Saturday, 8 September 2018

Why THE BANNER SAGA is one of the finest works of fantasy of the last few years

The gods are dead. The sun has frozen in the sky. An ancient enemy, the dredge, have returned and invaded the lands of men. Both humans and their allies, the giant warriors known as varl, have to unite to fight them...but a greater threat is stirring. Something has happened to unbalance the world, and it is falling into darkness. From opposite ends of the continent, two great caravans, one of veteran varl soldiers and another of frightened refugees, seek a place of safety and solace to regroup. Factions within the human and varl camps threaten their alliance and their unity in the face of the threat. The fate of the world comes to rest on the shoulders of a tiny handful of people, and the banner they carry across the land.

Recently a truly remarkable epic fantasy trilogy was completed. The Banner Saga has arrived in three instalments, released in 2014, 2016 and 2018 respectively, each accompanied by tremendous critical acclaim but variable sales. Now the entire trilogy is complete, the series is getting reviewed and talked about as a whole and I suspect its profile and praise is going to keep growing in the coming years.

You may be asking "Who's the author?" but The Banner Saga isn't a book series. Instead it's a series of video games, available on the PC and all consoles (including the Switch). It is the work of Stoic Studios, a company formed by three veterans of BioWare who left the company after spending five years working on Star Wars: The Old Republic, and other BioWare titles before that. The company was founded because the team felt working in the confines of a big studio owned by a behemoth super-corporation was not good for creativity, and they knew the games they wanted to make could not be created in such an environment.

The Banner Saga is an epic fantasy saga that borrows elements from the old Viking sagas, Anglo-Saxon history, classical mythology, The Oregon Trail and Battlestar Galactica. With graphics resembling an old Don Bluth cartoon and a musical score to die for, there really isn't much else out there that looks like this game. It's also a rich epic fantasy story in its own right, one which if it was a novel and written well would be one of the most remarkable achievements in recent genre history.

The story is rooted in the two Menders, Juno and Eyvind. Menders are this world's sorcerers, or the closest things. They can manipulate the natural elements, but their greatest success is in pulling shattered and broken things back together again, making them a formidable presence on the battlefield (where they can repair shattered armour and rebuild fallen walls). Somehow Juno and Eyvind have done something to upset the natural order of things, and as the games unfold you gradually tease what it is they have done and how it can be fixed. But the main thrust of the saga is carried by the characters of Rook and Alettee. Rook is a woodsman, a skilled archer, diplomat and negotiator, and Alette is his (somewhat) naive and trusting daughter. When their village is destroyed by dredge, they have to form and lead a caravan of refugees halfway across the continent, along the way allying with other refugees, fighting off their dredge pursuers and learning who to trust and who to hold in suspicion. Key decisions can carry massive consequences: an innocent dialogue choice can kill major characters early in the story (who might otherwise survive all the way to the end of the third game). Choices made early on can determine whether the world survives, dies or falls somewhere between. This is very much a game of choice and real consequence (according to rumour, the trilogy was partially inspired by the writers seeing what happened to BioWare's video game Mass Effect 3, also a complex trilogy with lots of promised consequences which fizzled out at the end with three very similar endings, and not wanting to wimp out again).

It's a beautiful game with a wonderful atmosphere which also works very much as a real work of fantasy. Most fantasy video games use genre tropes but don't really engage with the genre very well (recent honourable exceptions include Tyranny, The Witcher 3 and Dishonored). The Banner Saga has that unsettling and uncanny way of fusing the familiar to the unfamiliar and strange, something which becomes more prevalent as the series continues and approaches its end.

It's also a story that doesn't get too rooted in exposition. A bit like the Malazan saga you are dumped into the story in media res and have to get on with things. Fortunately, the game isn't quite as obtuse and as things unfold you quickly pick up on the basics: the varl are ancient and long-lived, and are also going extinct, as one of the gods created them but forgot to give them any way of procreating (all the varl are male). With the gods all killed in a massive conflict, the varl are doomed to die out. This gives the entire race an air of tragic power as they refuse to go quietly into the night. The dredge are also faceless, remorseless killers in the first game, but some revelations later on make them a far more understandable and relatable species. Like Steven Erikson's novels, a key theme of the trilogy is compassion: behave too ruthlessly or mercilessly, and you may doom yourself, but make just choices and you may win the day. That's not to say that you should be too trusting and not even coldly ruthless when it is really required (the emergence of a powerful rival political faction in the second game creates a huge amount of tension, and their sometimes blatantly corrupt tactics need to be answered by swift action and occasional Littlefinger-esque behind-the-scenes intrigue). Finding the balance is key.

The gameplay is solid. The game is divided into two parts: in one you're guiding your caravan across the landscape, making decisions on when to stop for food, when to make camp and sorting out issues that arise within the caravan, settling disputes and working out how to ration supplies. When you meet enemies, the game moves to an XCOM-style turn-based combat system, where you have to choose which characters to take into battle. Characters gain levels, becoming tougher and more formidable in combat, but the mechanic to level them up is also shared by currency. This leads to tough decisions like whether to level up your fighters to better face a new enemy type that has appeared, or buy more food to make sure the caravan doesn't starve. Later in the trilogy this restriction eases so it becomes more possible to improve your fighters. One awkward touch is that it's possible to turn characters against you, so you may level up a formidable fighter only for them to turn traitor on you.

The worldbuilding is remarkable. A huge map can be studied at any time and it is absolutely covered in locations which can be clicked on for notes on the lore. The world is fantastic and I hope we see more of it in the future. It's also the setting for two other titles of note: The Gift of Hadrborg by James Fadeley is a prequel novel to the series which sets up some of the characters and events. It's been well-reviewed, but I haven't read it yet. Warbands is a tactical miniatures game which, alas, was not well-received on release, which is a shame because the world and game certainly have potential to be translated to a new format.

In summary, The Banner Saga is a remarkable piece of fantasy fiction, a great game trilogy and an example of the genre at its best. It is well worth a look.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Picked up Malaz based on your reviews a few years back, and i couldn't be happier that i did. Guess since this one is finished now i have to give it a go too.