Viking for a day
The Banner Saga is slow, ponderous, tiring and it makes you feel cold. While that might sound like a terrible thing, it’s actually exactly what the game is going for, as it tells a fantasy tales set in some Scandanavian themed land ruled by men and giants, with occasional undead or immortal foes and giant world-devouring worms making an appearance. It’s relentless in its commitment to the style, with nordic chanting providing the majority of the music and being happy to let you sit for minutes on end watching your entire group trudging through the bleak winter as they slowly starve to death. It was a lot of fun.
Working as somewhat of a cross between The Oregon Trail and Fire Emblem, you’re task is to lead two separate groups across the land as the world seems to be ending. While you’re in travelling mode you can choose to set up camp and can manage supplies and a very simple item and experience system, as well choosing from a variety of options every time an event springs up. These events aren’t random, they’re all pre-planned, but your decisions will decide who lives and dies as the game progresses, as well as having a real effect on your progress such as the amount of supplies you have and the speed of your group. From time to time you will come into contact with enemies (be they the other-worldly Dredge or simple human) and you need to fight. You get to choose a small group of warriors from your party and then play out a turn-based fight on a grid which will be similar to fans of any strategy-RPG.
The fights are sparsely animated but defined in the iconic style that pervades the whole game. All the drawing look to be done by hand, little moments of animation might be too sparse, but they give you a lot of information and it’s easy to empathise with the characters. The combat rules take a bit of a twist from the norm in that each side takes turns until they only have one character left on the battlefield. This means if you only have two soldiers left, and they have five, you won’t be overwhelmed. Few battles are easy to predict as a pair of enemies of a pair of your heroes can turn the tide surprisingly quickly. This means more than a few times throughout the game you’ll face what seem to be impossible odds and just scrape by in battles that feel worthy of a real norse saga. The combat does get repetitive, especially once you work out that’s it’s almost always best to just reduce each enemy to a single hit point until you’re ready to take them all out and gang up on the lone survivor. This takes a lot of the challenge away, but even if you fail a fight the story generally carries on and you just take a slightly different path through the tale. There is one notable exception, with the final boss that annoyingly forces you to use certain characters (that you might not have levelled up as there’s no warning) and cannot be avoided. To finish the game we just slipped the difficulty down to easy for this one fight, but it definitely left a bad taste in our mouths. The last boss isn’t challenging in a traditional sense, he’s just cheap and makes use of all the boss abilities that you’d hate. There’s unavoidable damage to your entire party at once, regenerating health and armour and a bunch of useless minions that just get in the way. If you win it’s because you found some clever little exploit or happened to have levelled up the right characters, it feels like there’s more luck than skill involved which is at odds with what you’d want.
The real meat of the game for us was the travelling sections. The map is beautifully realised with tonnes of details and history to explore if you want and some journeys become harrowing as you quickly run out of supplies and start seeing more and more of your followers die as their morale drops lower and tensions raise. Some of the situations thrown at you are genuinely interesting and few have clear cut ‘good’ and ‘bad’ options. Making a poor decision then having to live with it is the bread and butter of any branching storyline and the Banner Saga makes use of the actual game mechanics like supply levels in order to make that emotional hit. There are times where the options feel contrived and like the ‘choose your own adventure’ books of the last century you can often feel cheated by an option not really doing what you wanted it to or from a clearly ‘correct’ option ending up in some ridiculous bad luck. These events are the exception though and generally it’s written well with some smart ideas that are entertaining and engaging. The cut-scenes can be slightly misleading in screenshots, they look like possibly the best cartoon ever, but are actually still frames with little bits of animation here and there. For the most part the story is told through these (aptly) frozen frames.
The strongest selling point of this game is the atmosphere. Even though we’re in an unusually mild Winter here in England, The Banner Saga made me feel like we were in some frozen wasteland. The music is eerie and enchanting, the art is entirely consistent and unique, with a real sense of artistry and passion evident throughout. It’s a wonderful game and worth playing just because there’s not really been anything that looks like this in gaming before.
Overall the combat is a little shallow and repetitive, the decision making can feel unfair, but the game’s beauty and fairly strong story win out in what is an enthralling eight-hour adventure. For £18.99 you’ll need to have an interest in Scandinavia to really get the most out of it, and you’ll need to be patient but the rewards are definitely there.