After a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign that ended almost two years ago and a multiplayer spin-off, Stoic Studio have finally released the first game in a planned trilogy. Simply called The Banner Saga, this is a low-fantasy Viking-flavored take on the turn-based tactics genre. While console gamers have been playing their Fire Emblems, Ogre Battles, and Final Fantasy Tactics, we’ve been mostly left out in the cold. Will The Banner Saga sate our hunger and warm our hearts, so we can finally enjoy the same turn-based goodness, just like our gamepad-toting brethren? Well, hardly… considering this is a game about starving to death in the snow. Nevertheless, let me tell you a story about The Banner Saga…
In an ever-wintery world, where the gods are dead and the sun has stopped, mankind and horned half-giants known as the Varl co-exist. After defeating a common ancient enemy, the fearsome Dredge, and beating them back to the edges of the world, a fragile alliance was formed between Varl and men. Years later Ubin, a Varl tax collector and scribe, joins a delegation of men and Varl on their way to the Varl capital. Among them is the human king’s son, Ludin, who is supposed to make a courtesy call with the Varl king in order to improve relations. Sooner or later they run into the Dredge, and that courtesy call suddenly turns into a much more serious mission. Half a world away, Rook and his daughter Alette, two hunters from a small village, encounter some Dredge in the woods. It doesn’t take long for the Dredge to discover and attack the village, so another caravan starts its long journey. Even an inexperienced storyteller can see that those two plots will eventually converge.
Generally, the writing is good and mature. The Banner Saga is a game by grown-ups for grown-ups. Characters are troubled by the situation, by self-doubt, by their own little place in the grand scheme of things. However, they are not looking for their next love interest. Romance is completely absent here, which is welcome. This is a game about survival, not about love blooming amidst the ruins. Furthermore, the low-fantasy setting, which borrows heavily from Nordic themes and Viking lore, is well done and feels fresh enough to be the foundation of a whole new, successful franchise. That’s probably why it is also filled to the brim with world building. On the expansive map, every single landmark, road, and town have their own little story to tell. There’s almost too much information on display, but if Stoic develop any more games in this world, they will already have set the stage quite nicely.
The very first thing you will notice about The Banner Saga is its dazzling beauty. The art appears hand-drawn with crisp, clear lines, as if right out of an animated movie. Character design is very distinct and detailed, and while the animations don’t always seem to be perfectly fluid, this actually adds to the atmosphere, giving the game a slightly dated feel. It really looks unlike anything else currently out there. The soundtrack by Austin Wintory serves as the perfect complement: horns, strings, occasional chanting in Icelandic… a brilliant, evocative score. With such high production values, you can tell that Stoic made good use of all that Kickstarter money.
The Banner Saga is a game about travelling. Not the “blink and you’re there” kind of journey that you know from various other videogames, but rather a slow, tedious slog that leaves you utterly exhausted, with weary, aching bones, and a feeling of deep hopelessness. Still, there’s something majestic about traveling. Your entourage slowly creeps along their path, banner flying in the wind, beautiful landscape in the background, snowflakes whirling, music playing. It’s incredibly slow-paced, but it feels like the perfect complement to those tense moments of decision-making and combat. You’ll be spending most of your time with this aspect. Travelling is broken up into unit and resource management, as well as various Choose Your Own Adventure segments that interrupt your journey and allow for branching storyline paths.
While there’s a party you’ll be using during the fights, and who have their own requirements of leveling up and improving with equipment, you are still responsible for the whole caravan. That’s hundreds of hungry mouths to feed, and the cost of getting them all safely to their destination is high. The only resource you’ll be earning through winning battles or making certain decisions is Renown, which in turn is used for everything you’re doing. Leveling up your heroes costs high amounts of Renown, equipment is expensive, and so is food. Finding the right balance between training and feeding your people can be tricky, and sacrifices will have to be made. While I never felt that the dwindling size of my little army was affecting the game in a negative way, it just doesn’t feel right to let them die of starvation so that one of my heroes could buy a shiny new trinket. If a game makes you feel that way about mere numbers, it is usually due to good writing.
