Misery and beauty are not often brought up in the same breath. When things around us are bleak there is an eerie beauty to it all, though not the same as the eye-catching sense of wonder felt throughout The Banner Saga. The world in Stoic’s debut title is devoid of happiness in many ways and yet it teems with life, just waiting to break through the darkness. After not one but two Great Wars the world before you is cynical, worried, and on the verge of utter collapse. Heroes, if you can call them that, are not brave but scared, just like everyone else. Yet, even with all the destruction and worry that fills the scenery and dialogue in The Banner Saga, the sense of beauty, through the game’s unique art style, peers through the dark.
The Banner Saga is a turn based, tactical RPG that puts you in the role of two unlikely heroes. A human archer named Rook and a Varl who doesn’t seem too happy to be in charge. In this war torn land there are three races that walk the earth and battle for survival. The humans are small, nimble creatures who simply want to survive and understand what is going on in these forsaken times. Then there are the Varl, massive humanoids known for their long lifespan, love of war, and horns that grow from their heads. Finally there is the Dredge, the main villain throughout this chapter, golem-like creatures of stone and little can be said of their apparent danger to all other creatures. Both characters you control have become leaders through unlikely and unwanted circumstances. They constantly doubt themselves, as do most characters in the world, and question whether or not they are doing what is best for their clan. The constant doubt and uncertainty of the lead characters is refreshing, as having a sure-minded hero can be a bit odd when the entire world is crumbling around them.
Gameplay in The Banner Saga plays out like any turn-based RPG. After picking your crew and placing them where you want them to start on the map, play is akin to a Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy: Tactics Advance style. The Banner Saga does a great job of making the characters feel unique while not bogging the player down with too many abilities, choices, and traits that would otherwise be confusing. Instead, most characters are either melee or ranged and typically have one special ability. Beyond those differences, Varl are lumbering giants who take up four spaces and humans take up one but can move much further in their turns. Playing to each race’s and character’s strengths can really turn the tide of a fight and what was most rewarding was knowing what to do and when to do it without having to plan out each and every move with certainty. Since the game has a simplistic strategy element, I was never worried about using the right move or setting up the right combos of attacks. I knew which attacks would work and which strategies would help me win, and more often than not I was right.
The last thing that I’d want is for someone to think that means The Banner Saga is easy. While there is an “Easy” option that turns combat into a turn based hack-and-slash, the normal difficulty offers a run for your money. Battles feel challenging but never overdone. The Banner Saga struck the perfect balance of compelling combat and time spent per battle as most conflicts do not take too long to complete. The only thing I'd have to say about the combat is that at times it can feel a bit monotonous. Running into Dredge after Dredge and using the same tactics to win can get a little tale but it's the other stuff that makes it worthwhile. While there are one or two exceptions, in terms of length and monotony, in my experiences I felt the length of time committed to a battle was spot on.
Besides, having the battles take too long to finish would take away from the more compelling aspects of The Banner Saga. In between battles you lead your caravan onward in the hopes of finding salvation, or at least a good night’s sleep. During these treks you encounter travelers, other caravans, mercenaries, and all sorts of characters in situations that are set up in ways not unlike The Oregon Trail. A dialogue box will open with what is going on, as there is little to no voice acting in much of the game, and that will let you know how to respond. Perhaps a weary old man is asking to join your caravan, maybe a situation involving a mutiny is taking place, or maybe bandits are trying to weasel their way into your caravan to run off with food. You never truly know what is happening when these events occur, all you can do is make your choice and hope you make the right one. Sometimes I’d let a man join us only to find out he murdered someone and ran off with our goods and other times I’d be delighted to find out I did something heroic and courageous. It’s a tossup in most cases but that goes to make the game world more believable. When everything is going to hell and there is nowhere to run people will do the worst things imaginable and you have to be prepared to make some extremely difficult choices. The choices I mentioned above are straightforward but when the choices involve leaving a baby to die, kicking a mother out of the caravan, and potentially murdering an innocent man the stakes get higher and higher.
