Normally if a story started in the middle I’d be confused, and if it ended with a lot of loose ends I’d be mad. The first entry in The Banner Saga did just that but I wasn’t mad. Instead, I was invested and intrigued. I felt a fraction of what each character was feeling, and then some. And most importantly: I sympathized.
The Banner Saga is a hand-drawn strategy game from Stoic and published by Versus Evil. Throughout the game you lead a caravan full of people while trying to bring them away from enemies called Dredge. Large, horned creatures called Varls join your cause, and together you try to figure out just what the heck is the deal with the Dredge.
I mentioned previously in my preview that I had trouble understanding the mechanics of the game while distracted. That’s because The Banner Saga is a serious, no-holds barred game not only from its story but also its battle system. There’s a lot of options to consider before you can even commit to an action, and it’s this deep decision-making that will keep your inner strategist from ever hiding again.
The battles are a lot more than just swinging a sword and causing damage. Because the Dredge is decked out in heavy armor, you must break their armor first before you can do anything. Conversely, that armor stat also dictates how much damage they can do against your own armor, and by extension against your health. This multi-layered approach to battling might seem tedious and complicated to the uninitiated, but it’s actually a beautiful balancing act. Everyone can contribute one way or another, and taking damage doesn’t necessarily mean that your health is dwindling.
Of course no strategy game is complete without some sort of stat-building mechanic. Each character has a specialty depending on their weapon, and you are free to hone a certain aspect of their skill any way you want. You can also give them items to wear, earning any bonuses that item may have. Everyone has the same set of qualities that can be increased, but each character class will dictate which quality works best with their abilities.
Leveling up is also slightly different. Instead of relying on experience points, everyone must meet a certain number of kills before being eligible for promotion. Each promotion costs a specific number of renown, which are earned from battles. The kills requirement for ranking up is a subtle nod to the game’s lore, considering that Varls speak of confirmed kills as a way of indicating might. Ranking up is also the only way to improve certain qualities for each character; each rank up yields two upgrade points with no refunds. Once you commit to an upgrade, that’s it.
When you’re not busy breaking Dredge armor, you’ll be busy tending to the health and well-being of everyone in your caravan. One-third of the game’s identity is a resource management game, making sure that you have enough renown to buy supplies and you have enough supplies to last until the next rest area. And yes, the same renown you use to rank your units up is the same renown you use as currency, so it’s always important to balance your usage early in the game.
If the strategy battles and resource management make up two-thirds of the game, then the character interaction and decision making is the last third. This is also where the story really takes center stage: your decisions help the narrative take shape. Your choices in conversations, no matter how casual or serious the moment, will determine who lives, who dies, and who tells your story.
And if you think that kind of responsibility is a bit heavy, that’s because it is. Even though you make your choices through Rook as a proxy, everything you do ripples throughout the entire game. The overall story still goes on regardless of how you carry yourself but you have to deal with the consequences in your microstory. Things may not turn out as well as you hoped but you’ll have to go on anyway because gosh darn it, you’re the leader.
As if the events so far isn’t heavy enough for you, the game’s excellent score and beautiful art will make you feel bad that everything isn’t flowers and rainbows right now. You get to watch your caravan slowly walk their way over to the next rest stop, and during these times you get to admire the dying beauty of their environment. Along with subtle yet deliberately haunting tracks by Austin Wintory and Dallas Wind Symphony, you’ll be left wondering as to why just about everything seems to be going down the drain.
With The Banner Saga’s triple threat working together, it’s understandable why it’s so easy to get emotionally invested with the game. Deep yet satisfying battles integrate seamlessly with the excellent storytelling, making you just a wee bit protective of the characters once you truly learn their background. Frequent battle breaks by way of resting and traveling give a much needed breather from constant fighting. The story’s careful pacing ensures that you know just enough to accept things but still have enough questions to keep going. And with that ending dropping heavily like a ton of bricks, it’s a good thing that The Banner Saga 2 is out now. That way you won’t have to wonder about the aftermath.
Note: Versus Evil provided a copy for review purposes.