The Banner Saga really is a game like none other. Fusing elements of turn based tactical strategy games, point and click adventure games, and resource management from old classic video games like The Oregon Trail, throwing in some real choice and consequence into the mix, and blending it all with some beautiful storytelling, what you get is a stunning title that you will play as much for its story and characters as you do for its mechanics.
Almost certainly the first thing that will strike you about the video game when you start it up will be its bleak atmosphere, impressed upon you in no small part by the game’s gorgeous visuals. The game’s hand drawn art looks stunning, and recalls classic era Disney movies. It’s a sight to behold, and The Banner Saga looks like a cartoon in motion, one that you have full control over. The gorgeous backdrops, with the snow clad mountains, and distant settlements, provide the setting for the bleak storyline that unfolds within the twelve or so hour long adventure, and the characters are all distinct, with a unique design, their own special animations, and a general look that makes each of them stand out in your memory.
The beautiful graphics are further complemented by the game’s brooding, subdued music. Scored by Austin Wintory, of Journey fame, the music is moody yet it has crests of swelling optimism, grandiose, and yet brooding, laced with ominous undercurrents that keep the player on edge constantly- even if it’s been a while since the last tragedy, and things have largely been going okay, the music will convince you that something awful is about to happen, that it’s right around the corner.
The beautiful visuals and haunting music come together in conjunction with some incredible writing to provide an intensely strong storytelling experience- The Banner Saga tells the story of a world where the giant Varl and humans have formed an uneasy alliance, especially in the face of the rise of the Dredge, dark, hulking enemies that have arisen in the anarchy.
The storytelling is tight, and the story itself is a dark, unflinchingly bleak tale, of alliances and betrayals, political motives and intrigue- the beautiful cartoony visuals belie just how dark the story really can get, as, almost as if it were taking a page out of George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, it pulls the rug out from under you repeatedly, shocking you with its audacity and its willingness to go where you would not expect it go, killing off promising characters that it knows you have grown attached to, and proceeding with developments that can make you blanch.
Such reactions to the game’s storytelling are based entirely in the fact that the game expertly invests you in its characters and in the larger plotline itself, to the point where you feel like you have a stake in how it all turns out. It accomplishes this feat using a two pronged strategy- first, its characterization is great, and you come to like certain characters, and dislike others, and you feel strongly about all of them. So when one you like turns out to be dead, or a traitor, you genuinely feel punched in the gut.
Arguably its stronger, most effective technique of involving the player in its storytelling, though, is in how it incorporates the choice and consequence dynamic. Many, many games offer lip service to the ideal of giving the player ‘choice’ and control over how it all turns out, I haven’t seen games that do it like The Banner Saga very often. Choice making in this game is entirely organic, and unlike other games, there are no ‘critical moments’ which determine how the story will play out- as a matter of fact, it has been impossible for me to nail down which of my choices made my story play out the way it did, and I’m tempted to say that it was the cumulative sum of everything I did that affected my story.
You see, the game changes dramatically based on what choices you make- some of them, especially the ones in the beginning, start out simple enough (do you think someone suspected of murder was actually the culprit?), but they begin to get more and more complex, and soon, there really is no clear cut right or wrong option, and the only thing you have to guide you is your own instinct, which can often be misplaced.
All of this leads to a harrowing story over which you have control, and for which you must take full responsibility- if something awful does happen, it’s all on you and the chocies you made. It’s empowering and g both at once, and, as mentioned above, gives you a real stake in the story and how it all plays out.
However, regardless of all of that (or perhaps because of it), the player is bound to get disappointed by the end- the story is never less than great, don’t get me wrong, but by the end, it begins to buckle under the weight of its own ambitions, and gets increasingly denser and harder to follow, with specific plot points either being ignored entirely or getting unsatisfactory resolutions. Meanwhile, the ending itself is rather abrupt, almost Halo 2-esque, in how it just seems to stop a story that seemed well under way and no where near its end dead in its tracks. To be fair, the game is the first in a planned trilogy, so we know there is more to come, narratively speaking, but it does diminish the value of this specific game as a standalone product.
I’ve said so much about the game’s story and storytelling, but there is an equal amount to talk about how it plays. As mentioned right at the outset of this review, The Banner Saga is a fusion of three unlikely genres- resource management, point and click adventures, and turn based tactical strategy games. These play out largely as you would expect them to, each with their corresponding complexities and nuances- turn based battles take place on a grid, and factors such as movement, armor strength, and special attacks must all be considered. The game throws you for a loop by adding some new factors into the mix- the giant Varl take up four tiles, to the one that humans take. Varl have incredible attack, but are limited in movement range, humans are the opposite.
The game also takes a leaf out of Advance Wars’ book by tying the amount of damage you can do to your health (the stat is collectively called Strength)- if you’re down to 1HP, you’re not exactly going to be able to do a lot of damage. The game also separates your armor stat from your health, and armor must be destroyed or weakened separately to allow for more damage to be dealt (alternatively, you could just ignore the armor and chip away at the opponent’s health in small chunks).
All limitations on your characters- their movement range, the damage they can deal- can be overcome to an extent with another stat called Willpower. Willpower is a limited ‘resource’ stat that lets your character deal more damage and move farther than they ordinarily would, and it can only be regenerated by having your character waste away a turn by ‘resting’ in the middle of the battle. Saving up your willpower to enhancing an attack near the end of the battle that can tip things your way might be a good idea- until you realize that you might not even get to the end of the battle unless you use your willpower to get out of a sticky spot now.
All told, the usual complexities of a turn based strategy game are all present here, with some new wrinkles thrown into the mix. All of this complexity is further enhanced by how the battles interact with the non battle parts of the game, the resource management part of the game- as you are traveling on your journey, you need to watch your supplies or you start losing members of your convoy, to hunger, death, starvation, or just them fleeing in search of better opportunities.
Supplies are bought using a stat called renown, which is gained by killing foes in battle- but that same resource is also used to promote your warriors and ensure that they are up to scratch. Allocating, dividing, and using your resources effectively is another crucial part of the game, and yet another thing that empowers the player with more agency than most games these days do.
Ultimately, it is very hard not to recommend The Banner Saga. It’s beautiful game telling a hell of a story, one that involves the player in both its narrative and its mechanics by virtue of the strength of both, its story and its gameplay. It’s addictive, and, owing to the variability of its plot, infinitely replayable. With it being able to run on basically any medium to high end PC, you probably don’t even have any reason not to play it. If you have a PC or a Mac with Steam installed, you owe it to yourself to pick this title up and check it out.
This game was reviewed on PC.