Review: The Banner Saga Makes The End Of The World Gorgeous
A jaw-dropping, intelligent, beautiful game that delivered all my expectations and then some.
- Worth The Time?Yes, with a lot of replay value.
- Things LovedPretty much the whole thing. The gorgeous art, the magic soundtrack, the impossible choices, the epic story-line.
- Things HatedI hated nothing. The difficulty is pretty high, and so some gamers might want to bite the bullet and shift to easy to survive some of the tougher fights.
- RecommendationPlay it now!
- Name: The Banner Saga
- Genre: Strategic RPG
- Players: Singleplayer
- Multiplayer: Not in this game, but in the free-to-play 'The Banner Saga: Factions'
- Platforms: PC, Mac
- Developer: Stoic
- Publisher: Stoic
- Price: R273
- Reviewed On: PC
It is not often I come across anything that literally makes my jaw drop. The Banner Saga did so, repeatedly. This turn-based strategy-RPG game is so well put-together that I think it may have taken Bastion’s place in my games-as-art argument. I barely know where to begin.
The Banner Saga is a classic viking Edda. The gods are dead, in this universe’s take on Ragnarok, and the sun is frozen in the winter sky. Humans and varl (horned giants) live on in an uneasy alliance against construct-like beings called the Dredge. You take control of a number of different characters, human and varl, who lead their armies, clans, and people through this unforgiving post-apocalypse.
The game is a turn-based strategy in terms of combat, with your characters able to move a certain number of squares and perform attacks and special abilities. There are very few characters with the same abilities, and so picking the right party for your play-style is very important. One of the brilliant ideas the game has is that your strength and health are identical – meaning that as your character takes damage, they realistically are able to deal less. I’d never really given the HP-damage dynamic much thought in traditional games, but really, this way provided an amazing sense of realism and drama as you duke it out with high-powered enemies. Another interesting take is the Willpower system, where you can spend a finite amount of Will on extra moves, damage, or special abilities, adding another strategic dimension to combat.
There’s more than just combat, though. Much of the game passes in the caravan mode, where you journey across the frigid wastelands between towns. Here is where the story plays out. As the nightless “days” pass, you have to decide when to rest, managing scarce resources. There’s something of the old Oregon Trail game here, as you face nearly-daily (sometimes even more frequent) challenges, and are given the choices of how to sort them out. What is so interesting about this is that the game can be brutal – it is very hard to know what the right thing is. Often you’re put in a Kobayashi Maru no-win situation, and have to deal with the harsh consequences of both justice and mercy. Being ‘good’ (the game doesn’t track any form of morality) is no guarantee of safety or happiness at all. All of this is overlaid over gorgeously-made landscapes of snow, forest and mountain.
Similarly, the dialogue is beautifully represented with expressive portraits of the characters in key scenes. Honestly, I haven’t played a game where I’ve felt quite as emotionally invested in my decisions and their consequences. Each character feels fully developed, and their motivations are quite complex. It’s a party-based game where sometimes, in the story, the party has its own ideas and might disobey you. Similarly, there’s no guarantee that everyone will make it. And some of these deaths can feel needless – a mistake, a bad decision – and I found myself beating myself up about it. I found myself shouting angrily “DID GEORGE R.R. MARTIN WRITE THIS?”
And this isn’t helped by the difficulty. Luckily, for those less proud than some, you can shift the combat difficulty on the fly, which does make a significant difference to the challenge. I did feel that easy made things rather easy, while normal could be quite brutal at times. Perhaps, the best answer is to find the challenge level that works best for you depending on how important you find the combat challenge to be. This is especially important as defeat doesn’t mean “Game Over – load from last save”. No, defeat means you get saved somehow, but with disastrous consequences (usually).
The whole game has a beautiful aesthetic which complements the mood of the game perfectly. The art is mind-blowing, with hand-painted landscapes rich in detail and texture, bringing home the bleak, post-apocalyptic setting in ironically beautiful style reminiscent of classic hand-painted animated films. The soundtrack, too, is rich with Nordic influence, dramatic and sombre, again giving a sense of weight to every action, event, and decision. This, I’m certain, helps create the setting for the compelling storyline, which deals with themes like leadership, family, courage and doubt in complex ways. It really makes you feel the pressures of leading a group through this kind of situation.