The Banner Saga

I recently played The Banner Saga, a role playing game set in an viking legends inspired fantasy universe telling an epic adventure about survival and an inescapable upcoming war. Its core game play mechanics are dialog decisions and turn based strategy fights. The gripping story, slow pacing, dire atmosphere and beautiful art direction are outstanding.

It is a well crafted creative game experience that captured me emotionally and left me in awe. In this article I'd like to describe why it has been such an great adventure for me opposed to an objective professional criticism or analysis.

The story is roughly about an hostile faction invading your home lands and is told from multiple perspectives. For one you play as an experienced and confident general leading an army to defend the capitol against the growing enemy forces. On the other side you play an ordinary hunter fleeing with his peers, trying to find a safe place and unwillingly becoming the leader of the refugees.

At your journey you have to keep up the food supplies and moral of your group. If you are low on food, warriors and civilians alike will starve to death and moral will go down, making you and your people more vulnerable in fights. Food can be obtained in towns for a currency which is earned by winning fights and occasionally through dialog choices you make. The same currency is used to level up and equip your party members which you control in very tactical turn based battles.

caravan traveling past a giant god stone
When I think about fantasy games I usually imagine quests, loot, skills, stats and open world exploration. The Banner Saga does not emphasize any of that and rather presents itself as a carefully staged and focused single player experience. The game tries something different and feels more like reading a well written book than playing your typical fantasy game or movie. At first I kept on reading all the voiceless dialogues out of necessity to grasp what I just spent my money on, but later realized that it is not just a cheaper way to tell an epic story, but also a very effective one.

I often feel overwhelmed and ultimately disinterested in the wide and detailed lore bursts that sometimes happen in fantasy titles (like the opening sequence of Skyrim), but the Banner Saga has a different approach. It didn't try to hook me with sheer scale and spectacle at the beginning, but rather invited me to participate in an peaceful ongoing living world. There is no exposition of any epic disaster that would call for an hero or prophecies looking for a chosen one. It starts with an noticeable quiet and slow opening scene, preparing you for the unexpected slow pacing of the game, and lets you play an ordinary character that has always been part of this world long before you joined, already perusing his goals without much explanation towards the player. The world and its lore is grounded and the events shaping your journey unfold slowly, giving you enough time to relate and understand this new universe you got thrown in. Although it is confusing at first to get such a sudden start, it adds greatly to the feeling that this world exists on its own, rather than for your entertainment.

The uncommon way to play multiple characters and progress with different perspectives felt odd at first because I was looking for an avatar to become and relate to. This was until true crisis emerged and my concern for personal heroism shifted heavily towards survival. Later on you side playtime wise with a young leader who just as you stumbled into this role and is similarly uncomfortable by the weight of his decisions. At one point I ended up screaming at the unremarkable multiple choice dialog, denying that I had any right or responsibility to make decisions of such magnitude. I became so invested into the faith of my group that I got torn between alternatives and truly cared about each possible outcome, despite being aware of how the implied impact of my decisions is probably just an illusion common in games.

Playing multiple perspectives might have added to the sensation that everything, even the very lives of the main characters, are at stake. I was at a very dire point when my current avatar first met a character I previously played and felt a giant relief. What made it different from a clearly scripted event is that I genuinely felt those people I just met had substance and were worth caring about and not just your typical NPC reinforcement.

I found myself occasionally studying the incredible detailed and history rich map, learning more about the places I were currently heading to and whenever my caravan passed by a giant god stone I took the time to delve a bit into the religion and legends. All of it is kept short and to the point, without being overly specific or detailed to get lost. In the end I felt like I knew this world all along and the time spent learning about it was more taking a break at the campsite and reflecting, as catching up from a stereotypical amnesia.

campsite during your travels
Mixing experience and gold into a single currency as well as linking health and damage together created some tough situations in both the civilian and military aspects. Whenever your party members are injured you have to consider resting for a day or two. This means that you can't continue your travel and have to setup camp with your whole caravan and watch supplies dwindle without making progress. Uncertain about the next possibility to restock and the dangers on its path. Hostile interceptions become costlier to fend off and a way to up the chances would be to upgrade and equip your party members but this requires the same currency used to buy food for your people. If your people starve your civilian and military population will be reduced, your moral sinks and your group becomes easy prey.

I caught myself questioning my own moral high ground thinking "if only I had less useless civilian mouths to feed and more warriors instead". Quickly dismissing this disturbing thought I still changed my mind about further civilian refugees joining the group at the next possibility and realize that this is desperate as it gets.

I for one welcome any game imposing tough emotional conflicts on the player and recommend Banner Sage to anyone willing to get invested in a desperate and grounded fantasy epic.

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