“Dammit, Rook…Not you too.”
I hate you. I hate you for all the times you watched me sweat and cry, losing sleep over the decisions I had to make to just make it to the next milestone, only to look me in the dead in the eye at the end of it all and maintain eye contact as you set fire to everything I worked so hard for.
But damn it, I still love you, Banner Saga.
Join me, if you will, in imagining an alternate reality in which Disney was not a legendary creator of beloved children’s movies, but instead a videogames developer, a videogames developer that catered to an audience of middle-aged men. In this universe, they would give birth to creations such as the Banner Saga, a magical experience that marries masterfully crafted narrative with Oregon Trail-style survival decision making, clothing it with simplistic but robust tactical combat. Created by a trio of indie devs known collectively as Stoic, I realized that at some point I would have to get in on the ruckus people were making about this series. I was initially hesitant to do so, as strategy titles are not among one of my favorite genres, but when I booted this one up, I was soon under its spell.
Strategic combat titles aren’t entirely unheard of in the current gaming era, with titans like the X-COM series in particular coming to the fore, but these sorts of games just aren’t as popular as they used to be, and so they usually need something in addition to good gameplay mechanics to sell themselves. The aforementioned X-COM features dazzling visual spectacle when it’s combat plays out, and other similar contenders like the recent Shadowrun entries rely on heavy atmosphere and plot emphasis. So too does the Banner Saga make itself shine brightly amidst a sea of titles through its novel, gorgeous art. I recall reading an interview between the game’s developers and a journalist, with one of the devs recounting a story about how he released a wallpaper that featured one of the game’s many travelling scenes. The fans lauded the wallpaper’s beautiful art with high praises… and then began asking when the team would release screenshots from actual gameplay. He had to explain to them that what appeared to be inspiring concept art was, in fact, exactly how the game appeared in play.
You’ll find yourself experiencing the same impressions, because watching the Banner Saga’s gorgeous scenes as they come will make you feel as if you’re immersed in a high-budget animated movie. Characters are animated and full of life during dialogue, and combat too is entirely illustrated with graceful, colorful deliberation. Simply watching the game as it plays is half of the fun.
The soundtrack, too, is similarly impressive. The game features an epic score that reflects the somber, mystical and often apocalyptic nature of the setting, spine chilling choruses and wistful instrumental tunes accompanying the characters’ journey through the cold and unforgiving realm. It made me unexpectedly emotional to see my caravan slowly trudging past the abandoned monuments of the distant landscape, marching through the snow to the tune of what resembled an operatic, Norse funeral hymn. I find that what often makes a game memorable is it’s music (if it’s good music, anyhow), and this is an example of how a score can heighten an experience, supporting the mood that the game is attempting to convey. If I can make a comparison to another game’s soundtrack, it reminded me a bit of Skyrim’s, albeit with a more folk-ish flavor.
Seriously, go ahead and click play. It’s really quite amazing.
This is the premise: your characters exist in a cold, Viking-esque world where two races — the populous humans and the colossal, horned Varl — share an uneasy coexistence. The sun is perpetually frozen in its position halfway through the sky, and the Gods are dead, having been silent for many years. Despite this, the realm seems to be getting along okay, at least, until hordes of homicidal stone giants begin descending upon it’s unsuspecting inhabitants. When a small human settlement falls under attack, you must take control of it’s fleeing caravan, attempting to escape the unstoppable menace that is indiscriminately slaughtering everyone and everything they come across.
It can be tough to mention the gameplay or the story without the other, as they’re so seamlessly combined in a way that a lot of games aren’t. The gameplay is essentially the choices you make as the story progresses. Your caravan of refugees and makeshift fighters continually travels along a path through the wilderness, stopping at certain locations and towns which activate certain events. You must manage supplies as you travel, as well as manage morale of your refugees. Rest too much to raise morale, and you risk running out of supplies, causing starvation and shrinking your population, which is essential for fighting off threats. If you don’t rest at all and allow morale to plummet, your soldiers will be weaker in battles, causing you to possibly be defeated and lose more lives and supplies. The traveling aspect of the game kept me anxious through its entirety, and I soon learned that you can never have too many supplies, no matter how confident you might be in the stockpile you’ve accumulated. One bad move or misfortune can leave you scraping the bottom of the barrel, miles and miles away from the next town with no food in sight.
