I had heard of The Banner Saga when it came out a few years ago but never looked into it.  I’m glad I caught a quick post on Kotaku mentioning it’s port to PS4 because the 14 hours I spent with The Banner Saga were fun and very challenging.  The choices I made and the characters I lost along the way still weigh heavy on my mind.

With The Banner Saga now available on PC, Mac, Linux, iOS, Android, PS4, and Xbox One, just about everyone should own a decide capable of playing it.  If you like turn-based strategy, start downloading it and keep reading!  If you don’t and want to keep reading anyway, that’d be fine, too.

Turn-based strategy never looked so cool.
Turn-based strategy never looked so cool.

  • TL;DR: A Viking-themed tactical RPG that highlights the weight of war.
  • Platform: Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
  • Hours Played: 14
  • What I Played: Completed the main campaign.
  • Recommended?: Yes.

All of the gods are dead and the sun has stopped.  That’s the harsh introduction of The Banner Saga, a tactical RPG set in Norse/Viking times.  Humans were once at war with varl, a race of horned giants, but brokered peace to defeat a race of stone creatures known as the dredge.  Years have passed and the once thought to be defeated dredge begin attacking with more frequency and ferocity.  A band of humans and varl are simply trying to survive, helmed by you.

The characters in The Banner Saga really make the game.  There are two main groups and the story jumps between them both.  The first group is comprised of Ubin, a very old varl scribe, Vognir, the next in line to be king of the varl, Hakon, his bodyguard and trusted ally, Ludin, a human prince who looks down on varl, and a few others.  The second group includes Rook and Alette, a father/daughter pair of archers simply trying to get by, and Iver, a varl who trains fighters in Rook’s settlement.  I don’t want to spoil any of the story, but there is plenty of politicking between characters and unknown, mysterious forces at work.

Combat is, naturally, a huge part of The Banner Saga.  All fights take place on a grid with your party of six against, on average, eight to 10 enemies.  Portraits in the bottom left corner show the order of play, which always alternates between your team and the enemy team.  This can be an advantage when your team is outnumbered.  If one side only has one character left, that character gets a bonus turn before pillage mode activates, when each character goes once before going again.

Stats, positioning, and turn order are all right at your fingertips.
Stats, positioning, and turn order are all right at your fingertips.

An important note is that humans and small dredge take up one space while varl and large dredge take up four spaces.  Using spacing, placement, and movement to your advantage is key to winning in The Banner Saga.  Each character has a pool of willpower, which is essentially non-regenerating mana, that can be used to either move further than normal, perform their special ability, or power-up normal attacks.  Characters have two attack-related stats: armor and strength.  The formula when attacking is attacker strength – defender armor = damage done.  Strength doubles as health, as well.  There is no bonus for which way a character faces when attacks/defends, but each point of armor a defender has greater than an attacker’s strength is a 10% chance to block all damage.

Kills give you renown, a resource used to both level up your characters and to purchase equippable items and supplies (which I’ll get into later).  Characters can be leveled up after bagging a certain amount of kills and spending renown from the team pool.  Kills also add to an in-battle reserve of willpower which can be used by any character if they need a little extra or run out.  Unlike the Fire Emblem series (which has a new entry out in a few weeks!), falling in battle is not permanent but will result in lower strength for a few days after the battle.

Each character has both an active and passive ability.  Passives range from archers that deal extra damage by standing still, shielded varl that automatically counter for armor damage, and mercenaries that gain extra armor by standing near each other.  Smart use of active abilities is what turns the tide of a battle.  For example, Iver’s battering ram skill lets him knock an opponent backwards and through others for armor damage.  Rook can mark an enemy, which triggers attacks from all in-range allies.  The only equipment in The Banner Saga is a single item slot per character that typically raises a stat or two.

Characters can be brought to rank five and only get two stat points per rank, so use them wisely.
Characters can be brought to rank five and only get two stat points per rank, so use them wisely.

I’m a big fan of turn-based combat so it’s no surprise to me that I enjoyed that aspect of The Banner Saga.  What did surprise me was how much I liked the Oregon Trail Simulator that takes place outside of battle.  Marching from town to town triggers events that have to be dealt with as the leader of the caravan.  Should you gather supplies from a seemingly deserted town or skip over it in fear?  Do you let a group of farmers fight off a dredge attack or help them and put yourself in harms way?  Should you set up camp and burn a day’s worth of food or try to rally the troops with a speech and forge on?

I know that most choices in games are mostly a facade, but the choices in The Banner Saga are very game altering.  You may decide to try and save a runaway supply cart when, all of a sudden, one of your best fighters is dead.  As in, a character you spent time using in battle and spent renown to level up is just gone.  This will happen more than once and sucks every time, but the rest of the group seems to always more or less shake it off and move on.  It speaks to both the horrors of viking war and the time the game is set in that a friend’s death can be moved past in mere minutes.

As you are caravanning, a small HUD displays the number of clansmen, fighters, and varl in your party.  You also see how many days of food you have left along with the morale of your party.  I didn’t realize until the final boss fight that your group’s morale impacts the amount of willpower you start a battle with, so keep that in mind.  Supplies are scarce and cost renown, as I mentioned, so there’s a tenuous balance between keeping the group happy but also progressing your fighters.  There is no fast travel in The Banner Saga, so traveling between towns means watching your group march onward, watching their morale go down as the days wear on and the weather gets worse.  It’s strange to become so attached not only to characters that you fight with, but also to the numbers in the faceless mass.

War. War never changes.
War. War never changes.

On a few occasions, you’ll run into more dredge than a normal battle’s worth, meaning your party goes to war.  War with the dredge means gauging the numbers and picking a course of action.  You can command from a distance and have no impact on the fight, praying that mostly everyone makes it out alive.  Charging headfirst means a normal fight that is harder but results in less casualties.  No matter what you do, people will die and again, this is a seemingly normal occurrence to the characters of The Banner Saga.

All of this is made even more impressive when you realize that the Stoic is a group of three (!) developers.  The conversations, the choices, the strategic combat, the weight of it all, put forth by just three people.  Graphically, it’s a beautiful game with hand-drawn animations similar to older Disney movies.  There is a fully orchestrated soundtrack which underscores the fantasy setting, as well.  The whole game feels more cinematic with the max zoom-out being bordered by black bars like a widescreen movie.

The Banner Saga is the first of a planned trilogy, with part two due out this year.  I only have a few small gripes, but I believe they are valid and will hopefully be addressed in the sequels to come.  While the text-driven conversation is very well done and not at all lacking, some more musical cues during them would be nice.  There are some pretty huge events that take place, even ending chapters, that pass quietly with a single button press and a sudden black screen.  Secondly, the final battle was a crazy amount more difficult than other battles.  I didn’t lose a single battle playing on normal difficulty until the last battle, where I lost about 20 times in a row.  I’ll own up to the fact that I gave in and beat the final battle on easy difficulty due to frustration.  This may have been a result of my team composition and/or poor play, but after being so deeply immersed in a game for 11-12 hours only to be punted back to reality by failing for hours was a bit of a let down.

One thing that certainly isn't a let down? The final scene (this isn't it).
The dredge are a scary proposition.  How will you hold up?

The Banner Saga is an excellent game.  Talk about a Kickstarter success, too, being funded in a single day and created by a team of three.  Politics, turn-based strategy, party management, and meaningful choices come together in a wonderful package.  As I said before, The Banner Saga is available on enough devices that you most likely have access to it.  You should definitely play it.

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