Thousands of survivors walking through the snow, reminding themselves that the Gods have died long ago and there is no one to protect them from the resurgence of an ancient enemy. The giant horned Varls ally with the humans once more for a new war, but it seems like this will be the last for both races. Those who weren’t meant to be leaders are being trust with the lives of many, forced to lead a caravan and make crucial choices throughout this endless and, as some say, pointless journey.
The Banner Saga portrays survival and the search for hope in the most cruel and realistic way possible. Set in the eyes of Hakon and Rook, two completely different characters located thousands of miles away from each other, players have to escape from the Dredge: long forgotten stoned-skin enemies that are starting to come back, destroying entire villages on their path.
One of the Varl chiefs dies. The village where Rook used to live is attacked and burned to the ground. The two small groups of civilization remaining start looking at each as a new leader, someone they could trust to traverse this dying world. And all decisions are left to the player to decide: do we want to take a full day of rest and make a celebration after a newborn to improve morale, using time and supplies in the process? is the drunk who’s causing trouble better left far away from the caravan? do we train more women into archery, despite the declination from their husbands? Everything is in the hands of the leaders.
Days pass and the situation becomes even worse. Avoiding fights is not at option in most cases, which leads to the second biggest aspect of The Banner Saga: a turn-based combat showcased in grids from a top-down perspective. Being played almost like a board game- which, funny enough, was later released in real life by the name of Warbands-you have to attack, rest or use a special ability in a set of turns dependent on the number of characters and enemies in the ground. Each one of the characters have different stats that affect their critical hits, how much they can get through an armor or the amount of times they can boost their attacks with willpower, but the main ones are health and defense.
These two indicators are the biggest elements in each battle, and are tied directly to any future strategies you can come up with. Attacking to the health of a human wielding a giant shield won’t do much damage, but if you spend enough time lowering its defense, you’ll be able to deal a greater amount of damage or even a killing blow in a single attack. Abilites are varied and are tied to a specific type of unit, depending on the character and the weapons they use. Aside from swords, shields and axes, there are ranged units that can use both bows and magic, along with their own skills as well.
Combat can be incredibly hard if you don’t plan a sort of tactic beforehand or focus on the weaknesses of the opponent. This is something I tend to ignore in these kind of games-really sorry to all the units that perished because of me in Darkest Dungeon– but in The Banner Saga, this takes a whole new meaning. Not focusing on enemy behaviour and forgetting to do some formations to avoid unnecessary damage can turn the tides of battle in no time. There isn’t permadeath in battle, but all fallen units will carry an injury, lowering their stats significantly unless they rest in a camp. You can select the characters that will take part of each battle, increase their stats once they get enough renown and equip items, too, boosting their abilities or adding certain buffs like gaining armor during rest, attack increase and so on.
But this can get even more complicated. Sometimes there are not dozens but hundreds of enemies surrounding us, which leads to a War. In this specific kind of battle, all the people in your caravan is at stake, and players are forced to choose a strategy before engaging into combat, leading to different results. When all enemies are defeated, you always get the option to kill any remaining opponents that are still nearby, reducing the number of casualties and being awarded with an item, but putting your party at risk by getting them into a second wave of enemies. All choices matter. All have consequences.
Combat is just another element in this endless search for hope. Everything you do before and after each battle can affect your party and the characters, even losing some of them forever. Even dialogue takes a huge part in this, often in one on one conversations with key characters that will ask for help or to choose a side in certain situations. The Banner Saga story is shaped around these choices, leading to different outcomes and stories in the sequels thanks to the option of importing your save file.
But it’s in the endless walks that Stoic Studio’s game shines the most. Beautiful landscapes showcasing only but small figures of each one of the humans and Varls in the caravans. Step by step, they get closer to what they believe is freedom or at least shelter to rest and try to see another day. Everyone is desperate, morale is contested at every minute. The Banner Saga shows desperation, and doing the most to fight back when all odds are against you.
Playing on Switch just makes it all better. Once I got hold of the for the first time, one of the games that came to mind was The Banner Saga, and for a good reason. The gorgeous hand-drawn art style looks better than ever on handheld, while also maintaining a good quality in docked mode. I spent most of my time with the Switch in my hands, controlling everything with touch controls, zooming in to see the people from the caravan or looking further into the landscapes.
Austin Wintory captures the feel of viking civilizations perfectly, and leave us into a world with some of the most beautiful songs to date. And every bit of sound comes together in such a meaningful way during the final scene that exceeds it to a different level, setting itself for years to come in the player’s mind.
The Banner Saga is an experience that everyone should let themselves immerse into. The characters, the art style, the music and the weight on your shoulders after each decision left a mark on me, and I can’t wait to see how this story continues.
A copy of The Banner Saga for Switch was provided by Plant of Attack on behalf of Versus Evil for review purposes. Make sure to visit the official site for more information.