There are many games which tout the ability to make choices. From Mass Effect to The Walking Dead, player choice has become a very popular selling point over the past few years, but no game has done it quite like The Banner Saga.
Set in a vaguely Scandinavian fantasy world where the gods have died, the sun has stopped and where a tenuous alliance between men and the towering horned giants known as “Varl” keeps the land in relative peace, the story follows the “end of days” and an invasion of stone giants known as the “Dredge”. Our two reluctant heroes are the leader of a “Varl” host who, whilst escorting the human prince to their capital, stumble across the “Dredge” invasion. Their mission quickly turns into a swift retreat to in an effort to regroup and push the invaders back. Our other protagonist is the de-facto leader of a small village that finds itself pillaged by the “Dredge”. Their flight for safety turns them into a roaming band of refugees growing at every stop on their journey, where managing the food, morale and safety of a fraught band of survivors becomes as much of a daunting task as fighting off the enemies that pursue them.
The story itself does seem to play heavily with the idea of the reluctant leader; neither of the two player characters choose power and responsibility, but rather find it thrust upon them. This allows the player to plant themselves into the situation far more easily and helps create that bond between the player and the character which is so important.
This bond isn’t created the way many games do it; with the player character being little more than a shell for the player to jump into, rather the characters themselves have defined personalities, beliefs and values which the player operates within. It’s actually quite similar to The Last of Us in that regard – for instance, Joel is a brutal, violent man and you act more like him over the course of the game as you occupy his head and start to think like him. In The Banner Saga the characters have defined personalities that the player is expected to take on – to a degree. So although the choices you make are distinctly your own, they never feel out of place for the character and never juxtapose their actions in the scripted sections of the game later on.
The actual game bit of the video game encompasses a variety of different aspects: You oversee the caravan as it travels along its trail managing food and morale, make decisions in various conversations – which will have inevitable and irreparable impacts on your experience – and fight in the 2D isometric combat.
The bulk of your time will be spent watching your caravan meander across the barren countryside, your distinctive banner forming a beautiful canopy over the motley band of people under your command. From here you’ll mostly just admire the beautiful scenery. Despite little interaction during these sections, the gameplay loop is immensely satisfying. Spending renown in local villages to purchase as much food as you think is necessary for the journey. You will be chewing your nails as you trudge across the landscape, the food disappearing faster than you had expected – which is only made worse by some disaster, leaving you crawling into the next town.
Although travelling rarely goes well, when it does it’s a rare treat to appreciate the stunning scenery and gorgeous soundtrack. These moments provide a crucial bit of calm and levity that stops the player from being completely overwhelmed to the point that they stop playing. However this isn’t to say that food is all you must worry about in these sections, some of the biggest decisions made in the game happen when you’re on the road.
Speaking of which, decisions and conversations are another crucial element of the game. You’ll often engage in conversations with other characters which results in making a decision. It can range from how you enter a fortified town you’re not welcome at to deciding whether you should leave a “Dredge” baby to die in the snow. These decisions are not deliberately vague and often do have a “right” answer, but that it’s rarely clear cut or obvious and the player is often forced to choose between those they care about and the safety of the caravan as a whole; which is trickier than you might think. What’s refreshing is that these moral dilemmas aren’t here to trip you up and don’t point fingers and punish you for making what the developers feel was the morally “wrong” decision. These are complex issues made under horrid circumstances and the developers recognise that there are times that you will have to do bad things for the good of those you care about. They treat issues of stealing, direct and indirect killings and betrayal in a way that doesn’t stand on a soapbox and tell us all about how bad it is. The game acknowledges that the decisions you make may be necessary to ensure the safety of your people, but may also just be unnecessarily cruel, then leaves you to make that choice. It really is one of the most mature depictions of decision making and responsibility since Papers, Please.
Finally, there is combat. The turn based isometric style has been around for a long time, but The Banner Saga does it well. For starters it’s brutally difficult, evoking thoughts of Xcom and other delightfully tough strategy titles. However, if you are defeated the game doesn’t end. Instead you are sent down an alternative path – this means that the game can indulge in a challenge and reward skilled players without alienating more “casual” fans. Even if you do terribly in every combat section of the game it will still continue and most of the big decisions take place outside of combat anyway. Furthermore you can change the difficulty at any time; so if you feel like you’re hitting a brick wall or that you’re breezing through every challenge you can modify your game at any time.
The combat itself is all about balancing the two different stats, Strength and Armour. Your strength doubles as your health and damage output, so one point of strength damage means your next attack will deal one less damage to the enemy. Your armour governs how much damage you will take from enemy attacks. This means that no matter how powerful your heroes are the strenuous grind of combat will weigh on them heavily, and the longer combat goes on the weaker they will become, thus making it impossible for you to feel overpowered. Combat in The Banner Saga is about survival; it’s brutal, stressful and wonderfully enjoyable.
Ultimately, The Banner Saga is a classic bit of storytelling done in a way that only a video game could. A classic fantasy tale delivered in a well-crafted, well written package, but packed with the choice and agency that only video games offer. In that sense it’s not only a great game, but a brilliant option for introducing someone to the world of video games.
Reviewed on PC
Publisher: Versus Evil
Available on PC, OS X, Linux, iOS, Android, PlayStation 4, Xbox One