The Banner Saga is a game of both terrific beauty and desperate misery. Those who like their RPGs to deliver an epic-scale world-saving power fantasy would probably be served better by something other than Stoic's debut effort, which has no particular interest in making its player feel good about the decisions and scenarios they're being presented with. This is a game as bleak and brutal as any folk metal song, full of wearied, cynical heroes forced to make hard choices that rarely result in great things for those they bear responsibility for, as the fabric of their already barren world unravels around them at every turn. The Banner Saga is grim, bordering on hopeless at times, so it's a credit to its mechanics and art design that the game never feels particularly punishing to play. In fact, it's a surprising time-suck, one of those games that, should it get its hooks in you, it'll get them deep.
It'll help, of course, if you have even a minor predilection toward Vikings. No, The Banner Saga doesn't dig into actual Norse mythology, but its hardscrabble heroes are clearly inspired by the Nordic warriors of old. The mythology here finds a world previously decimated by massive wars, long-dead gods, and a seething mistrust between the two primary races. The smaller, more obviously familiar humans live in scattered settlements and cities alongside the giant, behorned varl, a race defined primarily by its largeness and exceptionally long lifespan. Neither race much trusts one another, but a tentative alliance has kept things peaceful since the old days of war against the race of stone-demons known as the dredge. Not long into The Banner Saga's opening, the dredge return mysteriously, pouring over the land in volume the likes of which even the oldest varl can't recall ever seeing. Immediately villages are overwhelmed, people are driven from their homes, and it's up to you to find a way to save as many as you can.
You'll play The Banner Saga from multiple perspectives, including a human clan led by an archer named Rook, and a caravan of varl and humans led by one of the few diplomatically minded varl you'll meet. In either situation, you'll find yourself leading a group from place to place, scavenging for supplies, fighting dredge, and slowly putting the pieces together on why the dredge have returned, why the sun has stopped moving across the sky, and why a shroud of darkness has begun to cover the whole of the world.
Unfortunately, The Banner Saga only gets around to actually answering a couple of those questions. Much of the game's plot is dedicated to introducing you quite a few different characters, many of which become playable members of your party as you trudge across the icy wasteland. Some of these characters are legitimately interesting personalities, while others offer less distinctive voices, making their presences occasionally confusing during larger conversations. The game's script is mostly judicious about who it inserts into what situation, but it's almost entirely unvoiced (outside of a few narrated chapter intros) and that makes trying to differentiate some of the very similarly mannered characters a bit of a pain when you're clicking through the various conversations. This is also not a very long game. I completed it in something like nine hours, and while it mostly makes good use of the time it has, its conclusion makes the events that preceded it feel like a lot of table-setting for a much bigger, even more arduous conflict later down the road, rather than a satisfying wrap-up of its own stand-alone tale. It's a little like watching The Fellowship of the Ring if you weren't already aware there were going to be more sequels coming.
Still, I liked a lot of what The Banner Saga aims for in terms of crafting its world and those that inhabit it. Some clunky dialogue here and there aside, many of the characters you're presented with demonstrate nuance in their motivations, despite the perpetually crumbling world around them not exactly allowing for many opportunities for subtle character-building. Even as the game falls further and further into its apocalyptic abyss, the key personalities of the story remain engaging, keeping you transfixed on their tale, even as the circumstances become more and more ominous.
I don't think I'm overselling the dire nature of The Banner Saga's story, though I'll concede that a good chunk of that misery comes from the fact that you are the one forced to make the hard decisions around all this tragedy. Most of these come from simple dialogue trees that pop up in primary conversations, but you'll also constantly be making plenty of smaller, yet still important, decisions that greatly affect how your game progresses. You see, The Banner Saga breaks up its combat and plot points with a traveling system not all that dissimilar from The Oregon Trail. As you move from place to place, you'll be bringing along a caravan of warriors and clansmen that must be properly maintained, lest your people begin dying off along the path. Essentially, you have to balance your store of supplies against the need to keep healthy morale among your people, which you gain by resting along the way. You'll have opportunities on the road to scavenge for additional supplies, take on new members of the caravan, and even find a few extra items to buff your warriors with, but those situations can often just as easily go wrong, leading to lost supplies, sickness, and very often death for those around you.
