The Banner Saga: My Favorite Game of 2014

So, the fourteenth year of the declared Willennium* is coming to a close, and as we look back at the year that was in video games I can’t help but swell with pride. Today was a banner year for games that might have been ignored in other years, with indie titles continuing to demand the attention that many of them rightfully deserve. Make no mistake about it: indie games are carving their own space alongside the AAA industry, not opposite of it, and in the end their inclusion and their recognition will only embolden larger studios to take more risks. It’s an exciting prospect.

Of course, there are many who will shout from their belltowers that 2014 “sucked” for video games. Some will highlight the difficulties that a few developers had with unstable servers or game-breaking bugs that their games had at launch. Others will shine their spotlight on social media and point out how the toxic hellscape of Twitter has embarrassed the video game industry and a large portion of its audience. It’s true. We’ve taken our lumps this year, and we’ve learned a fair number of lessons.

Luckily, if there’s one thing that you cannot say it’s that 2014 was devoid of good games. To prove my point, here are 30 that I could have easily written this piece about.

Bayonetta 2 Hearthstone
Sunset Overdrive Dragon Age: Inquisition
Alien: Isolation Super Smash Bros.
This War of Mine Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor
Wolfenstein: The New Order Tales of the Borderlands
Broken Age, Act I Costume Quest 2
The Talos Principle Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare
Transistor Mario Kart 8
Dark Souls II Hyrule Warriors
Wasteland 2 Roundabout
Destiny Outlast
Valiant Hearts The Evil Within
Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare Tesla Effect: A Tex Murphy Adventure
The Vanishing of Ethan Carter Disney Infinity 2.0
Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions Dungeonmans

Each game on that list is worthy of praise (yes, even Call of Duty – stop hating it because it’s popular). Alien: Isolation is one of the most intense, stressful, and immersive gaming experiences that’s ever seen. Dungeonmans is a return to the roguelikes of old, with dungeon crawling and loot questing wrapped with more character and personality than you see in most games. Sunset Overdrive is a fully-realized labor of love from a team that you could tell were in love with their project. Roundabout, of all games, had a surprisingly nuanced character for being a quirky, YouTube-ready limousine “sim” set in the 1970s. All of these games offer something unique, but there was only one game for me that managed to bring everything together to create not just a game, but a springboard for an entire world of possibilities to explore.

That game was The Banner Saga.

The Banner Saga from Austin, TX-based game studio Stoic stands as a testament to what a team can accomplish when every aspect of a game, from the narrative to the combat, soundtrack to art, meshes together almost flawlessly to create an experience unlike anything we’ve seen for a very long time.

At its core, The Banner Saga is a tactical turn-based role-playing game, much in the same style of all-time classics like Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre. Each battle requires you to have a tactical eye to understand the strengths and weaknesses of your enemies, as well as those of your own party. Controlling the battlefield is key to victory, and it’s very easy (at least for me) to let one of your party members be surrounded and ripped to pieces.

The combat mechanics are solid, and carry the game when you find yourself in the midst of a fight. However it’s only one aspect of the larger experience, which is presented through a gripping and surprisingly nuanced story. You’d almost expect the story to be exceptional, considering all the guys at Stoic are BioWare alum, but to see all the ways that your decisions – of which there are numerous decisions with mulitple answers – play out through your journey. The choices you make ripple across the whole game, and unlike some other games where the illusion of choice is a binary A or B scenario that leads back to the same conclusion, The Banner Saga‘s story is more than capable of going entirely off the rails of what you expected depending on the paths you elect to take.

I was also taken aback by just how intricate the world is. There is a lot of backstory here, laying the groundwork for an untold number of stories for players to experience in the future.

Banner Saga 01

Also, have I mentioned yet that it’s absolutely gorgeous? Because it’s absolutely gorgeous. To put it simply: Arnie Jorgensen is one of the best artists in the industry, and his talents are on display throughout. Every frame is breathtaking, as the crisp 2D artwork simply pops in a way that games which opt for a “realistic” aesthetic simply can’t emulate. The dour sun-bleached snowscape (it makes sense in context to the game) never looks boring, and the characters all have distinct personalities and styles which not only give you a feel for the type of person they are, but also gives visual cues as to their class and their play style when in combat.

That the art helps reinforce the mechanics makes the inner game designer in me very, very happy. I can’t help it.

Sure, the game is short – roughly ten hours or so, depending on your choices and how quickly you read. But the spot-on, easy-to-comprehend combat, combined with a rich narrative conveyed through breathtaking art and a score by Austin Wintory (of Journey and, soon, The Order 1886 fame), present one of the best games of the year, and one of the most well-rounded experiences this decade.

So what I’m trying to say is that I liked The Banner Saga. That’s what I’m really getting at here.

*I. Will. Never. Tire. Of. That. Joke.