Gamers have been dying to get their hands on the mesmerizing Viking-themed tactical RPG from Stoic ever since the project first met its Kickstarter goal in a single day back in 2012, and so I’m not even going to make you wait a second longer by having to read through some long-winded introductory paragraph to this review. Simply put, The Banner Saga achieves exactly what the game had set out to do, in providing a sweepingly colorful adventure full of game-changing choices and satisfying combat.
Let’s start with the obvious right up front: The Banner Saga is a painfully gorgeous looking game, with cartoon illustrations that look like they belong right at home in a feature-length animated movie. The game’s presentation is easily one the biggest drawing points to immersing yourself in the 10+ hour adventure, as the finished product is actually more like a visual novel or even an old-school gamebook than a real-deal RPG: and an especially pretty one at that.
In the world of The Banner Saga, the Viking-inspired peoples and their new alliance of the giant-like race known as the Varl are on the brink of a massive third war, and a sinister new group of robotic-looking villains called the Dredge have also factored themselves into the equation. The way the story unfolds is also of particular interest, in that you’ll hop back and forth between several different caravans and their respective leaders and generals as the parties travel inward into the heart of the growing conflict. All of this hopping between characters and smaller plotlines may be a little confusing at first, but stick with it and your patience will greatly be rewarded as time goes on.
But I think my favorite part of The Banner Saga is the turn-based battle system, which proves to be both deep and strategic, despite slow and methodical. Taking cues from other tactical titles in the genre (re: Final Fantasy Tactics), The Banner Saga spices things up by introducing a dual means of health and attack meters: armor and strength. The strength bar basically functions as what would be your health, as well as your strength of attack; the armor meter, on the other hand, determines your opponent’s defenses as well as your own.
So the overall strategy then becomes: do I just focus on chipping away the enemy’s health, landing only 1 or 2 points of damage each time? Or do I take out his armor first, allowing me to land crushing 9- or 10-point blows to his health. You’ll also have a bonus star-type of currency to use to your advantage, which sort of functions like an MP bar and allows you to do extra points of damage or move an extra amount of spaces on your turn.
The game stresses at several intervals that each stat is equally important to your ultimate success, and I don’t think that statement has ever been truer in a game such as this. There are many different characters to control on the battlefield as well, from archers and spear experts, to the intimidating and giant Varl. Each one comes equipped with their own special attacks, and every fighter in your party is fully upgradable by spending “renown,” the game’s form of currency that’s earned from completing battles or reaching certain other milestones.
The Dredge are also particularly formidable foes in their chilling black armor, and the more you progress in the game, the more you’ll have the option to choose different ways to engage them. When your fighters clash with their enemies on the grid-based battlefield, you’ll be treated to the same smooth-as-butter animations that populate the rest of the game, along with some seriously addictive sparring sound effects. You’ll also have a nice sense of maneuverability around each battlefield; although sometimes the fixed position of the camera made it difficult to click on certain characters, and the animations of archers would show them firing straight ahead to damage an enemy that was standing directly to their left, but both of these are just minor annoyances.
With that being said, The Banner Saga certainly isn’t going to appeal everyone under the giant frozen sun, and the amount of fun and replay value you’ll get out of the sweeping adventure will be squarely dependent on how invested you become in the game’s many characters and lore. In most instances, this isn’t all that hard to do, as The Banner Saga weaves an incredible tale of courage and hardship that really makes you feel the breadth of an entire nation going to war. And like any REAL war, there’s going to be a lot of build-up and downtime before those actual moments of battle. And not only are those slow, in-between moments reflected in the overall narrative, but in the actual gameplay itself.
This is because every invigorating battle in the game is spaced out by long sections of clicking through dialogue or watching your caravan meander down the road. It’s certainly a strange dynamic at first, as your sense of control in the game feels very limited at times, but one that starts to grow on you the more that you get into it. Think of it as an incredibly slow-burn of a game: one that takes its time to set all the pieces into place, before building its way up to a breathless and unabashed crescendo.
The travelling segments are perhaps the slowest part of the game (it very well could have been called “The Walking Saga”), but even these are littered with moments of genius. As your caravan marches on, you’ll periodically be interrupted by a notification box, which introduces another story component, asks for your input on something, or simply just alerts you to an event that’s about to unfold in your camp. It’s sort of like a fleshed out version of The Oregon Trail (You lost X number of Varl; your morale is getting low; etc.).
For instance, at one point in our journey, my caravan came across a group of weary travelers that had fallen on some hard times on the road. So being the generous leader that I am, I decided to let them join our ranks with no questions asked. However, as soon as we stopped to rest for the night, one of these new travelers got a little too drunk and found himself in a heated brawl with another alpha of my crew. I decided to give him one more chance, and forced him to issue an apology to the rest of the group.
But then the next night it happened again: only this time he got so drunk that he almost burned half of our tents down! So I did the only thing I thought was right at that point: I left him tied to a tree with a few scraps of food and water and led my caravan on its way without him. As a result of my decision, we may have been down a party member now, but the group morale stopped its mad descent into despair ever since these drunken shenanigans began.
This is just one of the many examples of narrative storytelling and choice-based gameplay that you’ll find in The Banner Saga, and there’s a whole lot of incentive here for multiple playthroughs to venture down alternate pathways. You’ll also have the option to snake your way around actual battles or to take the Dredge head on: fleeing might be the coward’s way, but at least you’ll keep your casualties to a minimum than if you take a stand while horribly outnumbered.
It’s a shame, then, that actual cutscenes are few and far in between, with the majority of storytelling done through silent text boxes over a looping and distilled soundtrack of a winter atmosphere. There were a few moments when I would have loved to see an event play out before my very eyes, but there’s still a lot to be said for the game’s writing, in that I could still perfectly envision everything before me as if it actually WAS being rendered in a full-fledged cutscene. This underlying sense of wanting something more is felt in a few other places as well, like the game’s sprawling world map, which features a land pockmarked with dozens of locations, but only a sentence or two of vague description after clicking on each one.
But I’m more than a little willing to let bygones be bygones when it comes to The Banner Saga, as the game, or novel, or whatever you want to call it, just glows with style and charm. What’s even more impressive is that the game we have now is only the mere “Chapter 1” of a planned trilogy, and in terms of both scope and direction, the game is just utterly massive. In fact, it difficult in just deciding what to talk about in this review, as there’s just so much going on at every turn of the ice-covered page. So even though the sun may still be frozen in the world of the Varl and the Dredge, it will be a very long time before the sun starts to set on The Banner Saga.
Story – 9/10
Gameplay – 8/10
Graphics – 10/10
Sounds – 8/10