Often games fall into a trap of trying to do too much, leaving their game unfocused and difficult to follow. Stoic did not have that issue with The Banner Saga, which places you in an interesting world full of what look like Vikings, and some things that could be described as either sentient statues or robots.
One of the greatest things in the game is its history and feeling of a “lived-in” world. The map is full of detail, allowing you to read a little history about every city/province/kingdom, even showing places where historically significant battles took place.
The world is inhabited by three different races, the humans, the Varl, and the Dredge. The humans are just what you would expect, but the other two races are a little different. Think of Varls as Vikings, but they live seemingly forever and appear to be almost twice as tall as humans and much more than twice as strong. They are essentially the ancient race that appears to be trying to holding the world together.
The Dredge are the force that wants to destroy everything, which look sort of like “robots,” as mentioned earlier. From all accounts, they seem to travel in massive hordes bent on destruction and have been a pestilence for hundreds and hundreds of years.
You get to experience that world, running from and fighting with Dredge and the like, through multiple points of view – each of which is in a very different situation. In one, you are leading a town’s worth of people to safety in a long caravan after the town was destroyed. In another, you play as a Varl escorting the human prince to the Varl kingdom to help continue the Varl and human alliance.
Things go awry when the Dredge seem to have returned after being dealt with in the last great war long ago, bringing destruction back with them. The first half of the game seems almost entirely motivated by escaping that destruction. It is not until much further into the game that you realize there is something much larger going on. The first half is full of frantic movements for a hope of eventual safety, while the final half is a realization that maybe nowhere is safe.
In that sense, the overarching story doesn’t carry the game for the first half. Instead, some interesting characters and great dialogue carry you along as you learn more about each character’s ideals, personalities, etc. The quality of writing is excellent and consistent with each character, providing some truly great moments, as well as many humorous ones.
While going through the various dialogue choices, sometimes you come across the opportunity for real, significant choices that can range from relatively small effects, like losing some supplies, to drastic effects like losing a main character, either through death or making them leave.
There are no game-changing decisions, but nearly all of them, even in instances where you are approached by simple peasants on the road, end in some kind of consequence.
For example, in one of the points of view, you play as Rook, the leader of a caravan trying to get to safety. While playing him, you have to make some difficult decisions, which you then watch Rook’s daughter react to. Sometimes you feel bad that because of Rook’s position as leader, he may actually be hurting his relationship with his daughter, or in some cases, forcing her to do something she doesn’t want to.
Just know there is a lot to the game for you to discover, and many opportunities to directly influence the group of people your character leads in his caravan. You won’t make changes to the overarching story, but many of your decisions will change which characters you experience that story with.
You may have already noticed some of the gorgeous, hand-drawn artwork that will pepper this article. The Banner Saga is filled with beautiful landscapes, backdrops, and characters. No artwork is reused (except for the Camp), and has its own unique feel to it. Even the smallest villages you may visit for just a few minutes have a unique design and building placement for you to ogle at.
One of the unexpected things the artwork achieved was make the game have a real sense of travel. The massive landscapes with the mountains in the background, or some forested areas in the foreground give a significant sense of scale. A good part of the game is watching your caravan travel through these landscapes at a steady pace. The way it is drawn and how the caravan moves through it, coupled with the detailed map, make it feel like you have actually travelled somewhere.
That is an odd thing to discuss, but if you think about many other games, you can travel to another city or part of the world as if it were nothing. There is no real sense of accomplishment in movement, but The Banner Saga does give you that feeling. That is especially poignant considering much of the game is spent trying to desperately get somewhere else.
A final note on the artwork is the character’s animations, which have this great hand-drawn effect that is different from the technical animations you see in most games. One of the things I first noticed, which is quite trivial, was the movement of the character’s eyes when having a conversation with them. More importantly, the combat animations were executed quite expertly, each of which looking as you would expect them to judging by what weapon was being used and who wielded it.
There is not a lot more to say about the artwork. It speaks for itself really.
Accompanying your travels and battles is a wonderful score that plays a key role in immersing you in the setting. It is wonderfully composed by Austin Wintory who worked on Journey. At moments, it is reminiscent of Howard Shore’s work on The Lord of the Rings. It is utilized well, with slow somber music at tragic moments, and frantic speed in times of combat creating a sense of urgency.
