War is cruel and winters are harsh.

These are lessons which The Banner Saga teaches the player early on, and they’re worth keeping in mind throughout. Depending on what you say and do, allegiances can be forged or shattered, morale destroyed, lives lost. You either learn to work within the harsh framework set out by the story, or you suffer and fail.

At it’s core, The Banner Saga is a Strategy RPG. It’s developed by Stoic Studios and is the first part of a planned trilogy.

The battle system is  a very interesting spin on some older SRPG tropes. For instance, rather than having one bar for health, you have two – Strength and Armour. Strength functions similarly to a standard health bar, but with a twist. While reaching zero will remove you from battle, Strength also directly affects how much damage your attacks will do. Meanwhile, Armour reduces how much damage you take from hits to your strength.

When you attack, you can choose between attacking an enemy’s Strength or his Armour. Different enemy types have different values and demand different strategies – for instance, a human berserker might have more Strength than Armour, while the ominous Dredge are usually the opposite. It forces you to think tactically, rather than rushing in and smashing things to death with your overleveled heroes.

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It’s not all as interesting as this, though. While the Strength system is a nice twist, it can lead to situations where every side is worn down towards the end of a fight. Here things quickly turn into a battle of attrition, with each side chipping tiny amounts away from the other. Battles don’t resolve quickly. This is very jarring when you consider the difficult and magnificent nature of some of the game’s battles.

The difficulty spikes a bit in places too, most notably in the final boss fight. While this wouldn’t always be a problem, the way battles and character advancement work can make it extraordinarily difficult to progress, which is frustrating.

Character advancement is the biggest mixed bag in the whole game. Promoting a character is based on how many people they’ve killed. While that sounds solid in theory, it often results in support characters – archers and warriors who specialize in destroying Armour for existence – falling far behind their allies. This can quickly lead to an unbalanced party, or an over reliance on certain characters. This is a problem, since characters can be permanently lost often.

The levelling up itself works well, though. It uses Renown, which is kind of a universal currency in the game. You use Renown for buying supplies and items as well as promoting units. A promoted unit gets two points each level to assign to various stats, and every other level your active skill improves.

There’s no real customization to speak of either – each character has one class, and almost all their equipment is constant. You have the ability to give them each one item which, admittedly, does have a rather important effect. Equipment is based on a character’s level as well, so that’s more incentive to promote a character rather than to store all your Renown. Sadly, however, this is also lost forever when a character dies, even if it’s in a situation where it should be recoverable.

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It’s definitely a good thing that the SRPG elements of the game only make up about half of the actual gameplay. Beyond the battles and levelling up, there’s a fascinating campaign management metagame which is, in turn, wrapped in a strong and compelling narrative. It feels sort of like a fantasy Oregon Trail, but far more interesting.

Generally, you control a caravan of troops and villagers as they march through the lush locations between various destinations. You have to manage supplies and provisions on the way, as well as keep your company’s morale up. Keeping morale up is essential, otherwise people will perform poorly in combat, but it requires resting at camp. Resting at camp also lets wounded party members recover. This runs counter to your provisions, which last a certain number of days and can only be purchased in limited amounts from villages and the like along your route. This, in turn, ties in with the Renown system that was mentioned earlier.

There’s a wonderful sense of urgency to this side of the game, a definite tenseness running underneath everything. Your journey is shadowed by the Dredge, the game’s primary antagonists, and the limited resources and no promises of help on the road ahead make everything worrying. The Banner Saga handles this tension masterfully, with everything coming close to disaster but never quite reaching it if you make proper choices. It is, after all, the harshest of winters, so this air of desperation to the proceedings makes sense.

Beyond having to juggle countless variables to stay alive, this portion of the game also sees you run into various events along the way, a good chunk of which seem to be random. These are of varying severity and offer different consequences based on the player’s choices. I found myself considering my options, spending a while pondering what the best course of action was. It wasn’t always simple to tell what would be the best option – hell, most of the time there wasn’t a best option.

Some of the events also spiral out into larger conflicts. The game handles these Wars in an odd way, and it doesn’t always seem to work. You get a brief text overview of the situation and the numbers involved on both sides, then you get to choose how to order your troops. There’s a variety of options – you can lead the charge yourself, fight defensively, try and retreat, etc – and each has a different effect on the battle’s outcome. Wars usually involve at least one standard battle, sometimes more depending on how aggressive each side wants to be. It’s an interesting idea that the game, unfortunately, seemed to drop two thirds of the way through my playthrough. It was never really touched on again.