The battles play out in turns on a square grid. They are a surprisingly simple affair, only utilizing a few parameters and completely dismissing a lot of the genre’s more intricate staples, such as different damage models or counters. Combat is also deterministic, with no luck involved whatsoever and all outcomes apparent at a glance. There are two core stats: armor and strength. The latter is used both as a unit’s health and attack power, which really shapes your approach to battles. The basic combat formula boils down to “attacker’s strength – defender’s armor = damage”, where said damage can either be applied to the defender’s armor or their strength values. It looks more complicated on paper than it actually is in the game, and after a very short learning period you will have nailed the basics.
There are a few advanced techniques, such as spending extra points from a limited pool in order to increase the effect of your actions. Applying those in the right situations will decide between victory and defeat in the later battles, but generally, The Banner Saga has a combat system that is rather elegant in its simplicity. Still, one weird design decision needs to be mentioned. It’s rather common in other games, but here you cannot take back the turns turns you’ve started. Once you moved a hero, there is no going back. This is unfortunate, and I suspect I lost many a unit over it.
You’re generally able to muddle through most of the fights. As long as one of your characters is still standing at the end, the fight is won. Your fallen characters are not dead, but will have to live with some stat penalties for a few days. The final confrontation, however, will have you pulling out your hair in frustration. It demands perfection and a complete grasp of the combat system’s intricacies. If you also haven’t leveled up a particular character throughout the game, it will be so much more difficult, since using that person is mandatory. Having played the game on normal difficulty, I was sorely tempted to change it to easy for the last fight. However, I’m very glad that I didn’t give in, and it made the ending so much more rewarding.
While perma-death is of no concern during the battles, it is still possible to get your precious fighters killed for good on your journey. This usually happens in the Choose Your Own Adventure sections, which veer between mundane and profound events and usually carry some sort of consequences. Sadly, it’s not always apparent what choices might lead to which outcome. I once managed to get a whole group of my heroes killed because I thought I could outsmart the Dredge. Turns out I couldn’t, so I had to make do without some characters I invested quite a bit of Renown in from then on.
This conveys a sense of vulnerability, which is at odds with the game’s combat. My best fighter, who took down countless Dredge, fell to death because he lost his footing while trying to save some supplies. That hurt, but it makes the journey feel important and keeps the tension up. There is no proper save system that allows you to record your progress anytime, but there are regular autosaves, so if you messed up too badly, you can go back to an earlier point and try again. However, I tried to not make use of this feature at all. It makes for a more compelling experience that way.
From a technical point of view, The Banner Saga leaves a bit to be desired. The game opens in a window and there’s no way to change its resolution. It scales perfectly well when maximized to suit your own display choices, though. On the plus side, there shouldn’t be any performance issues whatsoever on older machines. My laptop didn’t have any problems despite only using the weak on-board Intel GPU. The options menu is pretty bare-bones. You’re only able to toggle fullscreen mode, music, sound effects, and subtitles. There isn’t even a volume slider! Luckily, Stoic recently patched in subtitles, which were missing at launch. Some scenes have voice-acting only, and it would have been a shame if players that are either hard of hearing or non-native speakers couldn’t fully understand them. Furthermore, all of the voice-actors have thick Icelandic accents, which really sound fantastic and add to the atmosphere. But it makes understanding them so much harder if English is not your first language. With this oversight fixed, there is no reason not to enjoy The Banner Saga.
Conclusion – Is It Worth Your Money?
The Banner Saga is a slow game that requires some patience while it chugs along and shows you its wondrous sights. If it had not gained as much traction and appeared out of nowhere as the first game of some unknown small studio instead, it might easily have gone under among bigger, louder games. But that’s thankfully not the case, and Kickstarter-powered production values and good design decisions help turn this into a rare treat. For the price of $24.99, I enjoyed every step of the way, and I’ll be back for sure to see how the saga continues.