Undoubtedly, The Banner Saga’s prologue is a harbinger of the challenges which await. Following a succinct voiceover which establishes a bleak backdrop of deceased gods, a stationary sun, and a landscape engulfed in a perpetual winter, players are cast into a context brimming with a rich Nordic-flavored folklore. Initially, the mountain of mythology heaped upon players can be overwhelming; it’s like jumping into the third season of Game of Thrones without viewing any previous episodes or having read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Fire and Ice. Once players gradually acclimate to The Banner Saga’s setting and adapt to the shift of protagonists- a second challenge emerges. This test is much more mesmerizing than the in medias res storytelling technique, requiring players to determine the fate of the wandering caravan through a succession of perpetually thorny decisions.
Initial disorientation aside, there’s much to enjoy about Saga’s narrative. Whereas the role-playing norm is to inundate players with exposition, this game follows the golden rule of “show, don’t tell”. Character development is often inferred, with convincing allusions to past events and faint insinuations amidst the dialog. Undoubtedly, the method is a gamble- with The Banner Saga demanding unadulterated attention from players for elongated playing periods. Yet, for those willing to devote their complete attention, the game’s plotline is likely to beguile gamers throughout the seven chapter journey.
Beyond humans the game’s other species- Varl, a genus of giant-like horned men and the Dredge, armored clan-creatures provide an engaging mythos, filled with uneasy alliances and ominous foes. Although identification with any particular protagonist may be unlikely, gamers will inevitably become an empathetic participant/observer, fretting about the fate of their followers. The only grievance about the voyage is that there isn’t more voice-acting. Yet, considering the diminutive size of developer Stoic and the financial constraints of Saga’s crowd-sourced campaign, this lapse is nearly forgivable.
While many games aim to provide a plotline where plot branching feels organic, resonating with both short and long-term implications, The Banner Saga is the rare title which adeptly delivers. Elegantly, the consequences of your dialog selections aren’t naively telegraphed. When a headstrong field general threatens secession with a segment of your legion, putting a halt to the breakaway could bring about further injury to your battle-fatigued troops. Of course, allowing the separation could very well affect the esprit de corps of your warriors and well as leave you underhanded for imminent conflicts. Relying on your moral compass won’t provide much benefit; quite often in The Banner Saga, benevolence leads to demoralizing bloodshed. Largely, the title wants players to live with their decisions, and witness the oft-distressing burden of leadership. This decision is evident in the game’s save system- which automatically records your progress at prolonged intervals. Permitting players to frequently save and backtrack when misfortune arises would have tainted the title’s tenor and teachings.
In tone and spirit, The Banner Saga plays out like a Scandinavian take on The Oregon Trail, tasking players with the survival of an ill-fated caravan. Beyond the conversational choices which transform your trajectory through the twelve-hour journey, management of your cavalcade is also a pressing priority. Injuries sustained during battle need time to heal, food is in unrelentingly short supply, and the morale of your followers is in constant jeopardy. It’s here that developer Stoic presents a boundless number of risk/reward scenarios. Resting in the local villages restores the health of your caravan, but also consumes a day of supplies. While food be purchased as players trek past a procession of towns, the resource used to purchase commodities is the same currency used to level up your heroes against an increasingly robust foe.
Unsurprisingly, these engaging quandaries emerge in the game’s turn-based battles, as well. While The Banner Saga’s battles initially bring to mind the grid-based skirmishes of the Disgaea, Fire Emblem, and Final Fantasy Tactics franchises, in execution, encounters feel wildly different. Cleverly, The Banner Saga boils combat down to the barest essentials- emphasizing two statistics for each character. Strength articulates both the health of your character as well as your attacking prowess. When heroes take damage, not only are they in danger of being eliminated from the fight but their offensive power weakens, often prompting a change in battle strategy. The other variable is armor, which helps reduce damage aimed at a character’s strength. As such, players will learn that it’s prudent to whittle away at enemy shielding- thereby increasing the impact of future strikes. The last variable is willpower, a commodity available to players to increase the range of their movement or the potency of their attack. Cleverly, the resource is tied to morale, marrying your decisions when travelling to the likelihood of success in battle.
Notably, The Banner Saga makes other departures from SRPG tenets. Character classes are largely determined by the storyline, giving engagements a subtle puzzle-like vibe, as players determine how to overcome the Dredge with a certain toolset. Grinding is almost completely removed by the game’s trajectory, save the optional (and often perilous) extension of a few battles.
Graphically Saga enchanting aesthetic draws from the work of Eyvind Earle, an American artist best known for his contributions to animated films such as Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp. While The Banner Saga’s cheerless narrative is a far cry from Disney’s output, the visual style feels fresh and complements the game’s tenor. Contrasting swaths of starkness with patches of meticulous detail, the style is a fitting analogy for the player’s journey. Musically, Austin Wintory’s soundtracks is masterful, occasionally providing the necessary Wagnerian bombast, but more likely articulating the inhospitality of a land filled with tundra and malicious adversaries. Much like the rest of The Banner Saga, the faintest tinge of hope can be heard, inspiring players to move onward in spite of a deluge of despair.
As Stoic’s inaugural chapter in a proposed trilogy, The Banner Saga is a prodigious effort. Much like Telltale’s The Walking Dead, where intense quick-time events and branching decisions were intertwined with a compelling plotline to reinvigorate the adventure game, Saga forges it’s own deft amalgam of mechanics into an absorbing and poignant voyage. Those with an appreciation storytelling or skirmishes won’t want to miss this involving pilgrimage.
The Banner Saga was played on PC with review code provided by the publisher.