If I were to write my review of The Banner Saga on an actual banner, the signet would be me looking very anxious. Such is the weight behind the decisions and battles of Stoic Studio’s 2014 strategy game. Addictive turn-based battles are just the icing on the cake. The Banner Saga fully immerses you in the struggles of its highly-detailed and gorgeously hand-drawn world. The Banner Saga’s meaningful interactive story and engrossing strategic battles make for an addictive journey through this Viking RPG.
From its opening chapter, The Banner Saga grabs your attention thanks to its confident Viking-based world-building. Best of all, The Banner Saga manages to build its world without a giant-sized exposition dump. Instead, worldbuilding comes from the interactions between characters and lore that doesn’t feel forced down your throat. The story of how the humans and the Varl — a race of giants — find an uneasy peace after the disappearance of their gods is presented organically.
Within this world is the tale of two human: Rook and his daughter Alette. After their village is attacked by the monstrous Dredge, they find themselves leading a traveling caravan across the land. However, a potentially apocalyptic threat is looming in the shadows.
I never escaped a feeling of dread as I played through the game. The interactive storytelling forced me to face a revolving door of scenarios which will surely accelerate the greying of my hair. Managing resources, choosing when to rest, and defusing infighting all made me feel the burden of leadership. I lamented every time I had to leave a clansman behind. I despaired when my poor resource management resulted in some starving to death. Even if they were just numbers on a screen, I genuinely felt the gravity of every choice I made.
Amongst those clansmen are an ensemble of characters with their own engrossing personalities and stories. Characters like Eyvind the determined Mender’s apprentice, or Oddlief the fearless widowed archer, play a significant role in the story. However, the roster feels slightly inflated due to the spattering of one-dimensional warriors, most of whom I could only remember by the color of their beards.
I also wished that the game had a better system for presenting its rich lore and depth of choices. I poured over The Banner Saga’s lovingly-detailed and informative world map. However, I would’ve loved to see that same effort put into describing the characters’ backstories and relationships. Their short individual bios were insufficient in reminding me just who they were. Meanwhile, there is no graph that tracks back your decisions showing you how you reached your current situation. This is a shame, as your choices hold a lot of influence over the progression of your personal saga.
The battles in The Banner Saga take the best qualities from strategy games. Like any strong entry in the genre, the combat scenarios are designed to favor a thoughtful approach. Indeed, the 24 playable characters are fun to experiment with. Helpful tips ensure that each ability can have its purpose maximized in combat scenarios. In a genre that often panders to the hardcore, the combat mechanics in The Banner Saga are finely tuned to appeal to a range of gamers.
The game uses a grid-based battlefield to stage the fights between your unit of six warriors and the opponent’s force. Every unit, including the enemy, is equipped with Strength and Armor statistics. Strength acts as the character’s health points and attack power. This can be used to drain an opponent’s Strength once their Armor points are below the attacker’s Strength.
Therefore, achieving victory is a delicate game of matching the statistics of your characters against that of your foes. It’s vital to anticipate the best approach to setup killing blows later in the skirmish. It’s a great high-risk/high-reward system. Additionally, the flexible Willpower statistic can bolster attacks and movement. Also, thoughtful use of each character’s special ability plays a huge role in determining the victor.
The hand-drawn visuals of The Banner Saga ensure that this 2014 game has not aged a day. The character models are expressive and weathered-looking. The landscapes, on the other hand, are sweeping and epic, and could even pass for medieval paintings.
Austin Wintory’s soundtrack fits the mood of the game like a glove. Its emphasis on minimalist chanting and battle instrumentation is never intentionally flashy, but always manages to get the blood pumping.
Overall, I just wish The Banner Saga pushed a few more chapters beyond its bittersweet conclusion. As part one of a now-completed trilogy, I understand this game is one piece of a grander story. However, 10 hours still left me wanting a bit more from this first entry.
The Banner Saga made me experience a level of stress I didn’t know I would enjoy so much. That’s down to the addictive responsibility of leading my clan through this endlessly captivating world. The game is addiction mixed with anxiety, with danger always on your heels and disaster only a poor decision away.
The burden of leadership can certainly be heavy. But it’s a burden made light by a story, mechanics, and aesthetics I just couldn’t take my eyes away from.