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These events, even the more insignificant, help flesh out the setting. It feels like a living world, with an ever changing narrative that I was taking part in. I constantly felt compelled to struggle on through the harsh winter wastes to see what would come next, even as food supplies dwindled and my company’s morale fell. The world Stoic has created is an intriguing one, a place that feels like a lot of heart and soul has been put into it.

Choices are a key part of The Banner Saga. Beyond the random events, you have to handle various important decisions during the story. These hold weight, and can change the course of the narrative entirely. Death comes quickly with the wrong choice in a situation leading to tragic consequences. Outcomes aren’t always immediate either. Sometimes hours pass before the results of your actions are fully realised.

Very early on, for instance, I had to save my main character’s daughter during an assault by the Dredge. One particularly large and vile specimen was about to attack her, and she didn’t notice. My options were limited, and, in the end, I panicked and chose poorly. Rather than intervening directly, I shouted at her to get out of the way. Another one of my party did what I failed to do and got between her and the monster, and paid with his life. It stung deeper than it maybe should have, but it was a quick and potent reminder of just how strict the game can be. And that’s one of the more minor tragedies in the game.

Exploring the world is a real joy. The game’s graphics are beautifully done, and the art direction is fantastic. The cutscenes and animations aren’t quite as top notch, sadly – the game’s at it’s best when it’s describing what’s going on in text. The way the camera moves about in conversations can be a bit disconcerting at times. Still, there are some visually stunning moments, most of which are tied into the equally enjoyable storyline.

Sound design proves just as excellent. There’s very little voice acting, but the bits that show up work well. The music is provided by the accomplished Austin Wintory, of Journey and flOw fame, and it fits the game well. It’s sparse, and moments that would be silent but for the creaking of a wagon and the howling of the wind were common, but this just makes those moments when it is playing better. When the music flares into life during a dramatic moment, or a particularly important twist, it lends everything so much more impact.

In terms of writing, The Banner Saga fares fairly well. While the writing itself isn’t spectacular by any stretch, it’s definitely competent to keep things flowing, and to hold up the fascinating setting and narrative. The story, much like the mechanics, are a twist on familiar tropes – the game is about war and winter and impending doom, which have all been done to death before. However, it’s still refreshing to not be cast as the heroes, the chosen ones destined to save the world. Instead you alternate between playing a caravan of giant Varl accompanied by nobles, and Rook, the leader of an ever-growing group of refugees travelling to escape an enemy army. The distinct lack of grandeur behind your characters helps feed into the air of desperation that permeates every part of your journey.

The narrative goes through a lot of awe-inspiring twists and turns, with some genuinely surprising and emotional moments. The story runs with a lot of cliches, sure, but it’s presented so well, and with such charm that it’s easy to overlook the derivative nature of it all.

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The characters are well written in general. While not all likeable, they have their own personalities and quirks that distinguishes them and brings a little more life into the world. This also makes your decisions and inevitable failures even heavier on your heart – it’s so much worse to see a soldier die because of your mistake if you can sympathize with their story.

It’s the story, the characters, the world that really drive The Banner Saga. The combat, while good, is certainly flawed, but the other half of the game holds up far better. If the rest of the series can improve on the flaws, it has the potential to be a fantastic trilogy.

Review: The Banner Saga

Wrap Up

The Banner Saga is a great strategy RPG. It has a competent enough battle system, but is helped along its way by characters and a narrative that are far more interesting. It's definitely a strong start to the series.
Pros
  • Interesting characters and story
  • Gorgeous graphics
  • Enjoyable battle system
Cons
  • Minor gripes with the battles
  • No customization and limited advancement
  • Difficulty spikes can be frustrating
8Overall Score
Reader Rating: (1 Vote)
7.5

About The Author

Deputy Managing Editor

Alison has been gaming for about as long as she could walk, or talk. As time went on, she became deeper entrenched in gaming - from videogames to pen and paper games, they're all great as far as she's concerned. She's even studying software engineering and game development at university! Follow her on Twitter @HandsofaDream

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