Put aside everything you’ve heard about The Banner Saga. Pay no mind to the internet fuss over its Kickstarter campaign or that some mobile developer has designs on the word “saga.” Ignore anything you’ve heard about microtransactions in the separately-released multiplayer component. Discard the knowledge that Grammy-nominated Journey composer Austin Wintory (and also vocally-talented Peter Hollens, stringfully-skilled Taylor Davis) put notes to page for the soundtrack. Not a single word of it matters when you sit down to experience the game at the heart of all of the discourse. This is a game that easily and handily trumps other indie titles and AAA productions alike in its presentation, mechanics, and, most of all, storytelling.
It’s hard not to notice the striking artwork that makes up everything you see in The Banner Saga, and it’s truly as beautiful as you may have heard. While it looks great in still images, it’s the fluidity of animation — snow and lightning dotting the gorgeous backgrounds, giant horned varl rearing back to crush an enemy like a ragdoll, and the slow march of your caravan through sunless landscapes, the banner containing the entire history of their clan fluttering in the cold winds as they tromp through the snow — that truly seize your attention. Austin Wintory’s score is equally beautiful, reflecting all of the sobriety and echoing emptiness of the world with a number of beautiful melodies. The limited voice acting is pitch-perfect, and the opening animated cinematic is weighty in spite of its brevity. There’s a tragic beauty in this viking-inspired world on the edge of collapse, and it’s most readily taken in through the sights and sounds.
However, this game is far more than its sumptuous presentation. The turn-based combat is briskly-paced and expertly balanced — save the final encounter, which requires a specificity of strategy that might have some players turning the difficulty down in frustration. Character-building is of course a factor, allowing you to allocate statistics for your various heroes and equip them with myriad trinkets and relics you come across in your steady march. Unlike many strategy RPGS, though, there’s no way to game the system or grind: the RPG mechanics only provide so much buffer for the unskilled, and it will take a sound strategy to win the day without losses. Characters cannot die permanently in battle, but depending on the difficulty level, they may spend a number of days in a weakened state, and those precious few points of missing strength could be the difference between victory and defeat in a close skirmish. These facets combine to produce a combat system that feels weighty and meaningful, but not overly punishing (unless you play on hard mode, in which you’ll be bloodied and broken at the end of most of your dust-ups).
What surprised me most wasn’t the tightness of the combat or the brilliance of the visuals and music, though. It’s the way in which this game, seemingly effortlessly, managed to capture all of the tension and severity of the most important decisions in games like Mass Effect in even the smallest of moments. As your caravan marches onward, their supplies and morale dwindling as rapidly as the stonelike Dredge forces grow behind you, you’ll often be presented with choices. Perhaps a small child has run off into dangerous woods. Do you pursue her yourself, send scouts, wait around for her, or simply continue on? Many of your choices will have a direct impact: you’ll find the child, regain some morale, and possibly she’ll have stumbled upon a lost cache of supplies. Or, in darker times, she and the scouts you sent to her rescue all disappear, their only remains a few blood splotches in the snow and the splintered morale of your caravan. Just as easily, seemingly innocuous choices made without a second thought can echo into the future, sometimes weeks later, when men you couldn’t trust defend your life and loyal followers turn into deadly betrayers.
The story manages to feel both immensely personal and sweepingly epic. Thanks to well-developed character relationships that are shown, not told, and understated, nuanced conversations that carefully veer away from the heavy-handedness common to so many other games, you’ll grow to know and care about each of the faces under your command. When I tell others that I despise the characters in Fire Emblem: Awakening, it’s because they are the antithesis of those whom The Banner Saga presents for our contemplation. These same characters often live or die depending on your leadership, and it’s a painful lesson when a mistake in judgment sees an old friend take a dagger to the ribs and disappear forever, without even a goodbye. At the same time, the world itself — a dead sun, black seas of nightmare creatures erupting from the very earth itself, and prophecies of a grand beast devouring the world — assures players that the stakes are high on every level.
There are a few things that could be improved in the second and third entries of this trilogy, though, most of them mechanical. A way to display the movement range of multiple foes at once (as in Fire Emblem: Awakening) would be invaluable. The menus could be massaged to require a few less clicks to get to key information or swap equipment and characters. There are a few scattered typos in the text, which stand out all the worse for the quality of the rest of the writing — and the word “okay” being spelled “ok” never stopped striking me as odd. The final boss battle, as mentioned, is considerably deadlier than any other in the game and stands as a deterring spike in an otherwise well-balanced experience. Finally, the ending itself — while poignant in its way — is criminally brief and offers almost no resolution to any of the tightly woven plot threads, and the excuse of a far-off sequel is no salve for what feels like half an ending. Honestly, though, none of these things truly dampened my enthusiasm for the rest of the game, minor as they were.
I waited a few days longer to write this review than I normally would, because I wanted to be sure with myself that The Banner Saga was truly as stunning as I felt while I was experiencing it. As my mind wandered from choices I had made and their repercussions, to memories of pulling lightning out of the sky and smiting six foes in one shot thanks to a smoothly executed strategy, to the final artful image the game leaves you with, I became confident that it absolutely was every bit the experience I’ve been telling others it was. This is a game I would hastily recommend to anyone, a game that appreciates subtlety and nuance, one that understands that what is not said is as often as important as what is: the silence is what you remember, after all.