It’s an observation already made, but it bares repeating that The Banner Saga shares a lot in common with George R. R. Martin's wildly popular A Song of Ice and Fire, or Game of Thrones, series. An ever vulnerable cast, no character deemed too integral to be given the chop, political intrigue and shades of grey abound.
The Banner Saga is a true road story, its landscapes a character of their own and journeying across them a primary action. It’s unfathomable today, technology as advanced as it is, to undertake gruelling travel for days or more only to reach your destination and find that what you seek no longer resides there. Nobody likes to have their time and resources wasted, so it’s easy to sympathise with the characters’ ye olde plight.
Managing your caravan’s travel is a constant balancing act, every choice having a knock-on effect as well as balanced positive and negative outcomes - it’s never easy. Do you stop and set-up camp when morale is low and rest is needed? Of course, right? Well it’ll come at the cost of supplies, and running out before you reach your destination will result in fatalities at the hands of starvation. Keep going then, you say? Best of luck to your tired, injured and depressed combatants when it comes to baring arms. It's a real task to keep people fed and morale high whilst still winning battles and making good progress. Something has to give and that isn't always easy to accept when many video games have conditioned you to believe otherwise.
It can be truly demoralising when you buy food to supply your caravan for a trek, only to be robbed, or befall some other misfortune and lose it. It was disappointing when a clansman given numerous chances to change his ways proceeded unmoved to drag morale down. Infuriating when a traveller given sanctuary offered only betrayal as thanks. Crushing to see those close to you die, or a child lose their innocence to this harsh world. The Banner Saga is well versed in coaxing actual emotion from the player, and should be applauded for that; it’s impossible to simply allow it to wash over you.
The lasting impression is one of an outright compelling journey across a magnificent world...
Just as you can’t ignore the emergent narrative, tactical combat commands your full attention. The challenging turn-based affairs play out on a square checkered board, each unit upon it possessing different movement and attack traits, along with an exclusive special ability.
These key unit differences make proper team composition a must; choosing which of the cast of companions accompany you into battle, and the turn order they take, can predetermine victory or defeat. Further systems in armour and willpower management culminate in tactically layered and in-depth combat, which is simultaneously easy to grasp thanks to clear and concise tutorials.
Just as when caravanning, these numerous systems make combat a juggle, and again, it’s unlikely you’ll escape unscathed from the act. Recovering from acquired injuries will require rest, rest will consume resources, running out of resources results in widespread misery and death. Avoiding combat where possible means you might find yourself underleveled when it comes to later battles. There is no right and wrong, everything is a struggle.
Levelling is uniquely based on kills gained by a specific character, rather than a conventional shared experience pool. Unfortunately, this somewhat discourages utilising a wide range of characters - they’ll be underleveled upon acquisition, and unlikely to secure a kill as a result. It seems the developer was aware of this and aimed to encourage making use of your hindered myriad with the inclusion of Achievements/Trophies in relation to getting a kill with each character.
Further niggles somewhat hamper the experience: the lack of a true pause function, notification messages getting stuck on-screen, quality assurance slip-ups in the occasional missing word or punctuation. These give way to bigger issues in that foreign place and character names, as well as a similar looking cast, make things hard to follow at times, and the ending serves only to lead into the confirmed sequel, rather than offering any satisfying conclusion of its own.
The Banner Saga easily overcomes these foibles when it comes to viewing the package as a whole, however. The lasting impression is one of an outright compelling journey across a magnificent world, which leaves the player content in the knowledge that despite constant adversity, they made it as best they could.
It’s impressive what Stoic achieved with a relatively small budget (despite being almost eight times that proposed) and development team, but it's undeniably rough around the edges. Here's hoping the sequel can smooth them over.