I never learned how to play chess. Every time I remind my dad of this fact, he's surprised – he adores chess and swears he taught me how to play, at least once, and he probably did. That doesn't mean I learned anything. Chess involves a lineup of pieces with individual rules, boundaries and strengths, and learning each of their moves and how they all dance together is still a daunting task to me. I like simplicity in my strategy. Checkers is nice.

I still don't fully understand The Banner Saga, much in the way I don't fully understand chess. The turn-based strategy aspect of The Banner Saga runs deep, starring warriors with complex abilities, and it's paired with a different lineup of comrades for each battle, if you wish. The story that threads through these battles is similarly complicated, layered with alliances, deaths, epic backstories and fantasy, and the rigorous task of leading groups of half-giants and men across the vast, wintry landscape of ancient Viking legend.

I know that I'm missing the finer details that comprise The Banner Saga. There are story elements I've glossed over in pursuit of battles, and battles I've passed by while chasing the intricate story, but still I'm swept up in the icy, epic fantasy of developer Stoic's universe. Just as I respect chess for its complexity, I admire The Banner Saga for everything that I do – and don't – see in it.
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The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga is staged in a mystical, mountainous land where humans co-exist in a tentative alliance with varl, half-giants with goat-like horns sprouting from their foreheads, like permanent Viking helmets. The scenery is hand-drawn and gorgeous, as if ripped from the pages of an illustrated Lord of the Rings. The game's map looks as if Tolkien drew it himself, elongated, turreted letters and all.

The story, too, is a classic, fantasy epic with a brilliant conceit: The gods are dead and all sentient beings must reconcile this spiritual gap without falling into war with one another. The varl and humans have a dark history of fighting each other, but they have banded together to defeat a more villainous race, the dredge. Dredge are huge, stony creatures intent on slaughtering men and varl, but for years they've lain dormant, following two great wars that ended in their defeat. As The Banner Saga begins, dredge have started to reappear in villages and forests, killing anyone they encounter.

This scourge reveals a story larger than any war among men, varl and dredge, one to rival the history of the gods, complete with menders that can pull lightning from the ground and a colossal serpent scared of something even bigger and darker than itself.

It gets weird.

The Banner Saga is half RPG, half turn-based strategy, focused on two groups of travelers as they fight off rivers of dredge and attempt to find sanctuary in an increasingly hopeless world. I bond mostly with the group led by Rook, a man who falls into power after his chieftain dies in battle. He's a reluctant leader reminiscent of Tolkien's Aragorn (complete with shaggy brown hair and beard), and it may be this comparison that makes his story stick in my mind. He travels with his daughter, Alette, and a caravan of travelers that at times reaches close to 1,000 men and varl.

As the leader of a caravan, Rook must deal with quarrels, sickness, rationing supplies, maintaining morale and deciding when to battle and when to take the high road. His actions kill or save people, both willing fighters and frightened civilians alike. It's stressful and I don't always make the wisest decisions – I've been thrown into this role as much as Rook has.

The leader's choices directly impact immediate events. At one juncture, Rook's caravan is camped out on the soggy banks of an unfriendly town, and his group is low on food and scared of attack. I have the option to walk across the muddy edges of the river, try to float our wagons and people across, or take a long, roundabout path to avoid the water completely. Feeling nostalgic for Oregon Trail, I decide to float.

I should have known better. We lose supplies, people and warriors, but the march soldiers on. Between the constant threat of battle and overseeing those who survive, there's little time to mourn.

But I do connect emotionally with my squad. When things start to get real, I fret for the lives that can be suddenly snatched from my control: Rook, Alette, the chieftain's widow and expert archer, my varl friends, the mysterious mender. The Banner Saga turns 2D characters into living legends that I crave to protect, honor and grow old with.

Of course, I have to throw all of these wonderful people into vicious, violent battles, over and over again. Characters don't die as a result of these fights, but they do fall and require days of rest to recover (and they make horrible noises whenever they're wounded). Opportunities to fight dredge and bandits pop up in frequent intervals along the travelers' journeys, and each encounter goes down in turn-based strategy style: My group is usually surrounded by enemies, and I get to make the first move. Players can travel a certain number of tiles during each turn, and then attack if they're in range. Swordsmen, like the varl, must be right next to an enemy to attack. Long-range Archers, on the other hand, deal more damage if they don't move.

I first determine my player order, assigning warriors with higher levels or special skills, and then have a moment to survey the battlefield and place my characters where I want them, within a given grid.

This is where the mechanical problem within The Banner Saga appears. Each battlefield is crowded, and not necessarily with enemies – the UI is ungracefully proportioned over each warzone, especially once I click to enable the armor and health stats of each player, presented as a pair of banners above each character's head. Once, while positioning my fighters, I accidentally clicked the "Ready" button at the very top of the screen, intending to place an archer at the peak of my grid. During battles, enemies often stand right next to each other to form a shield, but this makes it tricky to click on an individual, and even harder to see their stats. It doesn't ruin the experience, but it's annoying, nonetheless.

The battles themselves work well in many ways, though. The character animations are smooth. Archers draw back bows, varl throw down heavy swings of the axe, dredge mix up magical blue grenades and hurl them across the grid. I may not be educated in the wiles of strategy games, but I can hold my own in The Banner Saga, deciding when to chip away at armor instead of health, setting up traps for enemies to stumble upon, using the limited willpower resource to deal extra damage to specific foes. The battles are rewarding when won, and even when lost. Generally, you still receive Renown, the game's currency, after each fight regardless of winning or losing.

It's The Banner Saga's lore, though, that draws me into this scary world of strategy, encouraging me to stick it out fight after fight, if only to return to the enchanting story. Even though half of the characters have horns growing out of their skulls and I've never hiked a mountain for 100 days straight, I can still relate to their struggles: compromise, empathy, responsibility, love, anger, fear.

The Banner Saga is a human story told with inhuman flair, and that somehow makes it all the more relatable. Even the fights themselves have grown on me – they're just tough enough to provide a challenge on normal difficulty, but not so unforgiving that I feel like giving up. I'm a warrior now, and a leader, and I feel empowered.

Maybe I'll ask my dad to teach me chess. Again.


This review is based on a Steam download of The Banner Saga, provided by Stoic. Images: Stoic.

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