Game Review: The Banner Saga (PC)

Stunning graphics and enchanting gameplay come together to form one of this year's best games

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After finishing The Banner Saga, the first thought that ran across my mind was: “How am I going to sum this up in a review?” Luckily, I had a few days before publishing to process everything.

The Banner Saga (Chapter One) is Stoic Studio’s first crack at a multi-part low fantasy epic. Stoic, a studio comprised of three industry veterans, turned to Kickstarter to get their idea off of the ground. Stoic’s Kickstarter campaign was a huge success, reaching just over 700% of what they had initially hoped to raise financially.

The Banner Saga's combat system and stunning graphics in action

The Banner Saga’s combat system and stunning graphics in action

The campaign finished back in April of 2012. In 2013, we saw the launch of The Banner Saga: Factions, which was a PVP-only game. It was just a hint of what we would see in the singleplayer story, but enough to keep us all on the edge of our seats for another year.

The single player campaign begins much in the way that Factions did: a tutorial battle that finds you saving your chieftain from another chieftain. Viking versus Viking. Infighting has run rampant among the Viking tribes during these periods of “peace,” as war hasn’t been seen in a long time. Something mysterious is afoot, however. The Dredge, a race of armored colossi thought to be extinct, are back.

Guess what? He’s dead because you decided to let somebody into your caravan that you shouldn’t have.

In The Banner Saga’s battle system, the objective is to eliminate your opponents by attacking them, much like any other tactical RPG. Instead of your traditional HP/MP, stats come in the form of “Strength” (health and damage) and “Armor” (prevents damage). When you make an attack, you choose which stat to attack; an enemy’s armor or strength. Breaking down an enemy’s armor will open them up to take greater damage, but attacking an opponent’s strength will ensure that they do less damage. Units also have willpower, a precious commodity that allows them to inflict greater damage, use abilities, or move further. Killing an opponent nets you renown instead of the traditional experience points you’re used to seeing. You alternate turns with the opponent until a single unit is left standing. The Banner Saga’s battle system can become especially harrowing to even the most decorated armchair generals as there is no “undo” command in battle. Once you confirm an action, that’s it – consequences be damned.

Banner Saga implores a morality system that's sure to keep players on engrossed in the game to the end

Banner Saga implores a morality system that’s sure to keep players on engrossed in the game to the end

The Banner Saga also employs a “choice” system similar to what we have seen before in games like Oregon Trail or Mass Effect: for seemingly every action, there is a reaction. Similar to Mass Effect, The Banner Saga will be split up into three chapters – so don’t make decisions without thinking about the long-term ramifications! In fact, don’t make any decisions without thinking of the immediate ramifications either.

What’s that? You have a favorite character that you’ve been using every battle? Guess what? He’s dead because you decided to let somebody into your caravan that you shouldn’t have.

One of my only gripes with The Banner Saga is just how dismissive it can be of a character dying. Often times this happens in a quick blurb of text. I felt that this cheapened the death of some characters. However, as much as this was bothersome for me, it is almost perfect for the setting; death is everywhere and you can’t get hung up on it. This also encourages a balanced party instead of relying on a single group.

Now, despite The Banner Saga’s highly strategic and deep gameplay, one of the main attractions is its artistic direction. There is something to be said for its hand-drawn graphics. In twenty-plus years of gameplay, I haven’t ever come across a game that evokes such awe from mere visuals. The Banner Saga accomplishes what few games can: an emotional connection through art alone. Speaking of art, The Banner Saga can, and will, truly be a beacon for the “video games as art” argument. It’s no secret that Stoic’s art direction is an homage to the late Eyvind Earle, but it’s their tribute to him that moves me. Not only do they refer to him as the “American Master” in the credits, but they’ve also named a character in their game after him.

Austin Wintory, whom you may be familiar with as the composer of thatgamecompany’s Journey, lends his expertise to the soundtrack of The Banner Saga. Wintory’s masterful compositions really shine when your caravan is en route from one location to another, or just about anytime you’re able to take in the sights of the gorgeous landscape.

The Banner Saga is a must-play for anybody with a computer that can run it. It is an absolutely perfect example of minimalism, and is soul crushingly beautiful. Whether you support independent games or not, you would be remiss in not playing this one.