Despite releasing on Nintendo Switch in May 2018, The Banner Saga (referred to henceforth as BS1) originally released on PC and mobile back in January 2014. Created by independent developer Stoic Studio, BS1 is a fantasy-themed tactical RPG that touts strategic combat mechanics and harsh player choices which shape the game world as the player journeys across it. These choices often end in punishing consequences and even in party member deaths, so the phrase “Your choices matter” has never been so relevant. Through gorgeous, stark settings and characters that each feel unique and real, The Banner Saga offers an expertly crafted narrative buffered by fun combat and addictively painful player decisions that could not be more worth your time.
The world in BS1 has been rocked by war and death. Through multiple character viewpoints, players take control of main protagonists who get thrust into positions of authority and responsibility. The two main races presented in the game, the humans and the varl, follow a strained alliance against a humanoid-creature race known as the Dredge. Throughout each chapter, you face hordes of these creatures while trying to lead caravans of people over dangerous journeys.
For much of the game, the player perspective switches back and forth between the journey of a varl known as Hakon and the journey of a human known as Rook. Both men, through no choice of their own, inherit massive duties to lead. As these men (and a few others) you meet dozens of other party members and NPCs in your march to your destinations. The narrative is presented through beautifully drawn and colored scenes. Characters are illustrated for most conversations, but some other interactions take place in a menu. Outside of a few voiced lines for context, lore, and exposition, the scenes with dialogue and player choices are text-based.
Since the game does include a few instances of VO, I would love to have experienced more of it throughout. The menu-based interactions could have easily remained text while the important illustrated scenes could have used voices. This, however, is a massive nit-pick as the game works perfectly in text form (and many of my favorite games exclude voice over as well).
Much like other RPGs, periodically through conversations with NPCs, you are prompted with options for response. Some of these responses open up branching conversations that add flavor text for lore purposes while other responses make final decisions which cannot be undone. For this reason, I found myself carefully thinking through each response more than I have in any other game I’ve played. A miss-click on a dialogue option could be the difference between your favorite party member being alive or dead forever. You’ve been warned.
One of my favorite aspects of BS1 is in the presentation of the world and its characters. Aside from the plot itself being interesting and engaging, the people who inhabit the setting are the true heroes here. Despite this being a sprawling fantasy world, the focus of the story remains extremely local, making the plot feel intimate and, in turn, making the world feel big. Even though you follow two separate storylines on opposites ends of the world for much of the game, the narrative never feels too worldwide or too big in scope for its own good. You care about the game’s people, their families, their fates, and even their feelings. That’s difficult to do sometimes in a fantasy setting because the creators want you to see everything their world has to offer. In BS1, it doesn’t feel like the world is empty at all – quite the opposite. Since the perspective is so focused, it makes every landmark and milestone feel bigger and grander. I felt like an ant in an enormous land.
It’s important to note that you are not freely roaming in this game. Even when in a town, you do not control an avatar to move around from market to the great hall. Instead, that is done through a point and click “menu.” I put menu in quotes there because it’s cleverly disguised as a hand-drawn illustration of the city, town, fortress, or camp itself. This feature might not click with some players who are looking for more of an action experience, something that gives them the freedom to explore and roam. In this game, you’re on a linear track, and while sometimes you’re given the freedom to choose what to do, you won’t actually be performing those actions by running around and doing them – you’ll be reading about them like a storybook.
While the “cutscenes” themselves are just downright beautiful to look at, I will note that some of the camera jumps between speakers can sometimes feel harsh and jolting. However, this is minor and doesn’t detract from experience the scene.
One area where this game truly shines is in its tone. When you read “fantasy” in the description, think more Game of Thrones than The Lord of the Rings. When I refer to GoT, I simply mean its brutal way of presenting each character as gray and realistic. There are few heroes and truly despicable villains to find here – instead, you encounter characters with individual motivations forcing them to make impossible decisions. Sometimes those decisions are good; sometimes, they’re awful. In the end, that leaves the player surrounded by realistic people. They feel flawed, and so they feel real.
As a fair warning, in order to not absolutely loathe this game, you cannot go into thinking you’re going to be able to be a straight hero. You’re going to make rough decisions, and you’re going to find you sometimes make wrong decisions. Try your hardest to be okay with that because this game isn’t going to hold your hand and apologize for the results of your choices. That might be too hard for some players to overcome, so it’s something to be aware of before you dive in.
