The Banner Saga is more than a game – it’s a story.
OK, so it’s still a game, but whereas most would try to quantify the experience by labeling it as a “turn-based tactical role-playing game” (which I wouldn’t refute, either), those moments feel like a small cog in a much bigger machine. The Banner Saga is a game about decisions, your decisions, and their consequences. Those decisions are made on different fronts: conversations you have with folk around you, the choices you make as you lead your caravan away from a returning evil and the battles you partake in all bear the weight of the compromises you make.
Told in a lovingly animated style, The Banner Saga has a weaving and meandering plot set in a Norse inspired world in which you follow a set of disparate characters, both human and giant, at the cusp of the return of the Dredge, a soulless and merciless evil that was thought to have been long gone. Occasionally there are well-voiced cut scenes, but for the most part you’ll be reading and choosing dialog options that set in motion what happens next in your story. The writing is phenomenal, with each character given a distinct personality.
What I was truly surprised by was just how important your choices are. Towards the beginning of the game there’s a moment where a father is given distinct choices on how to potentially save his daughter from a sneak attack, from yelling a warning to just straight up shooting an arrow at the beast in the hopes that you’ll distract in long enough for her escape. Even though it wasn’t conveyed on screen and only through text, the scene was intense. I made a decision that ended up saving her, but I soon realized that even the best laid plans and good intentions mean nothing, and loss will come to you no matter what you do. It’s rare for a game to hold such high stakes and make the player feel them, for which I applaud The Banner Saga.
When you aren’t weighing your options through dialog, there’s a lot of simulation management going on while your convoy is on the move. Saying it’s like The Oregon Trail but with Vikings is not an exaggeration. I really enjoyed watching my small processional march across painterly lands and felt much invested in their well-keeping at all times. To further fill the ambiance, there’s a lore-heavy map you can peruse to fill you in on the world and why what’s currently going on is such a big deal. You don’t have to invest any time into this if you don’t want to, but it helped endear me to everything that was going on.
Lastly, I’d like to point out that the turn-based grid combat is a lovely piece of the trifecta that makes The Banner Saga so special. It feels very familiar in its trappings, but has its own personal layer of depth to make it feel wholly original. There’s everything from various jobs to customizable skill sets and good ‘ol turn-taking, but there’s also two different attack values that you need to take into account, and an expendable resource you can use in a pinch to turn the tides of a battle. You’ll mull over your options time and again in the hopes of not screwing yourself over, either cheering in excitement as your Hail Mary works or muttering curses in defeat at a failed operation. The combat never feels jarring in the slightest, merging seamlessly with the rest of your adventure.
The Banner Saga runs smoothly and feels great on the Switch, feeling at home on either your television or in your hands. Furthermore, the game is just the beginning of a trilogy that will run its entire course on the system, and your actions in this game will carry on in the next chapter as well as the final one, so you need to make every move count. I’m super excited about The Banner Saga in a way I haven’t in a while, because it feels malleable and consequential in a meaningful way. With such a blazing opener, it’s hard not to be stoked about The Banner Saga 2. Bring on the Dredge, I say!
The Banner Saga is available for Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac, Linux, iOS and Android. We reviewed the Switch version.
Disclosure statement: Review code for The Banner Saga was provided by Plan of Attack. A Most Agreeable Pastime operates as an independent site, and all opinions expressed are those of the author.