The Banner Saga’s plot is fairly straightforward, as far as apocalypse scenarios go. The world, populated by humans, giants, and these horrible demon-people called dredge, is dying. The gods are already dead. The sun hangs stationary in the sky, defying all Newtonian impulses to the contrary. The Edda in game form. Hunger, legions of dredge, and a mountain-splitting dragon-worm nip at your heels. Your mandate is to keep as many people alive as possible.
No matter how bad it looks for the good guys, though, everything in The Banner Saga looks incredible. The hand-drawn art and animation of this tactical role-playing game is reminiscent of the Disney films of the 1950s, except with more beards and hopelessness. The winter landscapes that pass behind your long wagon train are breathtaking under the perpetual twilight.
Not only does The Banner Saga evoke a lost age of animation, it also speaks to a lost age of games. For instance, there’s a huge, lovingly detailed map of the world, but at no point do you choose where you’re going. The only real variable is how many of your people will be alive by the time you reach your destination. In this way, it’s not unfair to compare The Banner Saga to the iconic 1974 transcontinental adventure, The Oregon Trail. (The Banner Saga’s creators are not unaware of the similarities. At one point, you’re forced into a familiar choice between fording a river, caulking the wagons, or taking the long way around the water.)
But while the “characters” of The Oregon Trail are little more than empty names to be slapped on an eventual dysentery diagnosis, The Banner Saga has a cast of characters with backstories. While you’re stopping off in town or in camps, bits of their personal biographies emerge through conversation. Like everything else in this game, these characters all look cool, and some of them offer light intrigue, like the irascible twins Hogun and Mogun—one has a scar, and one does not. There are no deep cuts, here, though, and the palaver never goes further than the occasional bullshitting outside a mead tent. Instead of peeling back layers and developing relationships between the characters, mostly it ends up being some variation on them telling you why or why not they think you are a crappy leader. I can figure that out for myself, thanks.
As you travel from razed town to pillaged city, you’re forced to make decisions that can affect the fortunes of you and your people. Along the way, through fights and wise choices, you collect “renown.” Renown is the only currency worth anything in the world of The Banner Saga. It’s used to upgrade your characters, buy special items, and purchase provisions. As you might expect with such a valuable commodity, renown turns out to be pretty scarce, and buyer’s remorse is common. Sorry, honey, I didn’t make enough renown slaying horrible beasts today at work. The kids will have to eat snow and pinecones for now. The perils of a renown-based economy.
Best save some of those renown stacks for your fighters, too. The dredge harry your every step. The battles are turn-based affairs where an ally moves, then an enemy moves, then an ally moves, and so on. There’s no way to defend, really, and the relatively small battlefields leave nowhere to hide. Fights often come down to the last man standing. Characters who fall in battle aren’t dead, just injured and temporarily diminished. Generally speaking, people only die for good when you make a particularly ill-advised decision on the road. This happens with upsetting regularity. It’s punishing in a way that even similar turn-based battle games like Fire Emblem or XCOM are not, in that permanent casualties only happen off the battlefield, often in farcical and unpredictable ways. With no save system to speak of beyond the single ever-present and uncontrollable automatic save, you can irreparably screw yourself in no time. The Banner Saga is a game in which you can actually lose or at least reach a place where you can go no further.
If anything, the game’s limitations—the wooden conversations, the nonsensical and uneven means of resource management, the repetitive combat, the lack of real agency in determining your fate, the possibility of game-ending failure—become more glaring as it goes on, but unaccountably, they all add up to a coherent whole. By the end, I still didn’t have a firm grasp on what the hell is going on. I never used half of the playable characters, and there was a trail of sorrow in my wake because I spent all my money on a magical dagger instead of food and potable water. But it all feels right in a way that it might very well not if some of these wrinkles had been ironed out. Like the Norse epic poem from which much of the game’s backstory and style is derived, part of its charm lies in its being incomplete and mysterious.
The Banner Saga
Developer: Stoic Studios
Publisher: Stoic Studios
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: Mac