The word ‘epic’ gets thrown around a lot, especially in the world of video games. But few titles capture the truest, most traditional sense of the word as The Banner Saga. A visual novel with added elements of Oregon Trail-style travel simulation and an interestingly unique and intuitive turn-based battle system, The Banner Saga feels like the first book in a grand epic of fantasy storytelling.
Following multiple characters across a fully detailed world, Stoic Studios weaves a Viking-inspired apocalyptic narrative that’s intriguing, breathtaking, and heartbreaking from beginning to end. Humans and the race of horned giants known as the Varl have lived together in an uneasy peace ever since driving back the race of malicious stone creatures called the Dredge during two cataclysmic wars.
But at the onset of the game, the sun has stopped rising and falling in the sky, frozen where it is, and the game starts with a single line: “The Gods are dead.” From there, as the Dredge return, burning everything in their wake, the world crumbles, and every character is thrown into a losing war for survival.
As for how this actually plays out from a gameplay perspective however, stepping into the point of view of different characters on opposite sides of the world, the player has to make choices. Through those choices they’ll lead caravans across the war-torn wastes. Everything from how to handle a situation when supplies go missing, to whether or not to help people and take them in, becomes a complex web of cause and effect. Though the game starts players off small, as the war escalates and the lives of entire races are put in the balance, the decisions soon ramp up to massive scales that would put some Bioware games to shame.
The level of emotion and character brought to the strange cast and world are all that much more impressive given the game’s almost complete lack of voice acting. While I’ll admit I was put off at first finding the game was entirely text-based, the quality of the writing (save for a couple typos) soon pulled me in regardless.
Aside for the narrative, what makes The Banner Saga standout is just how well everything holds together and presents a cohesive, persistent tone. It feels like the end of the world. Even though the gorgeous art style is colorful and bright, every piece of the the game, including the haunting music, the minimalistic sound design, and even the combat mechanics, come together as the wonderfully realized atmosphere and vein of emotion that characterizes every action you take.
Let’s say your caravan goes their fifth day without food because you mismanaged and ran out of supplies. A group of soldiers decide to break open a keg of mead, making a drinking game of singing their sorrows. Do you stop them? Do you join in? Do you leave them be? While the focus of the The Banner Saga is the narrative and how you personally deal with situations, the real weight of those dozens of smaller decisions then plays back into the travel and combat side of the game.
Everything really centers on the game’s single currency: Renown. It’s what you use to buy supplies for your caravan when you pass through a town, what you use to buy gear for your party of characters for the turn-based combat portions, and even the same currency you use, in increasing amounts, to level up your characters. You gain Renown by killing enemies in combat and by making good decisions on the road, making your caravan happy. But due to the linear narrative focus (compared to an open world game for instance) Renown is not always readily available. Deciding to forgo leveling up my characters in favor of buying supplies for my caravan was a strange, emotionally charged moment few other games have ever inspired.
This interconnectedness extends even further though. As you continue to travel without rest, the morale of your caravan drops. The lower the morale, the less effective your characters are in combat. You can stop and set up camp for a day to improve your caravan’s morale, but that’s one less day of supplies you have to make it to the next town. Saving a group of peasants and offering to let them join you may give you some Renown, but also means you’ll have more mouths to feed. And if you run out of supplies, people begin dying, meaning you’ll have less fighters when you come up against a large Dredge force, translating into a harder combat for your party.
Unfortunately, as your caravan numbers in the hundreds, losing people to starvation or battle is simply represented as a “-[a certain number] of clansmen, -[a certain number] of fighters.” There were a few points when the people in my caravan began to feel a bit more like a resource than people I was looking out for. Thankfully however, the impeccable writing and characterization of all of the main characters usually managed to keep thoughts like that well at bay.
And finally, there’s the combat. Many of the fights I entered during my fifteen-hour journey through The Banner Saga were actually optional. You can simply ride past a town being pillaged, or retreat from an army (resulting in a large number of your clansmen and fighters being cut down) and avoid combat entirely.
When you do enter combat, the game transitions into an isometric turn-based strategy grid. Your chosen party of up to six characters, which you can pick from a roster of the many warriors you gather to your side during your travels, goes up against varying groups of enemies.
Just because combat is secondary however, doesn’t mean there’s not enough complexity to make it interesting. Every character has two primary stats: armor and strength. Strength denotes how much damage that character will deal out, while a character’s armor denotes how much damage they’ll block. An attacker’s strength minus a defender’s armor equals the resulting damage. Strength counts not only on the damage a character does, but it’s also HP. So as characters get closer to death, they’ll deal less damage. This creates an interesting dynamic between working to chip away an enemy’s armor, ensuring you deal more damage in the long run, or going after an enemy’s strength, ensuring you take less damage. Systems like this, and the fact every character has own unique special moves, helped keep the combat engaging.
Despite that, unfortunately, combat is where the strain of porting the game from PC to consoles shows the most. While the PC interface for combat is clean and minimalist, the console interface is blown up to be easier to read. Overall, it leaves the screen looking cluttered.
This, couple with the fact you can’t spin the battlefield to view it from different angles, made the largely compacted melee combat needlessly harder to understand and get used to. More than once I accidentally attacked my own men simply because the UI made it hard to see exactly who I was targeting. Problems like these made the combat seem almost an annoying distraction early on, before the intricacies could ramp up and expose the fun complexity the system is capable of offering.
The fact that combat fields are little more than open grid patterns, with no actual terrain to work around, comes off as dull in the opening chapters. By the end however, the mix of character abilities and new enemies show the plain combat areas for the chess boards they actually are.
Though the combat system and UI aren’t perfect, there is enough potential there to make it fun, the few faults doing little to negatively impacting the rest of the game as a whole. And while the lack of voice acting may be a hard sell for some modern gamers, it’s hard to deny that The Banner Saga does what it sets out to do.
To understand, one need only look at the in-game map. Massive and littered with towns, rivers, mountain ranges, forts, and everything else you’d expect on a fantasy world’s map. Clicking on anything shares a bit of lore about that place. Other races, cities, and people not even discussed in the course of the game are all represented and described.
With a world that feels like it truly has weight, with more history and detail than you’d ever expect, the scope, ambition, and raw emotion of Stoic’s narrative is only surpassed by gigantic AAA games like Dragon Age and The Witcher. But, when it comes to illustrating the burden of your choices, even games like that don’t succeed as completely as The Banner Saga. The responsibility of choice becomes something you can feel throughout the game, as well as the sting of the inevitable consequences.