The Banner Saga: A Retrospective
The Banner Saga is one of my favorite video game(s) to be created in the last decade. From its world’s aesthetic and lore to its combat systems, the series clicks with me on so many levels. Even though I find enjoyment (and a lot of pain) from these three titles, I know that for many, it feels like a daunting dive into what you’ve probably heard to be a brutal experience. And I will get this out of the way at the beginning: The Banner Saga can be a brutal experience. However, with a difficulty option and an autosave feature which can save you from MOST anxiety-inducing blunders, the deterrents to this wonderful series are not as debilitating as they might appear.
Even once you’ve taken the plunge into the sweet, sweet land of the always-shining sun, you might find some systems in The Banner Saga’s first title (Banner Saga 1) to be…not exactly comfort food. In this brief overview, I hope to explain how some of these systems grow over the course of the series and give you hope to enjoy those mechanics more as each game progresses.
As with all three games, the bulk of Banner Saga 1’s story and action takes place in the form of a text-based adventure. You are presented with paragraphs of action or dialogue and then are given options for how to proceed with the scene. In addition to this, you’ll experience conversation scenes in lightly animated still images, giving you dialogue trees and longer conversations. And in the rarest of instances, you’ll see animated “cutscenes” which are usually ten seconds or shorter in length. All of your non-combat play experience will occur in these ways and is consistent across the trilogy.
Between cutscenes, decision-making, and camping, you will watch your party – and the caravan they lead – travel along their journey. As the line of people walk across the screen, time will pass which will trigger the consumption of caravan supplies and the deterioration of caravan morale. While traveling, you have the option to set up camp, giving the opportunity to Rest. Resting costs one day of time, consuming your supplies but increasing morale. Camp also allows you to talk to party members, level up characters, and train in a practice arena. These mechanics persist through each of the three games.
The major themes of Banner Saga 1 in my mind are simplicity and scarcity. Those themes are illustrated in both combat and in the accumulation of the game’s currency: Renown. In Banner Saga 1’s combat, your party faces a group of enemies in grid-based tactical combat. Without going into too great of detail for each combat system, the core mechanic deals with two elements: Armor and Strength. The Banner Saga’s combat is “simple” in that it presents easy-to-grasp numbers and easy math when calculating attacks, damage, healing, etc.
Essentially, a higher Armor rating means attacks will deal less damage to Strength (“HP”). The higher a Strength stat means you can deal more damage to enemy Strength. Units may either attack against enemy Armor or Strength–the lower Armor rating becomes, the more damage the unit is susceptible to. Strategy comes into play with whether you want to damage Strength to cause enemy attacks to deal less damage or whether to attack Armor so that you’re able to deal more damage toward the unit in the long run.
This type of battle system has gotten me in trouble in other games after I play The Banner Saga for an extended period of time. After getting used to enemy units doing LESS damage the lower their health goes, I have left damaged enemy units alive in other turn-based RPGs, forgetting entirely that they will do normal damage no matter their low-health status.
As the battle concludes with the death of the final enemy, you will either return to your march across the land, or sometimes, you’ll have the opportunity at a second battle stage. If you have this chance, it’s a good idea to take it as you will receive more Renown and an effective item at the end of the encounter. However, ONLY take this challenge if your units are still healthy and alive. Remember, the lower your unit’s Strength (“HP”) stat, the less damage they will inflict upon enemy units. And since you cannot rest or recover stats between waves, you’ll be tasked with clearing the second battlefield with whatever strength your party has remaining.
It’s important to note that the game’s brutal reputation does not extend to permadeath within battles. While there are plenty of ways to accidentally permanently kill a party member, a battle is not one of those. Upon one of your party members being downed, they will be labeled as “Injured” after the battle, diminishing their stats until recovered. The only way to recover from injury is to camp and Rest (remember that this will consume supplies). Therefore, taking heavy casualties in battle can lead to consequences outside of battle. Interestingly, other than a couple scripted encounters needed to progress the plot, having your party completely wiped does not lead to a Game Over. Instead, your entire party is simply injured and will need to rest in order to recover stats.
Those mechanics, once you get used to them, feel like a simple and grounded set of battle systems that are tightly put together. The second theme of “scarcity” comes into play with the experience you receive from battle. In The Banner Saga, experience is referred to as Renown. The unique thing here is that Renown is not only used as accumulated experience gained from downing enemies and completing battles, but it’s also used as the game’s currency. This leads to the conundrum of whether to upgrade your units, to buy enough supplies to keep your caravan from starving and low on morale, or whether to buy useful equipment for your party to wear. That’s a lot of choices to make with a single resource. And I assure you, keeping your caravan alive and happy in the first game goes a LONG way even in the third game (despite how little I thought it would affect things on my first playthrough).
