Developer Stoic’s first entry in its three-part turn-based strategy role-playing game epic The Banner Saga is excellent, both as a standalone game and as an introduction to a greater narrative. It’s expansive world and endearing cast craft a compelling stage, tense battles and difficult decisions giving each exchange weight and uncertainty. It’s beautiful and dark; depressing, yet heartwarming; bleak, but hopeful. Not a pleasant game by any means, but a wonderful one all the same.
The Banner Saga is set in a world on the brink of destruction. The gods have died, and the sun has stopped. Stone creatures known as dredge, thought to have been banished to the north many years ago, now ravage the land once more. Death and desolation lay spread throughout the frigid landscape, villages traveling in packs in an attempt to find sanctuary, seemingly hopeless as it may be. As Rook, you head up one such caravan following a forced evacuation of your home due to an invasion of dredge, your job as the newly appointed leader to keep everyone safe and fed. A difficult task given scarce supplies and frequent fights breaking out along the road.
It’s a beautiful, fascinating world. Even in spite of the bleak circumstances, it’s hard not to take interest in the rich lore and breathtaking sights. It’s history is long and storied, the map containing info on just about everything; from mountains and cities to the oceans and fields, each extolling vignettes and facts on the world itself or specific points in time. The hand-drawn art lends a unique style, almost reminiscent of old Disney films, which helps make your time spent here all the more enjoyable. Though none of it is animated outside of combat and a single cutscene right at the start, it’s gorgeous to behold all the same.
Most of The Banner Saga is spent on the road. It plays a lot like The Oregon Trail here. Your caravan travels along a set path, your only actions on the road handling random events, which range from encounters with bandits and dredge to solving disputes from within your clan and deciding when to stop and rest. Setting up camp and relaxing for a few days helps regain morale (very important for battle), but it also eats away at your supplies. Few markets line the roads you roam, those still in business seldom selling more than a few days’ worth of food, and at a high price.
Balancing resources and the caravan’s well-being makes the long stretches of travel interesting. The Banner Saga already delivers plenty of drama and suspense through its story and random interactions on the road by hanging the threat of constant, unexpected death over you. (Your troops can only die permanently outside of battle.) Everything else merely conspires to make you into a complete emotional wreak. Watching supplies dwindle with each passing day, inching closer and closer to running dry, hoping and praying desperately that a market’s nearby is nerve-wracking. That battle could suddenly strike and wound most of your soldiers, leaving you no time to recover in time for a story-critical campaign even more so.
It never gives you a break. You’re constantly on edge, analyzing everything very deeply before committing to anything – even the most pedestrian of questions – out of fear of it coming to bite you in the ass later on. And that’s precisely the genius of The Banner Saga: everything matters. Actions don’t exist in a vacuum, always playing a role in deciding what lies in wait for you in the future. A trusted ally could suddenly betray you, or vast supplies gained from charitable travels could prove to be spoiled, possibly tainting the rest of your food. It’s a constant balancing act of weighing pros and cons, wants and needs, etc. You can never avoid loss, only prepare for, mitigate, and recover from it as best you can.
Battle delivers similarly tough situations, albeit in a different manner. The Banner Saga uses a turn-based system, one that keeps the turn order even. Rather than have both sides move all their units on the same turn, each character takes their turn individually, swapping back and forth between you and the AI; you take a turn, then the enemy does, then it’s back to you, and so on. This continues until either side is down to a single unit, at which point whoever holds the advantage gets to move all their characters in sequence until the skirmish ends. You can decide the turn order of your soldiers during deployment, which is just as important as whom you choose to send out.
Your units run the usual gamut of archers, swordsmen, spearmen, and more. Even though many characters share the same class, each is wholly unique. Apart from the obvious stat differences, their abilities differ greatly. One archer, for instance, can fire an arrow that pieces multiple foes in a single line, while another can trap specific squares to halt enemy movement, making multiples of the same class more than mere redundancies.
Everyone’s use is limited without proper leveling, though. Every few slain foes, the option to promote one of your soldiers comes up. Doing so grants a couple of skill points that can be invested in one of their many stats (strength, defense, armor break damage, etc.) in exchange for renown. The costs start low, but rapidly climb as characters grow. Everyone can be promoted up to five times, but only a few will ever grow so strong, if at all. The need for level five units is small, the majority of battles able to be handled through sheer tactical prowess alone. I was able finish The Banner Saga just fine without a single level five unit, even in spite of a few choke-points.
No matter how strong the adversary, tactics are what decide the outcome of battle. Brute force gets you or your opponent nowhere. You have to smart in how you attack, with whom, and when. Just rushing toward the nearest foe with whoever you can may work in the short-term, but such focus on a single enemy will only cost you in the long-term. Low strength (hit-points, essentially) and defense only make you an easier target, all but ensuring the enemy’s victory, whereas carefully drawing them in and steadily whittling away at whoever seems to be the biggest threat often increases your chances of success. It’s all a matter of reading the situation and positioning your troops intelligently. No battle can’t be won that way.
There is one instance to the contrary right at the end, though: the final boss, where suddenly the difficulty jumps unexpectedly. Up until that point, The Banner Saga keeps up a steady, even challenge, always ensuring you can turn a bad situation around. But during the final boss? Not so. The battle is engineered to be tackled in a very specific way, leaving you with few options if you haven’t properly prepared for it.
I tried countless strategies and all of them failed, none of my usual go-to tactics or troops able to make much of a dent. It felt hopeless, like I’d somehow made some horrible miscalculation I wouldn’t be able to recover from… until I turned the game difficulty down to easy. Then it was a complete cakewalk. It’s a horrible bit of unbalance that closes the game out on a sour note.
Even so, everything leading up that point is handled so well, so finely crafted and tuned that it’s hard to let that one mishap color the entire experience. From the intriguing world and characters to the intense combat and nerve-wracking micromanagement of the caravan, the engrossing story and marvelous writing, it all comes together in spectacular fashion. The Banner Saga is nothing short of a masterpiece. That this is only the first entry makes it difficult to imagine how Stoic could possibly top itself with the rest of the trilogy, but it’s an exciting prospect all the same.