The Banner Saga Review: A better epic than game
At a Glance
The word epic is overused. Misused. Abused. It has been stripped of all meaning by an Internet prone to hyperbole.
Having said that, The Banner Saga is epic in the Homeric sense—or perhaps the Asgardian sense, considering the game's strong Norse influence. It's a tale of small characters caught up in much larger proceedings, dabbling in things they don't understand.
Like all good epics, it's about saving the world against all odds. It's about survival in the face of despair. But Beowulf and Odysseus never got this bogged down in the details.
Just look at it
At its core, The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game. I say this as a warning: if you don’t like turn-based strategy, you’re not going to like The Banner Saga despite the lengthy sections of dialogue in between battles and the amazing visuals.
And wow, is The Banner Saga stunning to look at. The game puts its best foot forward right at the start with a short, fully-animated scene that stylistically meshes with the best Disney classics. Of course, it gets you needlessly excited because nothing else in the entire game is animated in this manner, but I can excuse that—The Banner Saga came from a small team with a small crowd-funded budget.
It’s not like the rest of the game looks shabby. Your caravan trudges through breathtaking scenery, crimson banner fluttering overhead. Dialogue is presented as a series of still frames with simulated camera moves, and primarily without voice acting—expect to read a lot in The Banner Saga.
The game is beautiful, albeit rudimentary in many ways. Combat is played out on a square grid, and many of the animations here are given the same care as the general art style—for instance, the way characters stagger after receiving blows, or crumple after they’re knocked out of the battle.
Playing The Banner Saga, it’s impossible not to get caught up somewhat in the visuals. Every time my rag-tag caravan of refugees, warriors, and soldiers of fortune set out across the landscape, Austin Wintory’s soundtrack swelling in the background, I got excited. In these moments, The Banner Saga feels like a grand adventuret.
The hand of fate
But first impressions of The Banner Saga fail to hold up to deeper scrutiny. Beautiful visuals mask a game that is deeply flawed on a systems level.
The game promises up front, "The story in The Banner Saga changes based on the choices you make.” It’s smoke and mirrors.
That’s not to say there are no meaningful choices in The Banner Saga, but their promise up front primes you psychologically to expect choice. You feel like every decision you make is shifting the whole plot.
Instead, The Banner Saga plays a lot like Telltale’s Walking Dead series in that it dabbles with the illusion of choice. For a game that promises so much, you actually have very little agency.
Open up the map and prepare to feel overwhelmed. It’s huge, and each location has associated lore to pore over. Then close the map and forget it. You’ll never actually need the map in the entire game, since your characters proceed down a largely linear path. You don’t get to choose to abandon the adventure and go exploring. You’re railroaded by the invisible, guiding hand.
Early in the game my character at the time, a varl (gigantic man with horns) named Hakon, had the opportunity to choose our direction—would we go towards the capital city of the land of men and deliver the prince safely, or would we risk our entire caravan to go check out rumors of an enemy stronghold?
I first said we’d go visit the stronghold. It promised adventure and glory—and besides, the prince of men was kind of a jerk anyway. Who cared if he died along the way?
But the prince was so reproachful, I felt guilty. I reloaded an earlier save and went through the conversation again, except this time I opted to head towards the prince’s city.
What happened next made me burst out laughing. My character felt some magic spell come over him, and he was forced to say we’d head towards the enemy stronghold. And then the prince got mad at me all over again.
I was going whether I liked it or not.
Similar situations crop up throughout the game. At one point two characters arrived in my group who said they “remembered me” despite the fact that I’d skipped their section of the game and they’d never met me before. It’s not that illusion of choice is necessarily bad, but I don’t think The Banner Saga hides its hand as well as Telltale does in The Walking Dead.
The game also has a problem with character bloat. There are 25 different characters in The Banner Saga, an eight to eleven hour game. Outside of probably five, the rest are completely ancillary. You might get one interaction with each before they’re cast into the greater pot of “people I can use in battle” and forgotten.
As for the plot? Expect very few answers. The Banner Saga is the first of three planned games, so it’s a bit pointless to even discuss story threads right now. Suffice it to say, the game opens probably fifty doors and only closes one by the end.
Too many mouths to feed
And then there are the game parts of this video game. I actually really enjoy the combat, outside of a few difficulty spikes. Characters have two stats: armor and strength. Each attack, you choose whether to harm the enemy’s armor or strength. Armor protects from future damage. Strength plays a dual role—it governs how much damage your character does but also functions as health. When your character’s health is damaged, he or she also can’t do as much damage.
It’s an interesting system, and there’s a fair amount of depth. Plenty of times I pulled a victory out against seemingly impossible odds, due to a fortuitous combination of my characters’ abilities.
However, the meta aspects of combat are fairly broken. Each battle earns you Renown. Renown is used for everything—leveling up your characters, buying items that buff character stats, and purchasing supplies.
It’s the last one that’s the biggest thorn (sword) in The Banner Saga’s side. You need to purchase enough supplies to feed your caravan each day. Your caravan is represented by numbers at the top of the travel screen—for instance, you might have 450 people in your caravan plus 132 warriors and 88 varl. Great.
These numbers are meaningless. They're not characters. You won't meet these 670 people in your caravan. They just "exist."
Each day you lose supplies based on how many people are traveling in your caravan, so in every city you buy more supplies. And more supplies. And more supplies. It’s easy to blow all your Renown on supplies, especially if you lose a portion to bandits in the wilderness or a wagon falls off a cliff or something.
So when supplies run out, you’d expect some huge consequences. Nope. Instead, the number of faceless, meaningless people in your caravan starts dropping. But those numbers are so poorly explained in the first place—I still don’t understand why I needed to keep them high, outside of my own roleplaying—that it’s easy to feel frustrated with the whole supplies system.
But seriously, look at this art:
The bottom line
It’s fortuitous that The Banner Saga looks like an old animated Disney film because it feels like one too.
The Banner Saga is Disney’s Sword in the Stone compared to T.H. White’s Once and Future King. It’s The Black Cauldron compared to the Lloyd Alexander novel of the same name. It’s, in other words, a fake epic. A romp, rather than a struggle.
Characters come, characters go. Deaths play out off-screen, if at all.
But for all that, I feel like this review is unfairly harsh. Despite a whole host of problems with The Banner Saga, I really, truly enjoyed my time with the game. Those moments when my banner fluttered in front of the gorgeous Norse landscape, Austin Wintory’s music playing in the background—for better or worse, those are the moments that stuck with me.
Parts of The Banner Saga—the art direction, the audio, the naturalistic dialogue—are breathtaking. But the actual game in The Banner Saga doesn't live up to the promise of its epic setting. Not yet, anyway. Let's hope the next installment is more Homer and less Fievel Goes West.