It’s a very rare thing to find a game that really gets its story portion correct these days, but The Banner Saga qualifies. How many great games have been ruined by story flaws, and how many have given up all together and just went with action over substance? You won’t have that problem here. It would be easy enough to describe The Banner Saga as an Oregon Trail like game set in a Skyrim-like world, but that would be a bit of an oversimplification.
In The Banner Saga you take control of parties of humans and varl (who are giants with horns) as they try to survive in a world that is coming to an end. The world where they reside is bleak even at the beginning of the game. The gods, who once walked among and protected humanity, are dead. The sun has stopped moving across the sky (thankfully it got stuck in a risen position, otherwise it would be forever night). And the ancient enemies of both humans and varl, the stone-golem-like dredge, have reappeared in huge numbers after everyone thought they were extinct. There are other problems as well that you will discover as you travel, like a world-eating snake with a bad attitude and a crushing darkness that seems to destroy everything it touches.
But at first, all you have to worry about is getting your caravan through to the next town. Most of the game is played watching your caravan (you manage different ones in different chapters) slowly move across the frozen northlands. There is a huge map with a detailed history, but you don’t get to choose your destination. Instead, the caravans are moving to where they need to be, either to escape certain death or to try and do something to save the world, or at least a town or two along the way.
The caravan is rated in terms of its strengths. You are better off if you have more human fighters and more varl to guard things and to fight. You also have clansmen, which are basically women and children. They don’t really fight for you, but you have to take care of them nonetheless. The number of days of supply is important to note, as they tick away as your caravan rolls onward. Run out of food and morale will drop, and eventually so will bodies.
The caravan driving is the story portion of the game. As you march, the game will pause and bring you different situations that require your attention. Perhaps your scouts have found some mysterious food that isn’t quite right. Do you taste it yourself? Feed it to the animals? Have it gathered up and stored with your other supplies? Some choices are easy. Most are difficult. Perhaps some scruffy fighters offer to join your group, even though you suspect they are bandits. You need all the fighters you can get, but do you trust them? You might end up with most of your supplies missing, or your new recruits may prove invaluable, even adding a playable character to your ranks.
Besides the caravan maintenance questions, there are also interpersonal disputes and problems that come up with the main characters. You need to be careful when dealing with those. Main characters can die in the story portion of the game. While some deaths are scripted, most people and varl can be saved and even strengthened if the correct choices are made. But there is enough moral ambiguity in the game that you never really know if you are doing the right thing, the wrong thing, or simply the lesser of two evils.
When you run into dredge, or sometimes human enemies like bandits, you have to fight. This part of the game is a turn-based combat interface. You can pick the playable characters that you want to deploy from among the main (playable) characters that you have recruited into your caravan, though you only have limited slots for each battle. Each character has unique stats and special abilities, like being able to render armor off opponents, set traps on the field or block all incoming damage for a time. Careful deployment of mutually supporting teams is necessary for victory.
Each character and each enemy has two main stats, armor and strength. Armor blocks damage, plain and simple. If you hit someone for six points of damage and they have five armor, then they only take one damage. Strength is both your attack power and hit points. When you get reduced to zero strength, you fall unconscious (ironically, your characters can’t actually die in combat). But taking damage also reduces your attack power. If you have nine strength and are hit for three points of damage, your strength drops to six, and that is how much damage you can deal out for the rest of the combat. This means that people who strike first get a nice advantage because their opponents can’t hit back as hard as before the attack.
You take a turn and your opponents take a turn. This is a little odd because it lets the side with fewer fighters move those who are left more often. Thankfully, you are often the outnumbered one at the start of most battles. When it gets down to a single fighter on either side, the game goes into pillage mode and turns are no longer guaranteed. This will let you gang up on the last guy without extending the battle for too long.
Some characters, especially the stone-like dredge, have a lot of armor. If someone has 15 points of armor, then there is very little chance that your nine strength fighter is going to be able to do anything against him. However, instead of attacking strength, you can always attack armor. In fact, that is the only way to take down really big opponents. The problem is that rending armor does not reduce strength, so if you are attacking armor with melee opponents, they better have a lot of armor themselves to absorb the return blows.
The other stat in the game that really matters is renown. This is used to level up, but it’s also oddly how you buy food in the game and purchase things at the market. Really, to me this makes little sense. The first caravan you are escorting is filled with gold, a tribute from the human king to the varl. But the gold is apparently worthless since you can’t buy anything with it. The humans should have given the varl a wagon full of renown. In fact at one point the treasure wagon is in danger and you have to decide to let it go or risk one of your best men trying to save it. Given that gold has no value at all, it was an easy choice.
Anyway, the lack of renown in the game (and its role as the only currency) makes things artificially difficult. You never have enough to buy food and level up all your characters, much less purchase things in the market. This can be compensated somewhat by setting the game difficulty to easy, which makes the fights easier and helps to bring in more renown, which you get by killing enemies. But the game is difficult otherwise, and not a cakewalk on easy. Adding a separate currency for buying things would balance everything out, and make more sense besides.
Graphically the game is beautiful. Everything is drawn in a unique style that really gives the game a sense of identity. Especially in story mode, you really get a feel for the landscape and place. As a neat bonus, you can pick your heraldry from a huge list, many of which were submitted by the game’s kickstarter backers. I ended up with a cute cat on my logo, which I found to be pretty hilarious.
The sound is nice in terms of music, though there is no voice acting. That means there is a lot of reading involved in the game, which I don’t mind, but which some gamers may have a problem with. Still, the game tells a nice story, and there is always the danger that a bad voice actor could have spoiled the entire thing, so perhaps text is best in this case.
The game is on sale for about $25, a bit less in some places. And it can be downloaded fairly quickly from any of the online game services, like Steam. With at least 10 hours of gameplay, that a really good value.
The Banner Saga is for sure a success. Created by a relatively small team and backed by crowd-funding, it’s able to find a unique niche based on its strong storyline, nice graphics and difficult but master-able gameplay. It earns 4 out of 5 GiN Gems, something that many million-dollar studios would likely envy. Pick up this banner and brave the wasteland. You won’t be disappointed.