I was playing D&D this past Saturday with my usual group, and during a break we got to talking about video games. This in itself is not interesting, as it happens whenever you get our group together, but my friends were shocked when they asked me if I had played Banner Saga and I said, “No.”
I have since rectified this mistake.
As of today, Tuesday, I have played and beaten the first in the trilogy, taking about eight hours to get through the game, and I have to say it’s one of the best turn-based tactics games I’ve ever played. Combat, on normal difficulty, is a nail-biting combination of resource management and squad tactics, with enemies ranging from the laughable — Slingers — to the terrifying, such as the Bellower, an enemy commander with oodles of armor and health, as well as a screech ability that is its namesake.
While the game sometimes lets you play from another character’s perspective, the main focus is on Rook, a hunter from a small village in the west, who, after the Sun stopped moving in the sky, leads a caravan of people fleeing from the relentless Dredge. The Dredge have invaded twice before, giving Humans and the Varl, a gigantic race of horned men, a common enemy to unite against. This latest invasion came with absolutely no warning, shoving Rook into the role of Chieftain and making the caravan his responsibility.
Between battles the game plays a lot like The Oregon Trail, and an in-game event even references this directly at a river crossing. Supplies play a huge part of the game, because without it your men will starve, reducing the strength of your force. Random events occur as the story progresses, and the decisions you make can affect the game later on. I’ll have to update this after a second playthrough to see exactly how much those decisions mattered.
As you travel across the lands you add more Clansmen, Fighters, and Varl to your group, as well as some named heroes who can assist you directly in the tactics portion of the game. Fighters and Varl are used in battles against the dredge, which is a little less involved than I’d like.
When a battle starts, the game tells you how many Dredge there are, and how many men you have available to you. You can then choose from a list of battle tactics, though the only change they seem to make is how many of your men die, and how many Dredge you have to face in battle personally. The more cautious the strategy, the more men die, but the less you have to face with your squad.
Something that annoyed me was that if you didn’t take the Charge option you wouldn’t get as many enemies to kill with your squad. Normally that’d be great, but the quickest way to earn Renown, the games currency, is by getting kills. Kills are also the only way to level up your men, with damage done and assists not mattering at all. This kind of encourages the player to use the heavy hitters more often, as once you get to the late game the enemies tend to have way too much armor and health to be taken out by a rookie. This means without a huge amount of micro-management, new characters you receive may not level up all that much by the end of the game.
The tactical portion of the game is definitely the highlight of the game. Your squad consists of the various named characters you’ve met and allied with in your travels, including your own daughter, Alette, and there’s a nice variety in classes and abilities that helps prevent the “I’ll just take Garrus and Wrex again” squad loadouts. There are archers, mages (called menders in Banner Saga), berserkers, and tanks, and there’s a lot of synergy between different abilities that makes for some fun combos in battle.
All of this is wrapped up in rich lore based on Nordic mythology, with hand-drawn animations in the style of Sleeping Beauty or old Don Bluth movies. I swear, every frame of animation during the travel montages could be put up in an art gallery. The way the lore is fed to you is great. I started knowing absolutely nothing about the game, and by the end of the first hour I knew everything I needed to know to get immersed. For those who enjoy digging into the background of a game’s story, the in-game map has information on every location in the game, and even some that I assume will appear in Banner Saga 1 and 2 once I get around to playing them.
So. That’s basically Banner Saga, but why would it make for a great role-playing game? It’s not a simple answer. The amount of thought put into the lore of the world, the amazing art style and imagery, the variety of character types, and even the sound of the game scream tabletop to me. It would be an excellent blend of two genres, role-playing and war gaming, that I think could be a real contender in this modern, WOTC dominated era. This article kind of turned into a general review of the game, more than why it should become a TTRPG, but if it convinces you to at least play it, I’ve done my job.