Where the sound of The Banner Saga declines is in its effects both in and outside of combat. In one particular moment, you hear the sounds of a mountain splitting and crashing before your eyes. It is hard to explain, other than it is a sound that I would have expected to hear a few gaming generations ago.
During combat, there are instances where the sound effects are not that great either. Sometimes the striking of an axe will sound scratchy and odd, as well as a host of other effects. Again, it sounded like it was something out of a game 10 years ago.
The sound effects are hit or miss. Some sound pretty good, while others just leave you thinking about what it was you actually heard.
Finally, the actual gameplay of the game. You may be wondering why it took so long to get here. Well, it is because the game is first and foremost a story and a setting for you to get lost in. That does not mean that the combat is unimportant, but you will get lost in the world far more than in the combat. That is not to say the gameplay is poor, but that it is not at the same level as other aspects of the game.
There are basically three modes of gameplay. The first takes place in the “overworld” with the landscapes and backdrops, where you make decisions for your caravan, decide to camp and rest, etc. Mostly this is trying to keep up morale and to make sure you have enough supplies for the caravan to keep going.
The other two forms come in combat. One of them that you are introduced to a decent way into the game, is just called “War.” There are some instances where your caravan, that has many fighters, will come up against an army of Dredge. You can do some basic decisions like charging the enemy, making formations, or attempting retreat based on what you see the enemy doing. It’s difficult to discern what effects that ultimately has, considering I never lost many men doing it.
Within that War scenario, you have a choice to control a party in the tile-based combat that all of the game uses. You can have a party of six people with you, each of which play a different role and have a different ability. Also, you can equip one item each, which mostly just effect stats.
I’m not going to go too much into the combat of the game as it is more or less what you would expect to find in a tile-based game. Some unique things to consider are that the amount of damage you do is directly tied to your HP, each unit has its own unique ability on the battlefield, and you have a stat called “willpower” which lets you attack harder or move farther at its expense.
The combat can get interesting if you pay attention to what is going on and experiment on the battlefield. There are strategies unique to The Banner Saga if you keep an eye out for them. By keep an eye out, I mean that you almost have to luck into them because the game will barely subtly hint at the strategy’s existence.
The combat is not ever fully explained to you. Now in many games, that is no problem whatsoever, player exploration and learning is great. But in The Banner Saga, you have limited fights you can get involved in, as each are tied directly to the story. There are no chances to go “farm” up some fights against a variety of characters.
The game offers an area for training (practice fights), but the kinds of enemies you can practice against are limited. For example, you can’t practice against any Dredge, which you fight a lot of in the game. The solution is likely not more tutorials, but some kind chance to learn more about the combat would be nice (or at least about the enemies), because in many occasions it just becomes picking off one enemy and then the next, which in some cases is not the best decision.
The limited number of battles effects how you level up characters as well. They level up based on how many kills they have in combat, so the game almost forces you to choose a core group and stick with them, making sure they get all the kills.
Also, it forces you to take extra time in combat sometimes because you want to spread the kills around so all your units can level up, not just a few. So, you may need to take a few turns to allow that to happen.
The biggest drawback to the combat system is the way that you and your enemy always takes turns (unless there is only one of them left, then all your characters get a turn in a row). In the combat screen, you can see the order of units when they attack. So, if I kill the enemy that is next in line, with one of my units directly behind it, another enemy just takes its place.
So, no matter who you kill, an enemy will always go after you. It doesn’t really make sense, if I kill someone in the order, why should they then be replaced? All it does is lead to more characters taking unnecessary damage because for some reason that back and forth turns must be preserved.
In the end, the combat leaves something more to be desired, but can have a level of depth if you pay attention enough.
The Banner Saga is a game that on the surface, in all respects, seems simple and straightforward. However, you can be greatly rewarded if you delve further into its history, story, and combat. It rewards those who are curious.
This is only the first part in a trilogy of games. I can’t wait for the other two.
Anyone who plays games to get lost in a world and its story will love The Banner Saga.