order to win. Each soldier has a unique fighting style that, once upgraded through an RPG-style statistics screen, allows players to create a specialized team of warriors that fits their preferred combat approach. A giant varl can swing his axe in a wide arc, hitting multiple opponents; the lone, wizardly mender is capable of calling down lightning bolts; and a nimble archer can leave traps that cause damage when an enemy walks through them. Despite a combat system that appears like a series of math puzzles at first glance — the effectiveness of each attack involves a bit of quick arithmetic involving the sum of each warrior’s health/strength and armour rating numbers — The Banner Saga‘s extremely different character classes encourage strategic experimentation.
At first blush the rows of battlefield movement tiles, floating numbers, and menu descriptions may make combat sequences seem like relatively sterile affairs in contrast to the minimalist user interface shown during travel and dialogue sequences. Fortunately, the crisp art style found throughout the rest of the game lends itself well to turn-based fights, too. Weapons thunk into enemies with a real sense of weight, the characters move through attack animations with impressive fluidity, and a score full of pounding drums lends a sense of urgency to each encounter. The Banner Saga‘s presentation is exceptional during the entire game, but its ability to make combat that could have easily resembled a spreadsheet feel truly alive is outstanding.
To read the full review of The Banner Saga, check out issue #31 of CGMagazine.