Set in a grim, Viking inspired, fantasy world, Banner Saga is a strategy RPG that tells the story of a world after the Gods are gone. With no deities, the Sun has died, leaving the lands in a dark, perpetual winter. The remaining races are struggling to make the best of this dismal world, but the evil Dredge are stirring, and you must lead a caravan of warriors to push back their assault.
Following the fate of the humans and the Varl (horned giants), the story of Banner Saga is a desperate one. Though both races face a common enemy, they are distinctly different in terms of their culture, beliefs, and abilities. This proves the crux of much of Banner Saga's gameplay, as you learn the best way to utilize each group's different talents to defeat your relentless foe.
Battles are strategic affairs, which play out in gridded arenas. This gives an almost chess-like feel to the turn-based combat, as you learn how each character moves and fights to minimize your losses during each confrontation, while also choosing between the merits of directly attacking opponents health, or wearing down their defenses.
Learning to balance the frail agility of humans with the tank-like Varl saw me lose a good handful of fighters before I learned how best to organize my troops. Keeping my ranged warriors at a distance and creating a wall with my more powerful troops may seem obvious, but it can be easy to forget that - despite being well armored - a human will quickly fall to a larger enemy's blows.
Losing a battle can result in a character's permanent death. Which fighters I would lose in these situations seemed random, but too often it seemed to be a Varl whose power I had overestimated in the face of a Dredge onslaught. Watching them, and then the rest of my team, fall was frequently heart wrenching because it was hard not to become attached to the melancholic giants – especially when I had spent time leveling them up. At times, this tempted me to revert to an earlier save to “rescue” a character, but something about the harsh severity of Banner Saga's fiction forced me to live with the outcome.
There is no right decision, until there is
Outside of combat, the brutality of the world does not let up. The somber, oppressive tone spills over into every part of the narrative, with the various decision you have to make during character interactions also resulting in you losing your weary warriors.
This really struck me during an early Dredge attack where I had to choose how to warn an unaware ally of the impending assault. I was able to call out, dash to her aid, or fire an arrow. I selected the first option, but the result was my companion, Alette, simply becoming confused. Unaware of the danger, and now distracted, the Dredge was about to kill her when a young warrior from my party blocked the attack. But the huge attacker proved too much for the boy, smashing his shield and leaving him limp on the ground. My decision ultimately saved Alette, but lost me another party member.
It is a mechanic that may frustrate some, as there is seemingly no way to predict the outcome of these decisions. For those who immerse themselves in the narrative of this deliberate world, however, the random finality of these moments rings true to the fiction's reality.
Its brutality doesn’t stop Banner Saga looking and sounding stunning. An odd blend of a Saturday morning cartoon animation and block color, mixed with a muted palate that is lifted from traditional Viking art. This gives a boldness to the world, while retaining a coldness that sits perfectly with the overarching feel.
Compared to some strategy RPGs on the market, Banner Saga's gameplay is not the most complex. But because of this, it does manage to hit a good middle ground between depth and accessibility in order to appeal to strategy fans of all skills with the brutality and desperation of its dark world. An engrossing and - in its own unique way - beautiful experience.