Since this is indeed a tactical RPG, all the story in the world would not make this a great game without properly-implemented combat mechanics. The system here is both deep and interesting. I found myself hungering for more combat at times, and I found myself wishing there was a way to choose how and when I experienced battles. I know many gamers shy away from grinding, and I’m one of those too. But the combat here was so fun to me, I would have welcomed the ability to battle over and over for experience.
Inside combat, the systems intertwine to make a satisfying symphony of death and destruction. Both your units and enemy units display two types of health pools: a red one known as strength and a blue one known as armor. Strength technically signifies a units true health bar as the character will die as soon as it hits zero. The armor pool, however, is equally important. If a defending unit’s armor number is greater than an attacking unit’s strength number, then the attack damage is massively reduced and even provides a chance for the attack to miss altogether. The more you can lower the unit’s armor, the more strength you’ll be able to remove each attack. For this reason, it pays to attack both stats over time. If you go in thinking you’ll be able to win by just attacking the enemy’s “health” bar, you will be sorely mistaken and will learn to correct the errors of your ways or die horrible, horrible deaths.
In fact, all the stats for your characters hold equal weight when you’re building them out. It’s so refreshing to find a system that puts thought into each and every stat you invest experience toward. There are stat categories that allow you to inflict more damage toward enemy armor (Break), that allow you to both add extra damage to attacks and add extra movement to your turn (Willpower), and that allow you to increase the amount of Willpower you can use per turn (Exertion). Certain characters have more affinity toward certain stats, allowing you to mold them certain ways over the course of a playthrough and therefore giving you the ability to make your units feel quite distinct. Special attacks/skills for each character also go into making your characters feel different from each other, so even if you have two archers in your active party, they will feel and play completely differently.
Upon killing enemy units, you obtain a currency called Renown. Renown is one of the most important elements in this game, and you will never have enough of it. You use this currency to level up (promote) your units, but this is only the beginning its use. You also spend it to buy items for your party members and supplies for your caravans. This is really where I wish the game would give you the opportunity to battle at will as Renown becomes scarce. I realize this is intentional because it adds to the stress and the consequences of choice. This isn’t a game that gives you the world; it’s a game that makes you scrape and beg for mercy. On one hand, I love this about it, and on the other, it frustrated me to no end.
The combat does offer one gift of mercy, and that comes in how it handles death. Despite the game being known for its punishing permadeath, the dying actually does not occur in combat. The permadeath takes place due to decisions made in menus and cutscenes. When units fall in combat, they become injured and are unusable during the remainder of the battle. Even when all of your party members fall, you will not be handed a game over screen. Instead, the battle simply ends in a loss, and all of your party members will need resting before returning to full strength again. Resting can be done in the camp screen and will simply advance time by a day and consume a day’s worth of supplies. This element is the only thing forgiving about the combat, so I would suggest thanking the Banner Saga gods and continue on your dandy way.
When I spoke about the tone of the world, the game’s soundtrack is one of the aspects that truly transports the player to the grounded and gruesome world within the game. Austin Wintory has created a soundtrack that not only sets a mood within the game, but it becomes one of the main characters. As much as the plot or characters, it tells the stories and struggles of these people. It’s melodies are solemn, dark, yet hopeful at the same time. I’m including a sample below so that it can speak for itself.
My final concern with the game would be in the area of performance, and BS1 does not disappoint. It’s optimized well for the platform, and regardless of playing in docked or handheld, it runs quickly and smoothly. Loading times are reasonable, and the UI is snappy when in menus. The ability to take it on the go tops the experience off as well.
While I wish there were a way to manually save the game before cutscenes or decisions, I understand the lack of manual saving adds a layer of weight and consequence to all the actions, and for me, the acting and deciding fates in this game is what hooked me the most. It’s a game that makes me worry about my choice beforehand and either sigh in pure relief when it works in my favor or roar in honest frustration when it doesn’t. At the end of the day, BS1 made me feel, and if a game can do that, I would say it’s successful. I felt connected to each and every person within that world, and I honestly cared for their wellbeing. I felt a responsibility to them; I can’t remember another game that has done that to me on that level.
Due to some of its offerings, this title might not be fore everyone, but I will encourage every gamer to at least try it. Its plot, world, characters, and complex combat make it a game worth diving into; the choices it gives you and the world allows you to craft through those choices, making it a game worth playing to the very end. It’s not a perfect game only in the way that I don’t think any game can ever be perfect, but it was everything that I wanted it to be – and more. And really, that’s all I can ask for.