Game Review: “The Banner Saga”

Felipe Cabrera

It has become increasingly easy for me to be jaded about the current state of the video game industry. We have awkwardly welcomed a new console generation with rereleases of games that barely came out a year ago, and that is just sad. But then, like a shimmering beacon of hope, “The Banner Saga” has come to save me from cynical boredom.

“The Banner Saga” is the first installment in an epic RPG/strategy trilogy from Stoic Studio, ex-Bioware employees who probably did not want to stick around to see Bioware crank out Mass Effect games for the next 20 years. The Banner Saga tells a tale heavily based on Viking lore. The sun has gone, the Gods are dead and the societies of humans and varls (horned giants) crumble frigid and faithless in the wake of their absence. To make matters worse, stone giants called the dredge are right on their heels as they uproot communities and travel in large caravans to find a safe place to start over.

During the course of the game you play from two different perspectives to get a full scope of the hardships of both races during these turbulent times. Rook is a skilled hunter who has to deal with falling into the position of leading hundreds of people to salvation while raising his daughter in an unforgiving world. Hakon is respected warrior among the varl who now has to use his famed past to lead his people. As would be expected from Bioware alum, The Banner Saga’s story, characters and lore are fully fleshed out. Lead characters are multifaceted and the story is fed through beautifully handcrafted 2D visuals—some of the most unique I have seen in a while. Watching the caravan trudge through snowcapped landscapes accurately communicates the desperation and hardships of your journey. The animations are on par something out of a Disney movie. 

It is difficult to talk about the plot of “The Banner Saga” because how this journey unfolds is up to each individual player. Who do I side with? Do I have enough food to take on more clansmen? Do my warriors have the numbers and resolve to face off the approaching army of dredge? These are only a fraction of the questions you will ask yourself on your journey, and the answers are not always simple. For better or worse, all your decisions have their weight on consequences. Taking a side in a conflict may grant you another hero to choose from your roaster, but your actions may rub another character in a wrong way that could result in them fed up and leaving. Turning down a group of tired, hungry people who want to join you on the roadside may have seem harsh at first. But focusing mouths you have to feed in your caravan made it easier on your limited supplies. Even something seemingly benign as forcing the clan’s drunkard to exile can bring morale up and effect performance in battle.

When you are not talking to characters or making big decisions, all this will culminate one way or another in battle. If you are familiar with strategy RPGs like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, “The Banner Saga” will not wow you with anything too different. Battles take place on a grid plane and player and enemies will take turns moving on the battlefield. Characters are assigned one of the games seven different classes, each with their own tactical advantages and weaknesses.

 When there is time for the caravan to rest and set up camp, you can spend the renown you have earned in battle to buy upgrade items for your heroes, supplies for your caravan, or rank up your heroes after they have kill met their kill requirement for the next rank. I miss being able to deck out your heroes in different armors and weapons like in other RPGs. “The Banner Saga” allows you to equip your heroes with one stat boosting item.  I can understand the choice to simplify options—you only have so many points of renown to spare. Everything is tied to the same resource and it is up to you to decide which comes first. At first this seems like an annoying decision for the developers to make, but it further amplifies the importance of your decisions during the game.

What makes this turn based strategy RPG different from other games in the same vein is how bloody difficult battles can be. Everyone has two main attributes, strength and defense. Defense determines your hero’s armor, and both attack and health are tied to strength. Then there is willpower, which allows you to move further on the field, use special skills and pepper up attacks. The hard part? Human enemies can be dealt with easily, but enemies like the dredge hit really hard. So hard in fact, some of them have a high enough strength to totally by pass a more fragile character’s shield and down them in one hit. That is why I usually have my humans follow safety after varl into battle against the dredge. The enemy AI is probably as smart as you are. They will soften up the armor of your hard hitters, surround your weakest link and then teabag your worthless dead heroes as you weep.

Battle are difficult, requiring a lot of strategy and patience, but are ultimately rewarding. The damage done to an enemy is calculated by their defense minus your hero’s strength. If a dredge’s defense is too high, have an archer target their armor from a safe distance, using willpower to increase her damage, then have your hard hitting varl warrior beat down its strength. Now, the dredge has lower attack power and health and will be easier to take down. Shieldbangers are high in defense and can take a lot of punishment. You can move them in first during the battle and let enemies crowd around them, letting the Shieldbanger absorb damage for your other heroes. Once the enemies are preoccupied, you can position your other heroes to flank them.

What can make battles even more difficult are the decisions you made beforehand. Tick someone off in a conversation, and they can be M.I.A. in your next encounter. Deciding to hold your ranks and draw in the enemies into your lines could mean fewer foes for you to fight on your own. If your morale is low you take a penalty to heroes’ willpower, and low willpower means you will not be able to take advantage of special skills as often—or power up an attack for the finishing blow.

The Banner Saga lifted my spirits for a new gaming seasons. The meticulously crafted beautiful art design makes it evident that this game was a labor of love for Stoic Studios. That alone could be a reason to purchase this title, but it does not outshine an awesome story that intertwines gameplay in such a way that you never feel like the plot unravel without your personal touch. It is like The Banner Saga is reaching out its hand to invite you on an epic journey. It does not coddle you the way games have over the past generation. It lets you break into your own direction, and when you look back, you know your steps fell on the path you made.