One thing about The Banner Saga sticks out from the moment it loads: it is beautiful. Not hot girl (or boy) in a nightclub beautiful, or Internet meme beautiful, but jaw-dropping, lose the ability to form coherent sentences when she approaches you on a sunny morning wearing a yellow summer cotton dress and asks you for directions in her exotic broken English and lilting accent beautiful.
In short, The Banner Saga is one of the most stunning visual experiences to be had on PC. Its 2D hand-drawn and lovingly animated art is without peer, and is evocative of the golden age of American animation, falling somewhere between 1940-50s Disney and early ‘80s Don Bluth. It truly is stunning to behold. Although it was obviously designed with care, the gameplay can’t quite reach the same heights, but even so there is a heart and a brain behind the beauty.
The Banner Saga is a tactical turn-based RPG, falling somewhere between the Classic Gold Box games of the late ‘80s and Final Fantasy Tactics. Set in a Viking-themed fantasy world, it tasks the player with saving his people from an invading demonic army known as the Dredge, who are hell-bent on destruction and domination. Uprooting an entire population, the player must protect this caravan as it seeks refuge from a seemingly unstoppable tide of monstrous invaders.
The core plot – while derivative – has been injected with enough unique personality that it never feels tired or overplayed. It hits many of the major tropes of the fantasy genre, but presents things in such a way that it almost feels fresh.
As a result, the game differentiates itself just enough that most players won’t notice or won’t care that they’ve taken this journey before. In many ways, The Banner Saga plays like an extended fantasy variant of The Oregon Trail; a helpless populace must be fed and protected while on a perilous journey.
In addition, the game’s linear narrative is unaffected by choices made via simple dialogue trees, although these have the potential to make the trip safer or cause unexpected and seemingly unwarranted death. This is one of the most disappointing aspects of the game, as there is actually no control on how major events will play out. So while the central narrative is compelling, the lack of player control makes The Banner Saga feel like an interactive story rather than an actual adventure.
Thankfully, the combat makes up for some of these limitations with simple but robust mechanics that reward careful planning, while providing sufficient tactical options to keep players interested. The turn-based isometric approach will please gamers looking for a more traditional combat experience, and it snags aspects of Shining Force, Final Fantasy Tactics, and even Dungeons and Dragons classics like Curse of the Azure Bonds and Champions of Krynn.
There is plenty of variety here in terms of who can be added to your roster, ranging from the hulking horned Varl to agile archers and various Viking-themed warriors. Each character class has a unique ability, and all characters have the ability to tap in to their limited pool of willpower to give them more range, movement, or damage for a turn or two.
The tactical use of willpower is the deciding factor in many encounters, and the tradeoff between using it and the days it will take to recharge provide the only real strategic choice the player has full control over.
It’s an elegant system, and easily the highlight of the game from a purely mechanical standpoint.
There are various minor niggles that also need to be addressed. The only currency in game is “renown”, which is earned by events the player takes part in game, or awarded after combat.
The major issue here is that it is used to purchase all upgrades and items, so players will need to choose between upgrading various warriors in the party and buying supplies for the caravan.
It feels very artificial and unintuitive, and leads to pointless opportunity costs that just didn’t make a lot of sense. In addition, some combat encounters can be rather repetitious and uninteresting due to their grinding nature.
Yet The Banner Saga is one of the most artfully-presented and beautiful games to ever come to the PC. Its solid combat mechanics and well-drawn if linear narrative are compelling, and only a few minor design missteps mar the overall experience.