“The Gods are dead.
In their wake, man and giant
survived through a tenuous
alliance, driving black
destroyers called dredge deep
into the northern wastes.
Now is an era of growth
and trade. Life goes on.
Only one thing has stopped.
So begins the epic tale of The Banner Saga, the first of a planned trilogy by Stoic for PC. A turn-based strategy game steeped in Nordic legend, this is a world where the sun has stopped, the dredge have started pouring in out of the North, the world is coming to an end – and you have a caravan to feed. It’s an intricately crafted world, with characters and landscapes drawn impeccably to the style of Disney Artist Eyvind Earle, and is made all the more beautiful by the fact that it’s crumbling down around you. Hard choices face you at every turn, and your decisions often mean that some of your party will live while others die. The world draws you in deeply for the roughly 10 hours it takes to complete, and truly makes you feel the weight of responsibility and loss.
A council between varl and human
The art style of the game is no short of magical. The story takes place in a fictional realm steeped in snow where men and giants, known as varl, coexist. The art style is reminiscent of the older Disney movies like Sleeping Beauty, giving the game a magical feel that modern CGI is unable to achieve. Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this art style is that it is not only used for the character portraits and still images that help tell the story, but for the combat as well. This ensures that the illusion crafted by the game artists is never interrupted through the transition between the storytelling and the battlefield. The script of the game is advanced through some audio narration, but most of the story is told visually and with text, utilizing beautiful stills. The animation of your banner unfurling behind your caravan, a canvas used to stitch the story of your journey from which the game draws its name, is inspiring, and a constant reminder of the hardships you face as you watch your supplies dwindle on the march. Your party members are memorable and unique characters who engage with each other, further livening the already lush world created by the writers and artists of the game and driving the narrative forward. The introduction of the game has one full animated cutscene, and if I have one unfortunate thing to say about the art of the game its that there weren’t more. The score, composed by Austin Wintory, is suitably epic, full of doleful winds and strings and enchanting vocals, and can be streamed or purchased here.
The battle system is engaging and requires you to think
your tactics through carefully before acting
The battle system in the game is reminiscent of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy: Tactics in that units move and attack on a grid, but with enough original mechanics that it stands out from both. At the beginning of the battle you choose which order your party members will perform their actions. A progress bar at the bottom left of the screen dictates in which order your party and the enemy can act, with one player and one enemy taking alternate turns. Since you know exactly in what order you and your enemies will move, you can plan your battle strategy around enemies’ potential movement and which party members you want in the fray, such as your tanks, and which party members you want to hold back, such as your archers and healers. All units have both a strength and an armour stat, and when they attack can choose to do strength damage, armour damage, or in the case of some special attacks, both. Strength is not only a unit’s health, but the amount of attack power that unit has, so the lower a unit’s health the lower their damage. You can not perform maximum strength damage to a unit, however, until you whittle down their armour first. This leads to interesting decisions regarding which units you choose to attack with in which order, as some units are better at destroying armour but weak at taking down strength and others vice-versa. All units also have a Will stat, which when spent lets them move farther than their normal movement or add extra power to their attacks. Will can be replenished by resting a turn, or through the horn at the top of the screen which builds up Will points to grant to units for every kill. Each type of unit also has a unique special attack using Will that further influences your decisions as to which units to move in which order, and how to best spend your Will.
Rook and his daughter Alette
The battles are engaging and require a lot of thought to get through with minimal damage, and I failed fights altogether on more than one occasion. Yet the fights on normal were never so hard that I felt they were impossible, and was encouraged to reload my save and try again. I would have liked to see a mechanic that allows you to see not only the potential movement of ranged enemy units, but their attack radius as well. The UI is implemented well in general, but on occasion I found it was easy to click in the wrong place, cancelling an attack, or moving a unit to the wrong space. These are very small complaints however, as overall the battle system was challenging, fun, and never frustrating. Unlike Fire Emblem there is no permadeath from battles, but when a unit is hurt badly they need to rest between battles to get back to full strength, which uses precious supplies. Though you can’t permanently lose your units from a battle gone wrong, the decisions you make between battles can cost you some of your favourite party members.
The march between villages can be long and arduous,
you need to take supplies and morale into account
Between battles you will find your caravan either in a town or on the march between destinations, and you have constant decisions to make. On your journey, your caravan will run into all sorts of problems, such as infighting, drunkards, bandits, disputes over marriage, hunger, and issues with personal space (varl are quite large after all), and it’s up to you to decide how to handle them via text prompts you receive along with multiple choice solutions. If you choose well, you earn Renown, which is the currency you use to level up your heroes, buy supplies, and buy items that buff your heroes. Decisions can also lead to new people joining your caravan or the acquisition of new supplies. Choose poorly and you may lose precious fighters and varl that help you engage the dredge in large scale encounters, or in some cases even your party members. There is nothing more painful than losing a party member you’ve become attached to through their humour, ability, and service to the caravan, but it will happen. Being a leader requires knowing when to hold fast, when to be tough, and when to let things go, and as you make decisions you are constantly fretting about the possible ramifications. Another big decision is how you spend your Renown. If you choose to level up too many party members or purchase too many items and run out of supplies, members of your caravan will die on the march, causing the random battles you encounter on the road to be more difficult. At the end of random battles you can choose to chase down the enemy and fight more for higher Renown and the chance to find rare items, so having easier battles is definitely worthwhile. March too long without resting, which uses a days worth of supplies, will also cause your morale to sink and your party members to be weaker in battle. While at times I found the outcomes of my seemingly rational decisions disappointing and unexpected, I could not fault the game’s logic being different than my own, and it caused me to be more careful in the future. There are no right answers, you will experience loss no matter decisions you make, and that is perhaps the most engaging part of this game; you care so much about your band of warriors that to see them harmed or depleted comes at a great emotional cost.
The Banner Saga is a beautiful game about the meaning of war and suffering. The decisions you are forced to make are difficult, and give you a genuine feel for the burdens of leadership and the sacrifices required to lead people across the wilderness. The art style draws you in, and the gameplay and decision-making mechanic keep you held fast. Though I felt there could be some minor improvements made to the battle UI, the turn-based battling mechanic is both familiar and refreshingly new at the same time, and the storytelling was top-notch. The various decisions you make throughout the game, and the fact that many of the encounters and decisions you make on the march are randomized, make repeat playthroughs strongly encouraged. I will be eagerly waiting for part two, and I highly recommend this game.