The Banner Saga (official site) was originally released for PC on Steam at the beginning of 2014, and the game was so incredibly well received that the developer, Stoic, has released a console version of this tactical role-playing game based in Nordic mythology. I’m going to approach this review with the assumption that you’ve not played the PC version, so let’s get all Nordic up in here and find out what the game is all about.
The Banner Saga plays in a world where the sun has stopped in the sky, and a race of creatures called the Dredge have come to destroy things. The humans, and their giant allies, the Varl, need to somehow find a way to survive in this dystopian landscape. You lead a caravan of tattered villagers, hunters, and warriors to try and reach safety while fending off various dangers and evils. The Banner Saga is one of the few games where the decisions you make vastly affects the way the story plays out. It’s been called the video game equivalent of Game of Thrones, so expect some adult themes here, with the cognizance of the fact that some of your characters can suffer permadeath due to circumstance and faulty decision making on the player’s behalf (Ed: Or excellent decision making if that’s what you’re aiming for).
PLOT-ting a way to safety…
The game plays as a cross between a visual novel and a tactical RPG as you see your less-than-jolly band of not-so-merry men across the frozen landscape. For each foe you fell, you earn renown, and renown serves as the game’s main form of currency. Need to buy food for the group? You’ll need renown. Need to buy a trinket to buff your archer? Renown. Need to level up your party? Renown. It becomes quite a delicate balance between surviving the march and surviving the next battle.
Battles themselves take place on an isometric map, think something like Final Fantasy Tactics or Rainbow Moon (reviewed by us over here) or XCOM (reviewed here and here). Warriors—both yours and enemy warriors—have a given attack and move range, and have two very important stats for the purposes of battle: armor, and strength. Strength serves as both a measure of how hard your unit can hit as well as hit points. Armour determines how much damage you’ll take in the next blow. It becomes another tactical decision whether to chip away at the enemy’s armour to be able to do more damage later, or chip away at his strength so he’ll do less damage to you in the long term. Then there’s the decisions about who will fill the roster on your team, how many humans (lithe and fast), how many Varl (your basic tank), and whether to level them up or let them rest. And if you take a particular character into a given battle, will they fall, never to be seen again, or will they survive the battle in an injured state? And if you do have injured warriors, do you let them rest up at the cost of provisions, or soldier on and hope you don’t run into any antagonists on the way. These kinds of tactical decisions make The Banner Saga a more strategically demanding game than most “sword and sorcery” types.
The beautiful game
The Banner Saga has been praised, quite rightfully, for both its art and music. The art style has drawn strongly from the influences of Disney’s early animations, as well as the art and animation styles of Ralph Bakshi (who worked on the infamous animated Lord of the Rings and Wizards films). The music was composed by Austin Wintory, the same guy who composed the music for flOw, Journey, and Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. Naturally, given his talent, the music is brilliant.
The game isn’t perfect, however, and one of the detractors is that the learning curve is a little strange, especially when it comes to the non-battle segments of the game and how your decisions will affect the morale and effectiveness of the caravan. I suppose it’s a bit like life, really. You never know what chocolate you’re going to get. The game also has a fairly limited number of enemy types, so once you’ve figured out a weakness or strategy (if any), expect it to apply almost universally. I’m still not sure that I’m in complete favour of the “strength as HP” mechanic. Sometimes, your group will be whittled down so badly that each attack of yours would be marginally more effective if you were using wet toilet paper, meaning that it becomes painfully clear a number of rounds in advance that things are going to be horribly dire, but you have to see the travesty through anyhow.
One of the strange things that the game does is flip character viewpoints frequently, so you’re not always sure whose view you’re supposed to be sympathizing with, or who “I” or “you” refers to in given scenarios. As well-written as the game is, the muddied nature of the narrator can make things a bit difficult to follow, especially given that there’s very little voice acting in the game.
The console version
For those of you who have played through the game and want to know how the console version compares: fear not. The game does a really good translation from the mouse to the controller. I played the PS4 version, and I can confirm that the visuals are as smooth and beautiful as they are on PC. Don’t believe me? Check out the trailer below.
I’m not going to lie: the game can be really difficult to complete on what approaches a good note. It’s stark, horribly bleak, and don’t expect much funny. That said, it’s endearing and the kind of story that you can get way over-invested into. It does feel a little like George R. Martin has a hand in the story sometimes, but it takes multiple playthroughs to discover exactly who can be saved with a canny decision and who is going to die no matter what. In fact, I’m not even sure yet if everyone can be saved, but it’s fun trying to find out. Even if the combat is samey, the animations and scenes are so beautiful that you don’t mind too much. And of course, there are your ever-present decisions. Just be a better leader than I was and try not to kill nearly everyone in the first playthrough, ok?