Most games based on Norse history and/or mythology tend to be rather obtuse caricatures of Vikings. With The Banner Saga, the studio Stoic chose to simply draw inspiration from Norse aesthetic and themes and create an original fantasy setting instead. The result was a good tactical RPG adventure with excellent writing and plenty of choices and consequences.
Immediately striking as you start playing is the unique art direction, consisting of hand-drawn dynamic panoramas while you caravan through the lands, and stylised, animated portraits of the characters in dialogues. While the game does lack freedom to explore, it offers a kind of immersion that makes up for it through narrative vignettes and stunning vistas.
If The Banner Saga had been entirely focused on the usual RPG trappings of battles, looting and levelling up it would have been a mostly average and not particularly noteworthy game, regardless of how clever and tactical the combat can be. But it’s the way the narrative is conducted that raises it above the rungs of mediocrity and sets it apart.
There are two parallel plots based on the two main races in the game world: humans and Varl. Varl are horned giants created by a dead god, Hadrborg (all the gods are dead). There are no female Varl, only males, who live up to a few hundred years unless they are cut down in battles. The game begins following a group of Varl on a diplomatic mission.
In the background there is also a static or dying sun narrative, which succeeds in depicting a bleak, apocalyptic atmosphere, a world breathing its last. Combined with the ever-imminent threat of the White Walker-ish dredge, a race of colossal, armour-clad dark marauders who decimate everything in their path, human or Varl, the story becomes quite tense.
Between the thrilling battles that punctuate the encounters through the panoramas there are quite a few encounters and minor episodes where you must make hard decisions that will have consequences. Sometimes they get a bit repetitive and generic, but overall it makes for some fascinating intermissions in the main story arc.
The combat also gets fairly repetitive and frustrating at times, especially when you have two consecutive battles in a row without much of a room to breathe or let your fighters rest. But it is still thrilling and heart-racing to face fearful odds when you are clearly outnumbered, and through careful planning and turn-based tactics you deftly manage to beat the dredge.
A few issues plague the management of saves and loading, which sometimes forces you to redo each little step in the micromanagement of your fighters and their levels before every battle. This kind of constant resource management also extends to the caravan parts where you have to manage supplies, morale, resting and the intermissions.
A general skip option would be most welcome at certain parts, as it would save some trouble when reloading to try to win a battle. Some battles can be lost and the game goes on as if nothing really happened, which is a bit disappointing. In general, however, the reactivity to choices and events is on point.
The soundtrack is remarkable and haunting, often causing the player to stop and listen, particularly when you reach a godstone: a giant rock engraved with ancient carvings on their flattened faces, which works as a tombstone for a dead god. The voice narration is sparse but decent and fitting with the general atmosphere.
Above all, the characters in The Banner Saga are wonderfully fleshed-out. And considering that there are a total of 36 characters, playable and NPC included, it’s a true feat in character development that quite a few of them are memorable and distinctive. Each character seems to have a modicum of inner life, going through the motions and reacting to the events.
There are some impactful, even cathartic moments relating to these characters that can’t be mentioned without venturing into spoiler territory, but not since The Witcher 3 has a game felt so intimate and brought emotions to the surface. Considering that it doesn’t have nearly as much voice acting or animation as The Witcher 3, that is quite the accomplishment.
It does suffer from a lack of variety and intricacy in its combat system, which is not to say that it is poor, but rather that perhaps with a bigger budget, a bigger team and more time in development it could have been an even better game. Its simplicity is charming, no doubt, but great RPGs thrive in complexity and even extravagance.
I have not yet played The Banner Saga 2, but I plan to play it and review it soon, so we will see whether Stoic went on to refine and build upon the foundation of the original game. Not that it couldn’t rely on its strengths alone and disguise its weaknesses to repeat the formula and still develop a great sequel, but a bigger, more complex sequel would be welcome.
The Banner Saga is first and foremost an achievement in fantasy worldbuilding and narrative design. To create a unique and original fantasy setting in an overly saturated genre takes more talent than it seems at first sight. And to populate this setting with richly developed characters who are as memorable as they are interesting takes a small spark of genius.
It is a solid, thoroughly polished first instalment in a franchise that could well move on into AAA territory if the creators put their minds to it. As the third game approaches release and concludes the trilogy this year, it could pave the way to a new chapter, though there is a possibility that it would lose its simple charm. Still, it would be worth the risk.
- Original fantasy setting
- Unique art direction
- Great writing and character development
- Plenty of choices and consequences
- Simplistic micromanagement of resources and stats
- Clunky reloading of saves
- Combat can get repetitive