Often times during travel, you will be confronted by bandits, murderous giants and other threats. Sometimes, these encounters will be minor skirmishes, other times they will be massive military operations that require you to consider tactical decisions, often taking risks or making sacrifices for the sake of preserving yourself and the bulk of your caravan. The combat plays out in a grid-styled battlefield, where you and your preselected party of six or so warriors must carefully manage their health, armor and special abilities to make it out in one piece. The penalty for losing a party member in combat can be crippling, as they will be wounded afterwards and will be at reduced ability for several in-game days, which increases your chances of losing a battle. Losing a battle rarely results in the permanent death of a party member, but often spells disaster for the rest of your caravan. And you will probably lose some battles, because this game is tough even on easier difficulties.
One complaint about the combat is that it begins to become monotonous as you spend more time on your journey. Once you’ve been introduced to the majority of your party, it doesn’t take long before you’ve seen about everything the game will throw at you, and these tactical encounters become less of a focal point and more of something to slog through so you can see what happens next in the story. However, since the outcome of combat is so closely tied to the rest of your journey, you’ll still find yourself personally invested in fighting effectively when it does occur.
While the gameplay is simple, its quite astounding in the way it directly affects your story. In a game like Halo or Final Fantasy, losing a fight simply means you have to reload a save or return to a previous checkpoint. Lose a battle in the Banner Saga, and the narrative will play out differently. The story summons up challenges, and your performance then dictates what happens next in the story. Lack of a save/load feature means all decisions and their resulting consequences are permanent, giving weight to your considerations.
The difficulty of these choices is that there is hardly ever a clearly good one. For example, at on point in my journey, I possessed a towering stockpile of supplies that could last me for more than two weeks. I was quite proud of it, and it gave me the most profound sense of security, until it somehow, inexplicably, infuriatingly, caught on fire. While I’m still pretty annoyed about this — how does a cart randomly catch fire in the middle of a tundra — the fact was that also somehow, a child had wound up in the center of a burning tent near the flaming cart, and I was presented with several options. They basically boiled down to either saving the kid or the supplies; I was faced with the unappealing dilemma of either A.) not letting a child burn alive in front of his mother and the rest of the caravan, or B.) saving our fucking food. For whatever reason, I chose to rush into the tent like some sort of Nordic firefighter and bring out the kid. Though everyone was super pumped about not having to listen to a child burn to death, the absolute absence of things to eat on our march resulted in twenty people dying from starvation instead.
This is the sort of infuriating bullshit that will permeate your entire playthrough of the Banner Saga. You will have to grapple with trying your very best to keep as many people alive as you can, while simultaneously attempting to hold on to a rapidly shrinking conscience. You will try your best and you will only succeed half of the time, winning some battles and suffering losses, making lucky guesses sometimes and other times tasting the bitter fruit of your stupidity in hindsight as you watch your strategy crumble.
And its just wonderful.
I mean, really. The player feels like they are a true master of the caravan, as you experience the hardships of your characters alongside them. The characters and their stories are so well developed and fleshed out that you can’t help but love them, and to do what you can to keep them alive, and maybe even happy, or at least stem the tide of their suffering. The world around them is dangerous and mysterious, and full of wonders. The Banner Saga is a living story, a story that you can change through your actions, and as you suffer losses and scrape by to the next checkpoint, you will accept that all you can do is give your greatest effort, because this isn’t a game where you get to live happily ever after. It’s a game and story about sacrifice and heroism in the face of overwhelming odds.
And without giving away too many spoilers, I will say the ending really cements that statement. If my frustration at the beginning of this article was any hint, there is a lot of heartbreak waiting at the end of the long road, despite your efforts to keep your characters alive. But it’s entirely fitting. It’s a journey of narrative and it’s yours to decide how it plays out. What really is a shame is the brevity of the journey, which for me ended at about ten hours. I don’t think shortness is necessarily a bad thing…some of my favorite games, like Snake Eater, or Symphony of the Night, clock in at around fifteen hours themselves. Still, I felt like I was only just beginning my epic saga when it abruptly ended, and though there is a sequel already available, the game felt piecemeal at its conclusion, incomplete.
I hope that you do play this game, and play it all the way through, because it will leave a great impression on you. I am definitely looking forward to getting my hands on it’s sequel, and see how my previous decisions affect what happens next.