The Banner Saga Review
As a player or reviewer, losing five hours of progress in a game is a pretty disheartening state of affairs. It shows how much I enjoyed it The Banner Saga that the need to replay much of it outright (including the opening chapters, which I had already previewed last year) felt more like an opportunity to experiment with narrative choices than a punishment.
The bug I encountered (which prevented the game from saving data past a certain point) shouldn’t affect anyone with the final release version as I’m pretty sure it was due to a preview vs verification code is due. Once I deleted and left the Windows saved game folder The Banner Saga Create a new one, it started saving well.
The next clue that Stoic’s Norse-inspired RPG had its narrative hooks in me was when I noticed a pattern in my character choices. Each step of the journey involves turn-based combat encounters that require up to six heroes to engage in combat. Rather than trying to be min-max, I just stuck with the characters I liked best, along with those who usefully fought side-by-side (a leader and his bodyguard, or a father and daughter). That only made sense worse if my poor choices resulted in one or more of them getting killed.
But that’s a bit of a stretch because some people reading this may not yet know what The Banner Saga is.
It’s the Kickstarter-funded opening game of a proposed single-player trilogy, and not to be confused with last year’s free-to-play (and multiplayer-only). Banner Saga: Factions. However, if you’ve played this spin-off title, you’ll have an edge over others when it comes to the combat system. As the first chapter The Banner Saga manages to deliver a full, satisfying 8-10 hour story arc while still leaving plenty of storylines dangling for the sequels.
If you’re wondering if the game risks being left with perpetual cliffhangers, Stoic says the next two chapters will continue “provided there is enough demand.”
It should be because The Banner Saga is a great role-playing game. Traditional in some ways, using turn-based tactical combat and text boxes to outline specific situations, but in a way that feels refreshing rather than purely nostalgic. It has echoes of the great ones King of the Dragon Passin both the domestic and communal dilemmas it confronts the player with and its depiction of a mythological world based on the familiar but with much yet to be discovered.
This world is revealed with as little unnecessary depiction as possible. Stoics don’t always manage to stick to the important “show don’t tell” rule, but it’s clear that they try to do so whenever possible. If a particular character is an arrogant oaf, you’ll know it because they’re acting that way, not because an in-game encyclopedia or cinematic voice-over told you so. The characterization is strong enough throughout that the majority of the heroes mentioned feel more like real people than shifting abilities used in combat.
The Banner Saga tells its story from different narrative points of view, which means that the player embodies different characters at any given time. In most of the game’s seven chapters, you make decisions as Rook, the unknowing new chief of a small village on the east coast of the country. But you also assume responsibility for a convoy of hulking varl going about their own business to the west. Almost immediately, Rook’s community is displaced, fleeing the reappearance of a relentless, almost mechanical race known as the Dredge.
Progress through the story is linear in the sense that everyone will see the same key moments in the same places, but certain actions will lead to a quite different journey. Your role as a player is to make dialogue choices in face-to-face meetings with other characters, text-based choices that emerge as your caravan makes its way through the exquisite Eyvind Earle-inspired landscapes, and manage the turn-based combat that results from those choices can arise. Three distinct gameplay branches that all influence each other.
The “Glory” mechanic is a good example of this. In fact, reputation is your currency. It is earned through battles and occasionally given as a reward for making certain choices. You can use it to level up (promote) characters, buy magic items to help you in battle, and buy caravan supplies, but you’ll never run out of them. It’s important not to neglect this last option, since a caravan without supplies will lose people and morale pretty quickly. Both will affect your ability to fight more battles effectively, and could send your journey into a death spiral from which it can’t recover.
Losing fights (apart from a few important ones) doesn’t end the game, you just hobble along with reduced numbers and very likely a number of injured heroes. Failure only occurs when you allow too many losses to pile up and you are left in a position where the next fight would be borderline impossible. although The Banner Saga isn’t quite as punishing with saved game slots as I thought during my preview, it can definitely force you into a position where you have to reload a previous checkpoint that could be from three or four battles ago.
