Even though I had heard of The Banner Saga prior to playing it for this review and knew it had something to do with vikings, I was essentially in the dark about the game. Going into this title with no expectations lead to me being pleasantly surprised by what was in store. The Banner Saga is one of the best and most rewarding gaming experiences I’ve had in a while.
This game is inspired by Norse mythology but not in the way you would expect. Instead of using names like Asgard, Thor, Nifelheim, Bifrost, or anything directly from Viking legends, The Banner Saga creates its own unique world that resembles those from Scandinavian lore. There are frozen lands with unpronounceable names, warriors dying in glorious battle, and evil monsters out to destroy mankind. This isn’t the same old medieval fantasy we’ve seen hundreds of times and it is quite refreshing.
Mechanics-wise, the core of the game is centered around tactical, turn-based battles which play out in an isometric view. Each combatant has health and shield strength, and as you would expect, you need to bring these down to 0. While it might be tempting to just attack for health damage, attacking an enemy’s shield actually causes more health damage in the long run. Each character also has specific abilities for their class.
Placement is as important as knowing when to attack shields or health. Archers do better attacking from a distance while warriors excel at direct combat. There are times when an enemy is too far to hit and you must sacrifice some willpower in order to move into position. Some enemies lay hazards along the path so you have to be aware of that as well.
While the combat can be extremely satisfying due to its level of challenge and strategic nature, I do wish the game had explained it more clearly. Even during the end of the game, I felt that I was missing a lot of the nuance of the combat system. The tutorial does a good job of teaching you the basics but a lot of what you learn in the game comes after some trial an error. I know this can be seen as a good thing, but I wanted some more explanation.
As a rule, I try to not mention other games in my reviews. However, I can’t talk about The Banner Saga and not bring up how its overworld segments are extremely reminiscent of The Oregon Trail. You lead caravans of various sizes across the frozen lands and must make tough choices that could help or hinder your group. You may not know if a choice you made is wise or not unless it comes back to bite you much later.
The toughest part with these segments is keeping morale and supplies high. Losing a battle to enemies is one thing, but losing members of your caravan because they’re dying of hunger is something else completely. However, sometimes you have to sacrifice some of your group so that the majority can survive. While these decisions can seem unfair at times, it actually aids in creating a more gripping experience since there are tangible and impactful consequences to each of your actions.
The game’s narrative is told via beautifully hand-drawn illustrations that look like they come straight from a Don Bluth film. While the animation of the characters is minimum at best, this is offset by the captivating narrative which keeps you hooked throughout. In a way, this is a throwback to how narratives used to be told in games, and requires the player to use their imagination to fill in the blanks. I looked forward to every conversation or overworld scenario that would flesh out the world and its inhabitants more.
Let’s be honest here, video game soundtracks are very forgettable nowadays. That’s not the case here. I appreciate the fact that The Banner Saga has a full orchestral soundtrack and isn’t just a soundtrack composed of samples. Though you do hear a lot of the same songs, none of them ever become repetitious or dull. The soundtrack truly shines during the more important story beats and helps draw you in even more.
I’m glad that this once PC exclusive game is available to console gamers who may have otherwise missed out on such a rich and entertaining experience. While it may not have the same production values of big AAA games, this is definitely a title people need to check out, especially if they are fans of RPGs. I’m now thoroughly invested in this franchise and look forward to any sequels.
This review of The Banner Saga is based on a digital copy for the PlayStation 4 which was provided by Versus Evil.