Gunnulf is dead. His body lies twisted and broken at the bottom of a snowy cliff, the wreckage of a precious supply cart scattered about his still form. The worst part? It was our hubris that got him killed. We assumed that the Varl warrior – a race of horned giants, each one a titan on the battlefield – could easily haul an escaping wagon back from the precipice if we bought him the time to do it. We looked at the list of options beneath the event description and chose the one that matched our theory. We could not have been more wrong.
So when we say that your decisions feel like they matter in The Banner Saga, that’s no overstatement. Stoic’s Viking-themed quest may not quite go to the extent of dishing out permadeath as an automatic consequence for falling in battle, but it’s still as unyielding as permafrost, its text trees leading to losses that bite as deep as any Nordic winter. Such dilemmas are an exhilarating shock to the system after years of binary moral decisions in games, the story’s palette of greys only made harder to distinguish against a backdrop blanketed in pure white snow as you’re driven onwards by ancient obsidian enemies.
That story has its roots in refugeeism and the hardships of war, but it’s embroidered with myth, dealing in long-dead gods, the misbehaving sun, and a relentless mechanoid force called the Dredge, who have recovered their strength after a war aeons ago. There’s a lot of lore to absorb, plus a large cast, and the writing can creak like sheet ice under the weight of it all. There are also rare times when the designer’s needs intrude on your agency – though like The Walking Dead you’ll feel these more on a second playthrough. On your first run, you’ll likely be too entranced to notice either, the saga deriving significant emotional weight by mainly focusing on the plights of two camps. One is a political powder keg, with a haughty prince rubbing up against a Varl warrior promoted to leadership by the death of his kin. The other is led by Rook, a family man who inherits a village to care for early in the tale and then slowly gathers men-at-arms to his banner. Each caravan also accumulates an array of named warriors, most far more nuanced than their tired fantasy genre peers.
Like the many-threaded story, the game itself is a braiding together of strands. One sees your camps roaming the countryside, each troupe portrayed side-on as the beautiful and intricately painted world parallax scrolls by like an HD update of the Bayeux Tapestry. Your task is to manage your party’s supplies and morale, all the while beset by a parade of brilliantly cruel choices. Do you give an apparently starving group a home in your caravan, knowing full well that they might be bandits, but condemning them to starve if they’re honest? Do you get involved in preventing injustice, potentially taking on the burden of yet more hungry mouths to feed? Nothing is clear cut. Even apparently trivial decisions, such as setting up camp for a day or two to boost the wilting esprit de corps, start to prey on your mind when the Dredge are nipping at your heels and you’re just five meals away from mass starvation.
Since there are few right answers and Viking blood runs hot, you’ll make plenty of enemies in your quest for survival. When the fighting starts, it’s turn based, playing out on square grids with a selection of your vanguard rendered in beautifully animated cartoon form. The stats list looks daunting at first, but the basics are simpler than a glance suggests, with the key information displayed on each unit’s banner. The Strength bar encapsulates both its hitting power and hit points, meaning damaged units become less effective killers. The Armour bar naturally reduces damage taken, but the twist is that attacks to break armour don’t deal normal damage. And so skirmishes become another delicate balance, one of reducing your opposition’s defences enough to get a few good hits in, without letting your units being whittled down themselves.
Deft systems and the interlinks between travel and fighting keep the easy-to-learn combat satisfying hours into the adventure. Everyone has a stat called Willpower, for instance, which fuels overstretching. You can use it to boost either kind of attack damage, power the cast’s array of special abilities and to move farther than normal. Judicious use can turn the tide of battle, but Willpower is directly tied to your party’s morale. You’ll feel its loss if you don’t cater for happiness.
Wars, meanwhile, engage your entire caravan, comparing them to the amassed enemies and then letting you pick your approach in battle. Charging into the dangerous heart of combat will save lives, but heroes who fall under your command fight at reduced effectiveness for days afterwards until they recuperate.
And you’ll soon start setting up devastating chain reactions. Rook’s special ability, for instance, marks a target for every ally in range to attack at once, while stripping a Dredge of enough armour in a turn will have knock-on effects for units around it. There’s more than enough depth in these systems to last beyond the ample runtime – a trilogy is planned, with saves carrying over à la Mass Effect – though we did start to wish that some of the ingenuity that’s gone into the dialogue options had also been applied to varied combat objectives, since fights rarely involve more than slaying all before you.
Bold and distinctive, The Banner Saga is nonetheless the work of artisans. Few brand-new teams of three could so seamlessly weave together moral quandaries, weighty strategy and a sumptuous art style to build a world as rich as this. It’s a stern, harsh game – even a gruelling one at times – but that just makes each little victory you snatch one to savour.