The Banner Saga Review
“The Gods are dead”
One of Kickstarter’s biggest success stories, The Banner Saga finally made it’s way onto consoles back in January this year and instantly became one of the best RPGs your money can buy on either Playstation 4 or Xbox One. It’s a wonderfully crafted experience married against a world brimming with fascinating lore and exquisite artistry. If you have any interest in the genre, or just enjoy a good narrative when playing games, you simply must check The Banner Saga out.
The game takes place in a harsh and mystical setting, with its roots firmly planted in Norse mythology. In the game’s introduction you learn that the sun has died out, and so too have the last of the Old Gods, for unexplained reasons. The realm had been enjoying a fledgling, if fragile alliance between Humans and the Varl, an ancient race of hulking giants that can live for centuries. However, a great threat has emerged from the darkness, a monstrous foe only referred to as the Dredge, who are as merciless as they are seemingly unstoppable. This apocalyptic turn of events promises the extinction of both races unless some semblance of order is restored to the world.
The narrative regularly switches perspectives between two parties, who are coincidentally on opposite sides of the continent. There’s the newly-appointed clan leader Hakon and his boisterous Varl war-band, and Rook who’s in charge of a vulnerable refugee party that have fled their human settlement in terror from the Dredge. The game doesn’t favour one or the other, and you’ll spend roughly an equal amount of time with both, which keeps the pacing ticking along nicely.
It’s the freedom of player choice that makes the story so utterly compelling however. In a callback to traditional RPGs, many scenarios are described through text, your choices allows the plot to consequently branch off in different directions, and the overall narrative is moulded by your leadership style. This freedom of choice intertwines with the brutality and overall sheer bleakness of The Banner Saga’s world. Consequences to your actions are often devastating, playable characters can be killed or leave your camp, coups can be started, alliances can be broken and atrocities can be caused.
What accentuates these developments even further is the game’s flagrant disregard for black and white morality, there’s no easy choice to make, and any semblance of innocence is extinguished pretty early on in the game. This contributes significantly to anchoring the whole experience, off-putting fantasy tropes are subverted or completely eradicated, in favour of a more mature tale.
Fortunately after all this praise for the story, the gameplay is great too, with combat taking the form of absorbing turn-based strategy. The battle system is designed around three key stats: armour, strength and willpower. Naturally the Varl warriors boast high armour, similarly fighters who wield two-handed weapons pack a lot of strength behind their blows. Willpower meanwhile should not be overlooked; more nuanced fighters can exploit this attribute to boost their attacks or move an extra few spaces across the grid-tiled map. This ability does not regenerate mid-battle though, and requires a fair amount of strategic thinking to be effectively utilised.
Furthermore, The Banner Saga benefits from a rather unique approach to its combat, the Strength bar acts as both a measure of the unit’s health and attack power, meaning how much health you have is directly linked to how much damage you’ll inflict on your enemy if you choose to attack. While if the armour stat is a lot higher than their health and you don’t weaken their defense first, your attacks will likely be deflected or do minimal damage. Consequently, this puts an emphasis on being as efficient as possible, battles are often short and brutal, however the longer a skirmish goes on, the costlier your losses (usually) will be.
There’s always a few big decisions to be made when approaching each foe, so positioning your units is key. Varl warriors can move up to four spaces and take up two squares on their own, hence do you send them charging in to soak up early blows and weaken your enemies? Or do you instead line up each unit in tandem and enjoy a defensive boost? There are plenty of other strategies to use too obviously, but getting it right and watching your enemies crumble one by one is immensely satisfying.
Supplementing the combat is an intelligent progression system known as Renown which is earned when you complete set moments in the story and when you defeat enemies in battle. You can spend Renown to level up your characters, on the other hand though Renown is a resource that can be used to buy supplies with for your travelling warriors and refugees. Hence, players must prioritize not only in regards to which warriors they feel would benefit most from upgrading, but also in regards to the survival of the entire caravan itself.
Between battles you’ll be travelling across the vast wilderness, from one settlement to the next, each steeped in local histories and cultures. A personal highlight has to be visiting the various Godstones, shrines to the now fallen Gods, all beautifully distinct and poignant. As your journey becomes more arduous meanwhile, the morale of your camp depletes, more frequently will your clansmen argue and more severe will choices be. This can be managed by rest days, plentiful supplies and the right style of leadership. All of these elements flawlessly combine with one another, it has the effect of really immersing you into this role as a leader and the bleak struggle to keep your camp surviving.
This immersion is also made possible by the gorgeous audio-visual presentation that’s on offer here. The art style is lovingly crafted, with superb character models and sumptuous battle animations. Grand, awe-inspiring vistas also reinforce the dramatic odyssey players embark upon during the game.
A special mention must also be made to Austin Wintory’s stirring score, as emotionally powerful as it is compositionally impeccable.
The Banner Saga isn’t a perfect game though, and I had a few minor quibbles with it. Firstly, the game’s intro is pretty disorientating, you’re sort of just thrust into this world, and although combat has a few tutorials, it’s still a bit overwhelming to get your head around for the first hour or so. I’d be curious to see data for how many players gave up soon after starting, which would’ve been a crying shame.
Secondly, as with most strategy games the control scheme is a little finicky on console, cycling selected characters feels a bit sloppy and the camera doesn’t offer a great degree of movement; which is a bit of a problem in corners and facing large enemies. Nonetheless, these issues don’t detract from the game as a whole, they’re just minor grievances but still worth sharing I feel.
The Banner Saga is an overall sublime experience, every gameplay system is moulded into a beautiful, if melancholic adventure. The writing is nuanced, and the world while bleak and oppressive, is lush with wonder.
If you’re an RPG fan this is an essential purchase, hell if you care about just being engrossed in a good story, the same applies.