Choices you make directly impact the caravan in a number of ways. Renown is the main currency in The Banner Saga and is used to upgrade heroes, buy items for battle, and purchase supplies for the caravan. With all of those things linking back to one currency it means you need to be smart about how you spend this precious resource. You only get renown by battling and sometimes jumping into battle can do more harm than good. Choices become difficult as you either need to fight and potentially lose, wasting more warriors and gaining no renown, or skip the battle and lose a smaller number of clansmen to hunger. The choices you make will also affect the caravan’s morale. A high morale will grant you bonuses in battle which can turn the tide in your favor while a low morale can make even the easiest of fights a tad more challenging. Managing all of these resources while balancing your crew of heroes can be quite the juggling act.
The one thing about The Banner Saga that irked me was the sense of gravitas, or rather the lack of it. It’s true that the world feels dark and gloomy and death surrounds you at every turn but I never felt like I was really struggling. When a hero first fell in battle I expected to find out that they were dead for good, or at least injured in some way, but that never happened. If a character is to die, and plenty do, they will in scripted sequences that allow the story to move onward. I understand that being the case but I would’ve liked to felt the struggle I felt during the caravan marches while I was on the battlefield as well. Instead, battles felt like a minigame I had to win in order to keep my caravan happy. And even though the caravan’s morale does make slight differences in battle, they were never enough to make any huge changes that having their morale low for a few battles wasn’t the biggest detriment to my clan. The game’s story felt so well-told and the world had me hanging on that those slight hiccups brought me out of the experience ever so slightly.
I’d be remised if I didn’t speak about The Banner Saga’s incredible art style and breathtaking soundtrack. With a hand-drawn cartoon style that looks straight out of a favorite 1980s cartoon and animations that make each swing of a sword feel heavy, I was sucked in right away. Every character looks so well-drawn that their emotions and mindset scream from the lines and colors that make up their body. For instance, one crazed man with wild orange hair was clearly a problem the moment I saw him. He hadn’t uttered a word but the way he’s drawn and portrayed through his ever so brief animation within the games static cutscenes made me realize he was going to be trouble. Normally I hate static cutscenes but The Banner Saga does it right. A slight tap of the shield, an eye movement here or there, a piece of fabric blowing from a person’s shirt. These slight movements help to make the scenes feel as if they’re happening and not just being read to you over a pretty picture. This goes double for the caravan scenes, arguably how you’ll view most of the game, as you watch your caravan trek across the screen to its next destination. The long line of ant-sized characters, broken up by lumbering Varl, is in the foreground of various landscapes that are hand-drawn with an expert eye towards beauty. It makes watching a caravan cross the screen the most enjoyable part of the games at times, or the most tense if you’re running low on supplies.
The soundtrack does just as much as the art style to liven the experience, particularly in both battle scenes and when you come across Godstones. When you hear the horns blast you know that a battle has begun and the music that proceeds is always fitting not just to the world that stands before you but to the action on screen as well. Godstones, ancient relics of a forgotten time, were a particular love of mine as coming across one meant I was going to be treated to eloquent music and a staggering view, and I was never disappointed.
The Banner Saga isn’t your run of the mill RPG where you are chosen to save the world. Instead, it’s a world where everything is slowly going down the drain and all you can do is watch and hope that somehow, someway, you can escape this hell on earth. Characters are questioning themselves at every turn while they look to you, the most uncertain of all, to guide them and make their lives more stable. Hundreds upon hundreds will look to you for strength and salvation and in the end it’s the choices you make that will keep the caravan going. With an unforgettable art style, a soundtrack worthy of tremendous praise, and a simple yet fulfilling gameplay style The Banner Saga has me ready and waiting for the second chapter. There are definitely some mechanics to be fixed, namely the monotony of the combat, but I enjoyed my time in this bleak world thoroughly.