Rating: T for Alcohol Reference, Blood and Gore, Mild Language, Violence
Available for: Android, iOS, PC, OS X, Playstation 4, Xbox One
When the sun goes out, desperation and survival instincts start to kick in for the characters of Stoic’s The Banner Saga (2014). In a game that can be described as a mix between Oregon Trail and Fire Emblem, The Banner Saga uses these gameplay elements to describe the harsh traveling conditions these clans must face when trying to find an avenue of escape from impending danger.
For the first part of The Banner Saga, the story switches between the giant-like varls and a clan of humans as both of them face the sun disappearing and the mechanical, dangerous species of dredge who have invaded the lands. The invasion forces the traveling varls to reunite and come up with a strategy while trying to figure out why the dredge have decided to invade. Concurrently, a man named Rook becomes head of his human clan and is looking for a way to lead his people to safety from the dredge. Both these stories cross paths when a seemingly invincible dredge by the name of Bellower threatens them all and larger, more dangerous forces are looming in the background.
While The Banner Saga’s more involved gameplay is based on strategy, turned-based battle tactics, it is arguable that most of your time will be spent concentrating on your army’s or clan’s state of well-being: maintaining morale, ensuring you have enough supplies, and making decisions to ensure your clan’s survivability through the long marches. Random events will occur as you travel, either encounters with random travelers or resolving disputes amongst your followers. The decisions that pop up come at you fast and frequently, initially giving the impression of inconsequence before you realize that these decisions have your fellow clansmen’s lives on the line. This shifted concern makes this a narrative that wants you to focus on survival rather than merely battling your way through the various enemies. After all, Rook’s main concern is trying to get his people to safety, not to defeat an entire species of dredge. It is only when the travelers are finally cornered that they turn to fighting Bellower.
Initially, I liked the survival focus on the game, uniquely defining itself as not just another viking-inspired turn-based strategy game. The battling was fun as well, with a number of unique classes and special abilities that diversified your selected team. This all being said, I think The Banner Saga waited too long to get into the meat of the story and introduce some of the high stakes the characters face, such as Bellower. The first half of the game introduces the characters and the mechanics of the game, but where the game gets interesting happens in the last few chapters (a couple of which are particularly short). Introducing a seemingly invincible antagonist early on would have raised the stakes for the traveling clansmen, rather than just maintaining travel for several chapters with the occasional fight. Tension could have also been added in feeling consequences for taking too many rests in order to maintain morale. Instead my main concern was running out of supplies while the characters would toss in a statement that Bellower was closing in on everyone.
I would have liked to get to know some of the characters better over the course of the game as well, maybe with more of the random events focusing on some of the prominent characters. Aside from Rook and his daughter Alette, I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to know some of the major players who are likely to return in subsequent installments. I understand a lot of things are going to be brought into play for the sequels, but I would have liked more than just a vague understanding of who some of the characters were and why they are important in The Banner Saga’s world. This became especially noticeable when certain characters were in only one conversation so they could join your party of potential fighters and then never brought up again. Depending on the decisions you make, some of these characters can also be killed off, so adding further interaction with secondary characters might have helped in making this decisions feel more consequential than just losing another party member.
Once again I find myself in the position of wanting to love a game but finding it missing some pieces that I needed to truly be invested. There is some good content to The Banner Saga, with an interesting world and a gameplay that properly distinguishes it from similar games in the genre. Unfortunately, the narrative could have been helped by introducing characters and greater conflicts earlier on and pushing that survival tension so that the player can also maintain a level of urgency in their gameplay.