Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, Android, Linux, and OSX
Review written by Stephen Deck; originally published 10/28/2018 on Teacher by Day, Gamer by Night
Banner Saga is everything I want in a game. Seriously, I let it languish in my Steam library, fated to remain unplayed for far too long, until Colin said “Dude, this game is dope, you gotta play it. You’ll love it.” As is usually the case when Colin recommends stuff for me – Gundam, a rewatch of Deep Space Nine, Castlevania – he was absolutely right. This game is straight fire. While it’s not quite “perfect,” per se, it’s definitely got my name written all over it.
Banner Saga is an SRPG, but not quite like any that I’ve played previously. It’s extremely similar to a lot of others in a lot of ways, but it’s just different enough to stand out as unique among the games I’ve experienced. Imagine, if you will, the game as a math equation. It roughly boils down to:
Fire Emblem + a Norse theme – permadeath + TellTale style choices + Oregon Trail = Banner Saga
It plays a LOT like Fire Emblem with the square-based grid, the turn-based movement, etc. but with Vikings and horned giants instead of a more central European medieval setting. It also lacks Fire Emblem iconic permadeath at least as far as combat is concerned. Your characters can and will still die for good through the choices you make and plot points, but if they fall in battle, they’re simply “injured,” not killed. Speaking of choices, the game is all about choice and consequence. Much of the game’s dialogue provides you with multiple choices that affect the direction that the story takes. The Oregon Trail aspect comes into play with your caravan. For almost all of the game, you’re moving towards one city or another as your quest progresses, and you have a small army with you in your caravan. You also have a finite amount of supplies and a constantly declining caravan morale. If you try to conserve supplies and not stop to rest unless the game forces you, your morale will decrease, putting you at a strategic disadvantage in battle. If you stop frequently to make sure that your morale stays high, you’ll burn through supplies, and if you run out of supplies, your clansmen and troops will start to die every day. If you use your renown to promote your units, you may find yourself short on funds for much-needed supplies when you get to the next town’s market; likewise, if you use all of your renown on supplies for your caravan, you may not be able to promote all of your units, leaving you with a weak and underleveled army against a far superior foe. Where do you strike your balance? That’s part of the strategy of the game’s decision making.
As far as visuals go, the game is done in an almost hand-drawn cartoon style. While this particular art style is sometimes rather “hit or miss” for me, this is definitely an example of a “hit.” The characters are beautifully drawn, the visuals are bright and colorful when they need to be while dark and foreboding when the situation calls for it, and the way the scenes unfold gives the whole game a storybook-like feel as if you’re being told an epic adventure tale as much as actually playing a game. That storybook feel is, in large part, thanks to the fantastic narration. Not only does the narrator himself do an excellent job with the delivery, but the amount of narration is perfect – enough to set the stage and advance the story at key points but infrequent enough so as not to break the player’s immersion.
Difficulty in the game seems almost an afterthought, a factor placed on the backburner to focus on the story and its delivery. There are a few different difficulty settings to cater to the spectrum of player ability levels and desires for challenge, but since more of the game is spent on decision making and managing your caravan supplies and whatnot, the combat difficulty never felt to me like it took center stage the way it does in many other games of the genre. That’s not to say that the difficult was unbalanced or poorly implemented – it definitely wasn’t – but the focus of the game always stayed far more on the journey, the characters, and their experiences and tribulations than on challenging the player in battle unless, of course, you specifically seek that out by putting the game on the highest difficulty. It was honestly a breath of fresh air for me to have a fun and compelling strategy RPG but have it place the emphasis on the story more than the challenge. That aspect is certainly not going to be to everyone’s liking, but it turned out to be everything I didn’t know I wanted from the genre.
Banner Saga is the perfect type of SRPG in my opinion. Story and atmosphere always take priority over the combat challenge, and the art style, sound direction, and narration are done in such a way that brilliantly enhances that atmosphere. The only thing about the game that really didn’t sit well with me was that the perspective switches between a couple of different parties throughout the game before the parties (or remnants of them) meet up at the end. It certainly wasn’t bad, but I tend to prefer having a consistent set of protagonists rather than switching back and forth between two groups. That aside, however, it’s one of if not the most enjoyable indie games that I’ve ever played. It has the indie game hallmark bits and pieces that could have used a bit more polish or could have been expanded upon a bit, but even so, it’s an absolutely remarkable game, and it absolutely deserved the Switch, PS4, and Xbox One releases that it and its two sequels got. With availability on all three home platforms, all three major computer OSs, and both major smartphone OSs, there’s nary a gamer out there with no way to play. I absolutely and wholeheartedly recommend this game for any who are fans of strategy or fans of a good Norse tale.