By the time you “get it” the fight will probably kick your ass a few times. Except on an easy level of difficulty, which lives up to its name.
The Banner Saga throws up a few pointers on how best to approach combat (often in dialogue, so there’s another reason to pay attention to that), but it certainly doesn’t tell you everything and isn’t always clear in its summaries of your unit’s special ability Skills. Even after finishing the game, I still haven’t really figured out why I should use some of the abilities instead of the simple “hit a dude” attack. Maybe they’re just bad, I don’t know.
In order to survive on Normal difficulty and higher, it’s necessary to pick up a few tricks (e.g. aiming Dredge for extra armor splash damage) and learn a few basics in order to triumph. Units have two stats, Armor and Strength. Strength attacks hit the unit’s Strength minus the defender’s armor level. You can opt for armor attacks instead, which only damage armor. Strength is also Health, and when it drops to zero, Unit drops.
During my time with the preview build, I thought the key would be to keep things alive with low power because until the enemy is down to one unit left, turns will alternate regardless of the number on the battlefield. So it seemed wise not to finish off weaker forces. This would allow a stronger unit to stay longer and get more “gos” than I would like. This basic tactic is fine, but units left alive on purpose can still use special abilities against you or destroy the armor of a unit you’d rather protect.
I’d say the most important aspect of combat is just anticipation and planning. Maybe target an enemy who moves next and weaken them enough that no matter what they do, they won’t do too much damage. But you also need to look at the longer term for those super powerful units that a few of your heroes will need to crush before they are able to do too much damage. Inevitably, you can’t do all of those things (especially since the odds are always against your squad), so you just have to dodge it as best you can.
All the power/armor stuff probably sounds more complex on paper than it really is in-game, and it’s a system that manages to be fairly simple while allowing a fair amount of tactical flexibility and thoughtfulness during combat offers. The interface is relatively unobtrusive and basic too, although having the “End Turn” button right next to “Attack” isn’t great. It at least lets you validate the choice, which has saved me more than once.
Occasionally your entire caravan will engage in conflict, pitting whatever remaining fighters and varl you have with you against a horde of (usually) Dredge. During these “war” situations, you can choose to engage in a personal attack (which triggers a regular skirmish) and perhaps reduce your casualties, or just stand back and monitor the battle with text commands, but inevitably lose more troops. It feels a bit like a budget compromise to include larger battles while still using the same turn-based battle model, but it gives you more ways to gain renown. In a war situation, if the first attack goes well, you have the opportunity to hunt down even more enemies and trigger an immediate second skirmish.
This duality of risk and reward permeates the game right down to the decisions you must make along the way. There’s a constant need to keep morale up, but if you’re engaging in a drunken party (let’s say) your convoy can be vulnerable to attack. Likewise, you will always need more fighters and warriors at your side, but it pays to keep in mind what kind of characters you might invite to share tents with you.
I’ve already mentioned the great scenery, but it’s worth repeating that the art and animation are great throughout. Combat animations in particular add a really dynamic aspect to the turn-based action, as you see combatants struggling to keep their balance after taking a heavy hit or pulling a bow from their back to shoot an arrow. The face-to-face dialogue scenes can seem a bit static at times (even with the odd bit of beard wagging), but that’s very finicky. Alongside all of that, you’ve got Austin “holy shit, he made the music of Journey” Wintory delivering a score full of nomadic fiddle and throaty choir Vikings. nice stuff
It’s tempting to say that The Banner Saga is like a long-lost early Disney film about Vikings, except of course for the fact that Disney would never touch that tale. The game tells a dark and unforgiving story and features a group of dwindling refugees trying to escape the end of the world. With its weighty decisions, strong writing style, and compelling characters, even the fearsome hand of the saved-game apocalypse couldn’t stop me from loving this one.