It’s rather peculiar that in the many years games have existed, The Banner Saga is the first one to apply such careful detail to an otherwise rudimentary design used since the beginning. With subtle movements in its décor and touchups in characters, it weaves a branching narrative around a compelling strategy game that instantly bonds a link between the heroes and their respective quests. It sets up with unrivaled ambience and finishes with deep meshing of gameplay elements. It should’ve delighted us all years ago.
Its artisanal illustrations that filter through the backgrounds of the forests and hills from this game cast off their wintery traits with earthen colors swashed across the tableau vivant of sorts. Trees shift behind a giant rune as a caravan with flyaway flag bustles through the middle panel, obscured by more forefront shapes in this chilly nature landscape. Characters banter in offsite camps, where winds chill past or in the streets of larger cities that have greyed stones as their horizon. Simple touches to minimal parts of drawings receive fluid animations to make the portrait more than the sum of its part. Even though little is moving, the candid conversations that turn from one person to the next feel truly alive. It’s reminiscent of classic cartoons like The Sword in the Stone or Don Bluth creations.
Visuals are completed with primarily a fitting orchestra of drums to thump in the Nordic theme, accompanied by a set of wind instruments either heralding glorious marching or shushing intimate moments. While not a lot is spoken right now, the words that are uttered are done so with a particular Viking accent, which one would expect from giants with horns, long beards and a set of medieval weaponry.
Not one stone is left unturned in this adventure, which marks a world map in brownish scrawls, where every point of interest yields its own lore and depicts a place to see later on. History and culture run deep within this title, so much so that it’s hard to believe there will be anything but conversation options that strengthen or weaken fleeting alliances. In that sense, it can become tricky to memorize each person’s importance, through dialog alone.
There is, however, quite a sizable action portion to The Banner Saga, in form of turn-based combat fields with squares for positioning and movement. Regular humans take in one of these tiles, while the giant race will have to fill four blocks. Each fighter gets placed on the initiative bar, dictating how fast they can react. From there, everyone gets a turn to smack enemies in either their Armor or their Power. These two stats are intertwined, with armor rating warding off harmful attacks. Breaking it, means dishing more damage later on, which can cumulatively mean quicker blows, if paced correctly.
To speed up the progress, an amount of Willpower can be spent either on skills or to boost damage yields from regular attacks. This is linked to an exertion rate as well, which allows a certain amount of points to be spent each turn. Special skills apply their own modifiers, ranging from multiple hits to periodic deterioration, allied enhancements and more. Yes, there’s quite a bit of elements to apply during fights and that at the ground level. Some heroes prefer shields, others swing blunt objects, tricksters can use spears sideways and lighter people turn to ranged attacks. Wielding each in due time will prove to be a conquest in this coriaceous system that doesn’t take any second to rest. Enemies hit hard and fast and will probably outpace the party every time. Only the best strategists will stay on top of their game. Even when all seems won, the final turn throws off the current model, altering gameplay to a Pillage lightning round.
Once the battle concluded, players gain Renown for their prowess, which is attributed for any beneficial feats in the game and serves as a form of currency. It can be spent in markets to buy provisions to keep the caravan fed or warriors who prove their mettle can receive promotions through it. Becoming stronger comes with upgraded stats, skills and the possibility to wield one larger item that provides a kicker during combat. Most designs have at least some symbiotic affiliation with another in this game, which makes every decision count. Anger the crowd and morale drops, lose provisions and people starve, use the wrong items and heroes fall. Additionally, felled characters become weaker through injuries, making further brawls even more of a gamble. A good defense is the best defense.
Making a little nest and hoarding supplies is the non-violent extension to a thriving campaign. As the banner moves through regions, it will pick up more hungry mouths, ready to fight if they get fed. Other events will trigger the most outlandish occurrences within the camp or its surroundings. Every decision to get involved is a risk directly affecting the caravan. In that sense, this casually moving along that spurs random changes is in direct line comparable to the once simple times from The Oregon Trail. In essence, this game is nothing but soldiering on and trying not to die by some unfortunate mishap.
There is one sizable difference though: War. Damn, these wars between human races and some stone scourges with dead eyes and even more frightening demeanors. Whenever the party comes across a large band of these abominations ravaging the land, the two will have to meet in bloody clashes, pitting hundreds against hundreds. No matter the choice, it either comes down to taking massive casualties from trying to avoid a massacre or fighting an uphill battle for a similar effect. This is tough. War is though. War is vicious and it is unforgiving and yet the spirit to continue past favorable odds lives strongly in this adventure. As long as there is one person left standing, the banner will reach its destination.
In no small part due to its wondrous vibe, The Banner Saga breathes a sense of valiant duty upon carrying the burden of leadership in icy times. Meticulously drawn illustrations accompanied by a driving score set the mood for an intricate combat system with just a handful of elements offsetting each other into a much more complex and challenging design. Each decision, each conversation and every event matters if one is to survive the odds stacked against them. It is the victors who write history.