A man down on his luck will do anything for survival. I learned that the hard way when I forcefully took livestock from an innocent farmer unwilling to trade it to me. Did I feel good about it? Absolutely not, but when you've got an entire clan looking to you for leadership and survival, you do what you must to survive. This is life on the run in The Banner Saga.
Driven from your lands by a horde of Dredge, an ancient race of menacing creatures who have returned from the icy wastes of the north, it is up to you to lead your caravan of refugee vikings across the frigid wilderness. But lead them to where? With the world seemingly coming to an end, you spend most of the game blindly roaming from city to city — Oregon Trail style — fighting off nature's deadly elements, starvation, the nasty Dredge, and even other survivors.
You'll also be fighting yourself over decisions that impact the overall well-being of your caravan. Do you choose to allow a mysterious band of survivors join you? I hope not, as they'll likely end up stealing from you. Do you choose to take refuge in an abandoned building for a night's sleep? You can, but expect something terrible — like a Varl resting on an unstable pillar sending the roof crashing down. Noticing a trend here? Everything in The Banner Saga is out to get you — to make your life a living hell.
I understand the game trying to break your will, so you can experience this sense of lost hope; but for a game that promises your decisions matter, I'd like some more variety. It seems every decision I made resulted in something bad or very bad happening. Sure, a few times I'd be rewarded with extra supplies or Renown (currency used to level up characters), but more times than not I'd be greeted with some ridiculous story of how something went wrong causing some of my clansmen to die. Towards the end I began to care less about decisions knowing that it was going to be a bad turnout anyways. I just chugged along, refusing to get close with any of the characters.
A deadlier Oregon Trail
Much of the game is experienced as a text-based adventure as your caravan is shown journeying along a sidescrolling environment. On many occasions, you'll be greeted with pop-up text that you must read (voice overs are rare in this game) and react to. In most cases you'll have to make a decision that will determine the outcome (usually a bad one) and then read about how awful of a decision you made. Stoic works hard to paint a brutal world.
Despite the ramifications that come with all of your decisions — and the horrible feeling I was left with after each one — this was actually my favorite part of the game.
Not much of a story
As I mentioned, much of the story is told through text, which is unfortunate.It can be boring to read through, and there is a lot to read. There's just not much substance to it: the Dredge have appeared and you are running from city to city — experiencing lots of pain along the way. There are a few twists, but much of the story — including the ending — is quite predictable. What keeps it moving is clicking through to see the next decision you'll be forced to make.
When not making crucial decisions in the text-based portion of the narrative, you're likely partaking in the tactical turn-based strategy combat to settle your differences with the Dredge or any other foe you come across. Admittedly, it's been a while since I've last experienced a turn-based game, but combat in The Banner Saga seems about as slow as the motionless sun that hangs in the sky. Animations are slow to play out and can get pretty repetitive with so few options to choose from when attacking.
While much of The Banner Saga's combat is fairly straight forward turn-based strategy, the game incorporates a unique system that takes into account a character's armor and health, the latter of which also effects the damage output. When attacking, you have the option to focus an enemy's armor or health; the more armor the character has, the less damage you'll do. Needless to say, it's often smarter to focus the armor before chunking away at the health (you'll definitely notice the difference in damage when the enemy's armor is cracked). On the same note, the amount of health a character has also determines how much damage they'll deal, or the percentage of a successful attack.
Choosing where to focus your attack does add an element of strategy to the game, but there's little else to define your tactical approach. Prior to each match you can choose how you want to approach the fight (formations, charge, hold the line etc.). If you're wondering why I'm not explaining what each one does, it's because I honestly don't know. The game does little to explain the more detailed mechanics and the differences in approach weren't noticable. While the game does a mostly good job of defining core gameplay mechanics, it skips out on explaining the more in-depth ones, resulting in some confusing post-battle numbers.
As for other tactical elements, The Banner Saga does offer character leveling with experienced earned by landing the killing blow on the enemy. At certain milestones, you will have the option to promote the character using renown (rewarded for "good" decisions and winning battles). Once promoted, you can assign skill points to specific stats. While the system is designed to offer some compelling strategy, I found strength was the most important, as it not only affects your health, but the damage you deal. Because of this, there's very little decision to make when leveling up your characters and, because of that, there's only the illusion of a more complex system.
On the plus side, the game allows you to switch difficulty on-the-fly, so if you find things are too easy or too hard, you can alter it to your liking without having to restart.
If you've heard of The Banner Saga, you're probably already aware that it features some of the best hand-drawn visuals we've seen of late. The juxtaposition created by combining these gorgeous, Disney-like visuals with the brutal nature of the game is simply breathtaking. The environments — both out of and in combat — serve as a nice backdrop to this gloomy journey. And the characters, while lacking diverse animation, are wonderfully drawn with marvelous detail.
There is no "winning"
Let's be perfectly clear: there isn't any "winning" in The Banner Saga. Sure, there's an ending that you slowly grind towards, but you won't feel like you're beating the game by any means — because you're not; you're merely surviving. Stoic has successfully crafted a bleak story that challenges you with harsh decisions and grim results. You won't feel good about your decisions — you won't be overly rewarded for your successes — but I think that's the point. Your reward is your survival and continuation towards the next heartache. And I loved that. The Banner Saga is not without flaws, but it is a fun playthrough that will definitely challenge you — if only with the decisions you are forced to make.