Sometimes, the journey is more important than the destination.
Inspired by Norse mythology and Disney animation, The Banner Saga tells a mournful story of a world nearing its end. The gods are dead. The sun has stalled. Night falls no more. In the midst of chaos, man and giants must join forces to stem the rising tide of the dredge (sort of stone robot orcs), and potentially other, deadlier threats. Ragnarok approaches!
Okay, it’s not the most original story in the world, but it’s delivered with the utmost conviction, with not a single winking in-joke to be seen. There’s a solemn sincerity to the storytelling here - sincerity, as distinct from seriousness - that you don’t see much in video games.
As you’d expect from its pedigree - Austin-based Stoic Studio is led by a group of former BioWare employees - The Banner Saga is a role-playing game, or more accurately, a roles-playing game. The narrative is multi-pronged, with a shifting point-of-view a la Game of Thrones. You’ll play as the leader of a group of warriors one minute and a solo father leading a band of refugees the next. Each storyline is generally linear, with choices along the way that affect tone or specifics - similar to Telltale’s The Walking Dead.
At first homogeneous, the characters open up subtly through their text-heavy dialogue. The two player figures - surly giant Hakon and self-doubting father Rook - have vastly different priorities, so swapping between them keeps the role-playing interesting. Aside from them, only a few stand out amidst a sea of faces beardy and non. My favourite, Ubin, is an fat old grumpy giant tax collector. He’s got a beard, horns and a pot belly and never goes anywhere without his quill. I love him.
The Banner Saga’s handsome cel animation owes much to Dragon’s Lair, unsurprising given that animator Don Bluth served as a major inspiration. The other key influence comes from the art of Sleeping Beauty by Eyvind Earle, who even gets a character named after him. The commitment to 2D is refreshing as hell in an industry bent on upping polygon counts, and it’s kept dynamic by a grand, sorrowful score from Journey‘s Austin Wintory. The odd minimalist cutscene seems unfinished, with a couple key moments depicted using a single frame of animation, but even then, the actual art is glorious. Even the game map is full of exquisite, interactive detail and lore.
Combat in The Banner Saga is a smart synthesis of a great many tabletop gaming concepts. Fighting takes place on a grid; characters take turns determined by initiative; turns consist of limited movement and an attack or special power. A single “strength” stat determines both health and attack damage, and “willpower”, a finite resource, can be spent on extra movement, damage, or special abilities. Once you work it out, the combat is great fun, with some battles presenting thorny challenges. A greater range of foes would make things even better: there just aren’t that many, and their behaviour isn’t sufficiently varied as to force you to change up your tactics.
Less successful than the personal-level fighting are the large-scale battles, which exist only in theory and flavour text. Before combat sequences, you’re sometimes prompted to order your small army against the enemy’s using one of half a dozen strategies. It’s not clear what difference they make, and the feedback from these episodes is more or less an anticlimactic Telex readout.
The war sequences highlight a major element in The Banner Saga, though: the importance of strategy. Without proper planning, death comes swiftly. This can happen on a small scale - heroes getting benched due to injury - or large. Rather than XP, you earn “Renown,” a shared currency used for levelling up and for buying supplies and items, making each transaction an agonising question of balance. You won’t be able to max out all your characters, and it’s all too easy to greedily increase their stats only for everyone to starve to death a few days later because you couldn’t afford enough Pudding Pops. Never skimp on Pudding Pops.
The Hobbit has copped a lot of criticism for its lengthy walking sequences. It wasn’t until now, however, that I realised just why they grate so much. Much of The Banner Saga involves travel, whole towns caravanning across country in a desperate search for safety. These sequences are depicted via beautiful wide shots, but instead of heroic photo-ops amidst perfectly composed scenery, they emphasise the psychological and physical despair of the trek. You feel every mile walked, every day spent on the trail as your tiny figures slog their way across the landscape. By comparison, the equivalent scenes in The Hobbit feel like the ending of The Graduate. What do all those dwarves do after they puff their chests out on a pretty mountaintop?
Oddly enough, while on the road the gameplay takes on almost Oregon Trail-like characteristics. In addition to the ever-encroaching threat of starvation, you must frequently deal with situations like a drunken giant causing mischief or parents squabbling over who their children will marry. These decisions don’t carry enormous weight, but they do ground the story in a pleasingly human reality. And strangely, though they're only presented via text boxes, they add real colour to the storytelling.
In fact, storytelling tradition and folklore runs so deep in The Banner Saga that storytelling itself is part of the tale. There are major characters whose function is to weave their clans’ exploits into the great banners of the title. A banner saga, if you will. These tapestries are their stories, and their stories are presented as, basically, The World. It's a powerful connection to make, reshaping how you think about stories. In a way, without stories we might as well not exist.
Don’t expect resolutions to those stories here, though. The alleged saga's ending is merely a dispiriting act break, its threads left dangling to be picked up in further episodes that aren’t hinted at within the game. But what promise this first act shows! It’s a sad epic about struggling to survive because we don't know what else to do. These characters don’t know why the world is ending. It just is, and they’re doing the best they can under the circumstances.
No, The Banner Saga hasn’t reached its destination yet, but again: it’s all about the journey.