I didn’t like this game at first.
At first glance, it has everything I like: fantasy vikings, grid=based strategy, choices that mean something (including whether the characters live or die), random events, and gorgeous art and music.
The gods are dead and the world is ending. Humans and Varl (giant humanoids with horns) alike are facing a relentless army of Dredge with seemingly no end to their numbers. In this bleak environment, characters must fight for survival (often literally), and depending on your decisions, some of them won’t make it.
Usually this is where I would say something about the characters, but the fact of the matter is that either I didn’t find them particularly likeable, they died before I could decide if I liked them, or they were just kind of generic. You have Rook, a guy who finds himself in an unexpected leadership role and has to try his best to keep the caravan from killing each other. A demanding princely character who spends most of his time complaining, a widow who acts as a surrogate mother for Rook’s daughter, Alette, and a whole bunch of virtually indistinguishable Varl apart from Ubin, who is a scholar instead of a warrior, and Sigbjorn, who is Chaotic Neutral personified and might as well be named Loki, coincidentally, he’s also a redhead. TBH, I’ve played a ton of games with archetypal characters, but The Banner Saga also suffers from a slow start. At the beginning of the game, I wasn’t sure who we were fighting or why. It felt like I’d walked in in the middle of a conversation and was missing context. Another thing that didn’t help was the fact that the first few hours are (mostly) a sausagefest, with men talking to other men about manly things, and I was as bored as I was reading the actual sagas.
Let’s take a break from talking about characters and story and talk about gameplay. Outside of battle, you’ll be leading a caravan. The caravan screen shows you how many fighters, Varl, and Clansman (non-combatants) you currently have traveling with you. Each day, the caravan consumes one unit of supplies, if supplies ever run out, members of the caravan start dying. I never had all three numbers drop to zero, but I’m guessing it’s an automatic game over if you run out of people. As you travel, random events will frequently pop up, giving you decisions to make. These decisions can have both good and bad effects (leading to a gain or loss of supplies, clansman, fighters, Varl or even a combat encounter). There are also scripted events where you’ll have the opportunity to recruit more characters. Some of these decisions may or may not come back to haunt you later.
Combat in The Banner Saga is inevitable and takes place on a grid. Humans take up one square of space and have a greater range of movement but don’t hit as hard, while the larger Varl take up four squares of space and can’t move as far, but hit like a ton of bricks. Both enemies and allies have two values that take damage: armor, in blue, and health, in red. In later levels especially, it’s imperative that you destroy foes’ armor before whittling down their health. Characters also have a variety of special abilities, ranging from calling down lightning to damage foes to knocking them back a few squares and damaging their armor. Characters who fall in battle aren’t permanently dead, but will be injured for a set number of days, which naturally results in stat penalties. Once characters have killed enough anyways, they are eligible for promotion (leveling up), winning battles also nets you Renown, which you can spend to buy supplies and trinkets for your fighters to equip. Apart from a couple fights neat the end of the game, I didn’t find the combat that challenging or deep, it was mostly a matter of positioning the Varl characters so they could soak damage while I had the archers pick them off. However, it was nice to go back to basics after playing Fire Emblem Awakening for so long.
This game has been described as “Disney meets Game of Thrones” and the Disney comparison is evident in the game’s art and hand drawn animations. The score is similarly beautiful, although it’s more moody than memorable. The lack of voice-acting didn’t bother me, and admittedly, I found the narrative portion hard to understand at times since I have trouble understanding certain accents.
This is a bleak game about war and death, so it’s probably best to play this one when you aren’t down in the dumps. Characters can and will die, sometimes with little indication that their life is in danger. Fortunately, death scenes are usually brief “and so-and-so didn’t make it” affairs. In case anyone is tokophobic, one random event involves a baby being born to your caravan, and as expected in a game about fantasy vikings, there’s a lot of drinking.
I’ve already spent a lot of time criticizing this game, but one thing I’d definitely like to see in the sequels are more roles for women. Women can only be ranged attackers in this game, which is especially silly to me because not only do we have examples of women who were buried with weapons but we also have accounts in the sagas of women taking up the sword, not to mention goddesses like Freyja and Skadi. The Banner Saga falls into the same trap that many other fantastical works fall into, assuming that “realism” means restricting women to certain roles while giant horned men who were created by one of the gods and monsters who are apparently made of stone are acceptable breaks from reality.
The Banner Saga is not a happy game. At best, it’s a game where you chase after hope, only to have it snatched from you, add to that a slow start and characters I found hard to get attached to, and I think I’ll wait before picking up the sequel. This is one game that feels like it has all the right parts, but somehow the sum total just didn’t appeal to me as much as I thought it would, that is not to say that it’s an awful game. It’s certainly no Hyperdimension Neptunia, I just didn’t like it as much as I thought I would. I would recommend picking this up if you enjoyed the sagas, you want a solid strategy RPG, and you can handle bleak fight-for-survival atmosphere where the world’s gone to shit and you’re along for the ride.