As hinted by the title, The Banner Saga is part one of an epic Viking story where every choice you make directly impacts how your journey unfolds. It combines strategic turn-based combat with gripping text-based decision-making to draw you into a fictional world inspired by Norse mythology and filled with rich lore, as well as plenty of interesting characters you’ll grow fond of as your adventure progresses.
The Banner Saga doesn’t waste any time establishing its foundations. The gods are dead and the sun has stopped moving with the world stuck in a state of eternal twilight. Humans co-exist alongside horned giants known as Varls, despite the occasional turmoil, and now an ancient enemy threat referred to as the Dredge has returned to kill every living being in sight. This backstory is used to introduce you to a convoy of characters comprised of both humans and Varl along with clansmen that travel the lands in a caravan party with their own missions at stake.
For most parts, you’ll be taking in the stunning sights of the barren but beautiful lands as you watch your group of heroes and followers traverse the harsh Nordic environments while stopping off at any villages, camps or other points of interest. Where you travel depends on the route you take on the map. Resting at encampments to pass time is vital if moral and supplies are low. High morale reduces the number of casualties in battle and affects willpower. Each time you set out on an adventure, supplies are used to sustain the journey. The same resources used to purchase much-needed supplies are also used to level-up members of your party, so it’s a bit of a balancing act between improving party member attributes while ensuring followers don’t drop off because of food shortages. Camps also provide you with the chance to upgrade allies and equip items to enhance your characters in the hero tent.
It’s the choices you make during each chapter that make this such an enjoyable experience from start to finish. For every decision there is a consequence that will alter how the story unfurls. This is most evident in the text-based sections and exchanges with various characters over the course of the game – all told from the perspective of interesting lead heroes. It’s during these scenes you’ll be required to have input in the outcome of a situation – such as how your party will approach a battle, or if they should even engage in battle in the first place. Characters can convey multiple emotions, depending on which text-based choice you select. There are rational approaches and results to situations or more hostile solutions, if this is how you prefer to operate. Certain scenarios will obviously lead you into a battle you may have been able to evade altogether, or even result in a character’s demise.
It’s often hard to guess how a verbal exchange between groups of characters will play out. Even if a choice you make is seemingly the correct one, the game has a habit of offering up plenty of surprises with elements of betrayal, deceit and even alliances or relations you may not have expected over the long run. Fortunately, this does not lessen the experience, with the game being roughly ten hours long, playing it again shouldn’t be too much of a problem if you want to take a different approach or perhaps wanted to better prepare for the second game, when your unique progress and storyline carries over. A lot of the time you’ll also be dealing with various minor problems. These equate to side-quests where you’ll find yourself interrupted from the main task at hand with issues like inter-party squabbling to more serious matters such as dealing with a murder. Whether you delve deeper is dependent on your unique reply. These individual matters in general add to the immersion.
The text-based decisions made as you progress lead nicely into the strategic turn-based combat. The battles play out on a grid in a similar fashion to popular titles like Final Fantasy Tactics. There are a total of 25 playable characters and seven different classes, with certain characters, such as Varl, taking up more of the grid than others. The classes include the usual close combat types to the ranged variety. One difference in combat is the strength and armour icons. As the player, you can either choose to chip away an opponent’s armour or try and damage them directly by attacking their strength.
Breaking armour essentially makes an enemy vulnerable to more damage than normal in future turns. There’s also willpower which is a limited resource used to boost the power of a character’s action. The amount of rest characters have can also influence the level of success in battle. Apart from this, it is business as usual with the standard choices each turn including the option to attack, use a special ability (such as enhancing a fellow party member's stats or attacking multiple enemies at once), move or end the turn.
Like the dialogue, battles have consequences. Taking particular characters into combat can result in their eventual loss. It all depends on whether you are victorious in battle or are defeated. A lot of this is based on the strategies you implement. Classes such as archers are best kept at a distance from the enemy, whereas brute strength units – many of whom are Varl – relish in close combat. Enemies can attack in battle from all angles, adding extra depth to the strategy. In saying this, some role-playing veterans may find the battles too predictable in terms of the required approach (as well designed as this area of the game is).
If you do find the challenge is not great enough or perhaps too difficult, you can always adjust it to an easy or harder setting. The brilliance of the actions in battle is how it rolls over to future decisions you make in and outside of battles afterwards. About the only other notable downside here is the interface at times can be a bit clunky to navigate when making selections. Apart from this, the battles do a great job at bringing the narrative to life.
Bringing together the entire package is a beautiful art style and an absorbing soundtrack. Still images of this game don’t really do it justice. You simply need to see it in the flesh in order to realise just how good it looks (or at the very least watch some footage of it in high resolution online). The graphics are comparable to a classic Disney cartoon with bright colourful hand-drawn characters contrasting the stark, harsh and cold backdrops. The cut scenes will draw you into the world and while the character attacks in battle aren’t quite as stunning as other role-playing games, the animations, as few as there are, still look great.
Collectively, all of this does a superb job at drawing you into this fictitious world. The soundtrack and audio are equally as magnificent, with a score from Grammy-nominated composer, Austin Wintory. There are satisfying sounds in battle when swords make contact with enemy armour and a great sense of atmosphere when entering a village and engaging in conversation, and then hearing background noise from townsfolk and burning campfires. Alas, voice acting is limited. The music does a wonderful job matching an array of intense and more emotional moments, with all of this making the game world feel alive.
If you happen to love Norse mythology or epic fantasy stories full of consequence and deft storytelling, then look no further than The Banner Saga. This is a beautifully crafted game that uses its intriguing cast, gripping tale and absolutely stunning artwork and soundtrack to transport you to a world filled with plenty of danger and surprises. The turn-based strategic battles might not be equally as thrilling to everyone who plays this, and the interface in this part of the game can be a bit clunky at times, but this doesn’t detract too much from the collective offering.