In moving to Banner Saga 2, those same simple systems are mostly intact but are tweaked to make the experience SLIGHTLY more manageable and more…enjoyable? See? This game isn’t so bad. Starting with additions outside combat, Banner Saga 2 introduces a couple mechanics to the caravan journey. The first is that your non-fighters actually contribute toward something other than unhappiness in this leg of the journey. They now accumulate fractions of supplies by scavenging while you travel. While not overwhelmingly helpful, it’s a step in the right direction at least. The second added mechanic is that low morale actually negatively affects one of your stats in combat. Conversely, high morale buffs that same stat within combat.
The camp in Banner Saga 2, while almost exactly the same as the first entry, does introduce one major element to the training option. You can now take on training challenges, and if completed, you will receive a much-appreciated dose of Renown.
Within combat, Banner Saga 2 offers much more variety to enemy unit types, making encounters feel less monotonous. You must be prepared for the enemy to do a plethora of things. In addition to variety, this title introduces mid-fight enemy reinforcements, which make encounters feel dynamic and ups their frantic nature. You won’t know from which direction these new units will appear, and you won’t know how strong they’ll be. This feature forces you to be even more careful than before so that you can plan for the worst.
The biggest boon to Banner Saga 2 is the extra ways to earn Renown (like the training tent). Since that one resource pulls triple duty, you’ll never turn down the chance to earn more. While it backpedals slightly from the idea of scarcity, the game never showers you in it. So it’s not game-breaking in that way, and if anything, it makes the experience more enjoyable.
In Banner Saga 3, you see the culmination of all the tight systems presented from the first two entries. Here, like a good third film of a trilogy, everything works to resolve all of the chess pieces moving around the board. Instead of spanning grand landmasses, much of the game takes place within a single city (while a second group of the party still travels around the world). The journeying of the caravan still occurs but within the walls of the city. Don’t think for a minute that means you can slack off on your resource management. You still need to keep an eye on supplies.
The main reason for this is because the climax of the game introduces a mechanic that feels like a race against time. All of your caravan management up until this point (reaching back all three games) helps you tremendously here. Having supplies, high morale, and caravan numbers is key to a happy life.
The primary way to obtain extra Renown in this title is actually through combat. While the previous two games gave you the ability to outlast one more wave of enemies for extra Renown and an item reward, Banner Saga 3 goes one step further by adding more waves to the mix. However, a huge huge huge difference in these scenarios is that Banner Saga 3 allows you to swap your characters between waves.
Got a party member who is low on Strength? Swap them for someone in reserves. Got someone who’s been knocked out completely? You get to do the same. Since enemies at this point are quite powerful, this mechanic gives you the security that fights are doable instead of feeling overwhelming. In fact, I would have loved to see something like this implemented in the previous installments. It would have taken away SOME of the nail biting. But in the service of feeling like you’re capable to take on the next fight.
In addition to subbing party members between waves, you also have the ability to see from which direction the new enemy units will be arriving. Where in the first two games, the new wave could come in and completely ruin your healer/archer placement and down those units before you could save them, Banner Saga 3 is kind enough to let you know where you can place your new units so they aren’t nuked on arrival.
One of the biggest things Banner Saga 3 does is that it carries on the theme of your choices truly do craft a different game from someone else who made different choices. And Banner Saga 3 also has the guts to give you… not the ending that you want, but the one you deserve (based on your decisions). Which can be a terrifying prospect.
As I close this overview, that prospect is what I want to focus on. The Banner Saga, from beginning to end, gives you a multitude of ways to experience its games. Once you get familiar with which decisions lead to certain character deaths, you can go back and experience various paths and flavors. Got a favorite party member who tragically died on this playthrough? You know what you have to do to save them next time. Did you take a goody goody approach to caravan maintenance this playthrough? Go for a harsh, give-no-shoots, hard-butt leader next time. And as each game only takes a dozen hours or so to complete, you can bank on each installment not being a huge time sink.
My hope in this look back at The Banner Saga is that I told you enough about the awesome features in these games for you to not feel threatened by its “brutal” reputation. Over the last few years, this series has become one of my favorite video game experiences I’ve ever had (more than once), and I would love for you to experience it as well. In the end, it’s The Banner Saga’s tightly woven systems and commitment to meaningful player choice that makes it a game worth at least trying (and falling in love with).