The Banner Saga Review

I don’t usually feel bad when my followers in games die. It’s my general opinion that bad AI, low health, and, above all, their lack of my bloody-minded desire to live, live at the expense of sacrificing anyone and anything that I see or care about more or less qualifies them for the graveyard. Get stuffed, escort quest, I’ve got places to be. This is game design weakening the emotions the game is trying to get across. There are several ways that developers have tried to get around this.
Some games try to make your followers wacky or personable, like Dead Rising, but since they’re both urgently in need of your help and wacky and offbeat, they come across as needy and unbelievable. The Last of Us and Bioshock Infinite tried to take the pressure off by making your “needy” follower straight-out invulnerable, which means that you only care about them in the cutscenes, which means you watch a good movie about a tender but strong hero caring for somebody needy, and play a game where you could happily throw them teeth-first into a rocket and feel good about it. There was a little mental dissonance.
The Banner Saga finds a way to short-circuit this problem, and it’s as unintuitive as it is brutally effective. I frequently felt anxious about my people, bad about myself as a commander, and yet never once resented having my followers. Instead of trying to make them more interactive and give them more personality, it mostly reduces them to a number. You are a caravan, and you have X fighters and Y non-fighters – a whole caravan that is only brought to life occasionally through pre-scripted, judgement-call scenarios.
In addition to fighters and non-fighters (and some non-human followers called Varl), you’ve got a certain number of supplies. As you travel, your supplies decrease. Hit 0 supplies, and your people start to starve. The numbers go down, and it tells you how many every day. Yes, there is an in-game benefit to keeping the fighters alive, but that isn’t the point. The small scenarios are very well-written and give a great sense of the community that you’re traveling with, and, since for much of the game you’ll be very near starvation, you find yourself thinking about your role as a leader of these people. How are your decisions serving them? Could you do better? Did a purchasing decision you made two towns back, to buy supplies for your heroes instead of food for the caravan, doom you all?
The Banner Saga itself is a grid-and-turn-based tactical fighting game mixed in with Ragnarok Oregon Trail. Things are going bad in this world very quickly and very, very badly, and you’re leading a group of people to… well not safety exactly, but the closest you can manage. The combat is satisfying but somewhat repetitive, but the hard choices you have to make are excellently done, and more than make up for any combat boredom. This isn’t a game where “do the right but inconvenient thing” is always rewarded. You have to lead your people, and sometimes that means not, for instance, looking for survivors in a snowstorm, because you’re being pursued by an army of monsters.
Gameplay mechanics reinforce your situation extremely well, with constantly-dwindling supplies making you feel the menace of the cold, snow-blown wasteland you live in, and a combat system where wounded heroes take time to recover giving you a constantly-rotating roster on the battlefield, making you both use all the character setups the game has to offer and giving you a good sense of the ferocity of your opponents.
I found that as the game progressed, it was tempting to think of my followers just in terms of ciphers. They’re presented that way, after all! I thought, “Well, I’ll probably lose 15 or so to starvation, but I could really USE this new item.” And I bought it, and the first day I lost 3 clansmen to hunger I felt AWFUL. Keeping my people fed became more important that getting the most expensive and neatest items for my heroes. That number next to “clansmen” made me feel more like a leader with responsibilities than any fully fleshed-out follower character ever did.
It’s also necessary to point out the gorgeous artwork, great dialogue, and excellent musical score. (Stoic Studio) by Ben Holmes
SPAGHETTI AND WINE SUGGESTION: Play this deep game for a while, harrow your very soul, then play Organ Trail and shoot yourself some zombies as a palate cleanser.