The health and morale of your caravan must additionally be balanced against your need to improve the warriors in your party. The only way you'll be able to upgrade them is by taking on the hordes of dredge that seem to appear at every turn, as well as the occasional band of human brigands or renegade varl. Winning in battle earns you renown, the game's only currency. You use renown to upgrade your warriors in the usual stats like strength and armor, as well as willpower. Willpower is a special, stackable trait that lets warriors move further on the battlefield, as well as enact stronger attacks. Incidentally, renown is also the currency you use to purchase supplies for your caravan, so you constantly find yourself having to decide if having extra days worth of a healthy caravan is worth having potentially underpowered fighters in the next battle. And keeping morale in a good place helps too, since having extremely low morale will cost you penalties during battles.
About that battle system. Fights take place on a grid, using a turn-based system that rewards careful strategy. You'll have a half-dozen or so warriors available per fight, which is usually enough to take on the hordes of dredge, highwaymen, and whatever else you come in contact with. Each main warrior has their own particular skillset, though there are several character classes that each fighter pulls from. Which is to say nothing of the major differences between the humans and varl's skillsets. Varl, as you might imagine, are lumbering hulks that do lots of damage but aren't necessarily the most nimble nor defensive-minded fighters, while humans can use a greater variety of weapons, like bows, spears, and small axes. Creating a strong party that balances attackers and supporting players is generally key to victory.
It's an intriguing system, one that I managed to pick up the particulars of fairly quickly. If there's a flaw here, it's that there regrettably isn't much variety to the combat scenarios you're presented. You spend most of the game just fighting the dredge, who certainly have some differing fighter classes, but not enough to make any engagement with them feel much different from another, outside of a few random (but not unmanageable) difficulty spikes. Some of that sameness is offset by the fact that the combat system itself is fairly fun and just complicated enough to require some thinking, without being too complicated for an average player to dive into. Samey as they might be, fights are often enjoyably challenging. I guess I just wish more time were dedicated to throwing some unexpected wrinkles into the combat situations. The traversal system offers up a pretty solid variety of situations and choices for the player to make over the course of the game. It's just a small shame that the combat system, as vital to the game's progression as it is, doesn't quite follow suit.
One aspect of The Banner Saga I have no qualms with whatsoever is its art. Evoking the hand-drawn art of animation's "dark age," The Banner Saga features exquisite character art, gorgeous landscapes, and tons of small visual flourishes that combine into a spectacular looking world. It's worth noting that the game doesn't feature a ton of actual animation, outside of battle scenes and some lightly animated cutscenes, but it doesn't really matter. The mostly static images that make up the conversation and overworld sequences are drawn so wonderfully that they do plenty to suck you into the game's snow-bleached world. That art is underscored brilliantly by another terrific soundtrack from Austin Wintory, which perfectly captures the game's overall aesthetic in audio form.
I expect that phenomenal art and audio will go a long way toward making people forget about some of The Banner Saga's less developed elements. It certainly did so for me. I was too busy admiring the visuals, carefully considering each conversation, and plotting out battle strategies during the course of the game. It was only after I'd finished that I was left to consider the sometimes monotonous fights, the regrettably cliffhanging conclusion, and the overall bleakness of the game's worldview. Still, none of those considerations diminished my enjoyment at the time, and in retrospect, the worst thing I can say about The Banner Saga is that I wanted a lot more of it. That might sound like an odd thing to say about a game that digs its players into a place of nonstop hardship and treachery, a world where death and despair are the only constant, and hope seems utterly lost in the dark behind an unmoving sun. Credit then to Stoic for crafting a game experience that makes such gloom palatable, beautiful, and yes, even enjoyable.