Born from a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game set in a fantasy realm which draws heavily on Norse culture. Developed by Stoic and the first of three planned titles, it is set in a time where there are no Gods and the sun is fixed in a perpetual twilight. The opening prologue explains that the story changes based on the choices players make. Indeed, this emphasis on narrative is underlined by Stoic’s Kickstarter campaign statement. The Banner Saga is pitched as a mature story, where maturity “means forming relationships and making tough decisions; not sex, violence and swearing.” As a character intones early in the game: “life goes on.” That is, until the cast of characters players oversee are relentlessly pursued by enemies known as the Dredge. Death becomes a frequent threat; decisions are tough because of their very real consequences.
The Banner Saga may consider its story-driven game play to be its selling point, but its beautiful presentation is where it truly excels right off the bat. The artwork on display here is of the highest quality, featuring exquisite settlements, charming landscapes and striking characters. The attention to detail is clear and the animation is what immediately captivated me. While it is clearly comparable to any number of classic Disney movies, the drawings here complement the narrative in a way that, for me, is reminiscent of a graphic novel which can effectively draw players into a world through imagery alone.
The Banner Saga’s narrative is accompanied by a strategic combat system in which the player’s roster of characters fight on a grid. The first fight encountered introduces the mechanics of this system. Each race – human, the giant-like Varl, or the Dredge – takes up a different amount of grid tiles, so being tactically aware of how movement works and how space can be controlled is key to learning and mastering the system. Kills earn Renown points, which can be used to level up characters or purchase supplies and gear. Willpower is a resource which can boost certain actions on the battlefield, but is limited and must be used carefully.
Characters have attributes in both armour and health, and it is often necessary to deal damage to the armour of an enemy before blows inflicted on their health do meaningful damage.
So this all sounds very promising, right, especially if turn-based strategy is your thing? (If it’s not then I’ll say it right off the bat: The Banner Saga is probably not worth your time.) So does it live up to the hype?
The answer is…sort of, but not really. Having spent just over 10 hours completing the campaign, The Banner Saga is, in my estimation, a game that is going to divide opinions. I’m still feeling quite undecided on where, exactly, I stand on the title. Consider the story: as I said before, I was asked to make choices that would impact how the narrative unfolds. The consequences of these choices weren’t always immediately clear. For example, I was asked to decide how squabbles in the caravan should be resolved, whether to invite a stranger into the camp or whether to help a wounded Varl. Later down the line I would discover that the stranger I accepted into the fold had left, but bestowed my caravan with a generous amount of supplies. Or that the wounded Varl brutally murdered the healers I sent to help him.
I found that for the majority of the decisions I was asked to make, I had little information to work with that would help me weigh up the pros and cons of certain choices, or to assess any possible ramifications. As such, I was largely working on instinct, or just making random choices. This decision-making process might point to the depth on offer in The Banner Saga, in terms of how many different paths the story might take. However, in reality, I felt like many of these choices were largely inconsequential. In fact, they became rather repetitive, usually offering a variation on one of three core choices: whether the caravan should stay or leave a certain place, flee or join a fight, save or abandon an injured person.
In my experience playing The Banner Saga, freedom – in terms of choice – is not as abundant as it initially appears. There is no true, in-depth exploration. At a certain point the game play becomes much like the caravan I spent so much time watching – I’m on for the duration of the ride and there’s no getting off to explore anywhere along the way. It’s a facade: much like being unable to get off the caravan ride, in reality players have very little power. It leads me to suggest that The Banner Saga is a game of false impressions – it has features that might appear innovative and complex but in reality are often redundant. The same goes for the enemies faced in battle: rarely did I face an unfamiliar foe. As such, playing the game through on normal difficulty, I found that tactics and battles became repetitive rather than increasingly complex. They required little adjustment on the fly.
Similarly, players can’t really significantly bolster or improve their roster. Leveling up characters requires Renown, which is also needed for supplies and gear. It’s not an abundant resource. In theory this should provide the player with another key decision: buy supplies to avoid caravan losses while travelling, or give fighters a better chance in battle. It’s a balancing act that doesn’t really work either way: I ended up with a team of fighters ranked up to similar (mediocre) levels and waiting for promotions I couldn’t really afford as I got further into the game.
Gear is the same: better equipment is more expensive, so I went for cheap quantity rather than higher quality. The rest of Renown goes on supplies. When supplies inevitably run out, I dropped numbers from my caravan. That’s it. I assume I was supposed to feel sad at these losses but really, they had no measurable impact on my next battle. Finally, players are provided with a map, which is pretty and also all but useless. I never opened it up because I didn’t have to.
The Banner Saga’s main problem is the fact that it is a journey that becomes repetitive. This manifests in the choices players are asked to make and the nature of the journey itself: I found myself watching my caravan plod across the screen, clicking through some dialogue, holding camp, fighting a random battle, arriving at a village, watching my caravan plod across the screen some more…lather, rinse, repeat. For me, this impacted on the game’s ability to successfully tell the story it considers to be at its heart. I found the narrative to be disjointed and poorly structured, especially in the early stages of the campaign.
There’s no pertinent introduction, there are a lot of characters that come and go. Key characters aren’t effectively established early on, which meant I wasn’t particularly invested in them. In turn, this again impacted on The Banner Saga’s choice-based structure: it doesn’t mean as much if I don’t really care what happens to the cast. The fact that this is the first of three planned games may go some way to explaining the disjointed nature of the narrative and the abrupt conclusion. But an individual title should still have a clear structure and ending, whether it’s part of a trilogy or not.
That being said, I certainly came to enjoy The Banner Saga the more time I spent with it. It grew on me, which I admit is both contradictory and paradoxical in a way, given that I have criticized the game for its redundant features, tediousness and lack of variety. The visuals are certainly compelling and the animation is the most captivating aspect of the game. In the end though, this says as much about the content as anything else. The presentation promises much and is highly polished but it lies at the surface, working to conceal the more problematic aspects of the actual game itself.
Review copy of game provided by publisher.