The Banner Saga review: A story for the ages (PS4)

(Image courtesy of Stoic)

This is a spoiler-free review.

Each of us has a game (or games) we consider great — amazing, even. For reasons as personal as a fingerprint, these games have struck a chord in us that still hums with emotion years later. And like a child gazing out at the endless ocean for the first time — unable to fathom the raw power of the tides or the depth of the darkest trenches — putting these feelings into words can feel impossible.

But there are three things I know I need in a good video game: a unique presentation, an engaging story and a little something I never knew I needed. The Banner Saga, the first project from developer Stoic Studio, accomplished all of this and so much more.

With painstakingly crafted hand-drawn visuals, a haunting score and a narrative that would make George R.R. Martin envious, the first installment of The Banner Saga is near perfection.

The Visuals and Score

For lovers of hand-drawn animation, The Banner Saga is a testament to how well this style has held up over time. An immediate comparison which came to mind was Walt Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” as the backgrounds and character movements share much of the same beauty and charm.

The environments throughout this Scandinavian-inspired experience are detailed, spectacular expanses rendered with immaculate detail. Wide, sweeping snow banks and imposing mountains in muted tones serve as the backdrop for one’s caravan as the members trudge towards their next misfortune. The foreground is often covered in shaded forests teeming with wildlife and monsters alike. Even the settlements are drawn with intricate detail despite only ever being seen once throughout the journey.

Though I’ll delve into story specifics later, it’s clear from the opening (and the Mature rating) that this is not a happy narrative; the color palette beautifully expresses this state of somber acceptance. Grays and blacks and muted blues wash over most of the landscape. The greens of the forests are swathed in shadows. The richness of the reds and yellows of the titular banners provide stark contrast against the bleakness of the game’s world.

And as for the score: it’s perfect.

This may feel like a cop-out to some; how can anything truly be perfect? Before this game, I would have argued the same thing. But I’m most certainly not a music expert and I can only comment on how well the score articulates the emotions of the narrative and its overall effect. To this degree, composer Austin Wintory has crafted something so distinctive and moving the experience would’ve suffered greatly from its absence.

Special congratulations are extended to those who provided vocals for the soundtrack as they are, again, perfection. Nearly every scene in The Banner Saga is steeped in gut-wrenching emotion and the score only amplifies this.

If dedication were an art form, The Banner Saga’s presentation stands as a testament to its greatness.

The Gameplay

Combat involves maneuvering up to six units on a small battlefield. It’s easy enough to pick up and play with the tutorial that clearly explains the game’s basics. Each character has multiple stats with Strength and Armor being the most important. Armor is the numerical defense value while Strength serves as both the damage and health value. Will allows one to either augment their strength, move additional spaces or complete special attacks. Other stats and items affect these values and using them effectively are essential to withstanding the relentless assaults of the Dredge.

The nuances of each unit type require quite a bit of practice to master. But towards the end of the four-hour adventure I felt proficient at picking my battles wisely.

What I was much less proficient at was utilizing Renown, the game’s main “currency.”

Renown is earned by defeating enemies, winning battles and through various story events. Renown is then used to purchase items and supplies and improve characters. Rationing this resource is difficult, even on the easiest difficulty setting. I spent it freely early on, leveling up characters the moment they could be promoted.

Two-thirds of the way through I realized how dangerously low my supplies were and that some of my highest-leveled characters had either died or parted ways with the caravan. By the time I gained enough Renown to purchase more supplies, there were none to be had and part of my caravan had died. You’ll find plenty of items en route so purchasing them isn’t necessary for the most part; focus on keeping your clansmen and warriors supplied and leveling characters wisely.

For those seeking a challenge there’s plenty to be had. Even on the lowest difficulty enemy units are tactful, never missing the chance to pick off a weakened friendly. The only save option is a frequent autosave, so more often than not your choices are permanent no matter their outcome.

The popularity of turn-based gameplay has waned over the years, but The Banner Saga makes an strong argument for its appeal.

The Narrative

Though the gameplay and presentation are top-notch, by far the best aspect of the experience was the engrossing, branching narrative in which every decision had the potential to permanently alter the fate of its characters.

The gods are dead and the sun never sets. Two caravans set out across a continent under attack by the Dredge, a race once thought to be extinct. The fragile alliance between the Varl (a horned, giant-like species) and humans is strained even further as they must band together to avoid being wiped out. However, it soon becomes clear the Dredge are running from something as well and that total extinction may be imminent.

But the story of the Varl Vognir and the human Rook is so much more than that. Survival is wholly determined by friendships and alliances; one wrong choice could get you and your caravan killed. Becoming attached to any one character can be dangerous as no one is guaranteed to live.

I’ll admit I’m not much of a crier — not at funerals or even the ending of “Titanic.” But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit this game made me tear up more than once. The wide breadth of characters you’ll meet, fall in love with, then lose to a single choice is staggering. And thanks (or rather, no thanks) to the autosave feature, you’ll often be stuck mourning these characters.

Had the story writing been any less than phenomenal the narrative would’ve lost much if it’s emotional pull. Thankfully, Stoic knew what they were doing and crafted a world I’m more than willing to get lost in again and again. And with many branches of this narrative left to explore, I’ll be doing just that (at least until I begin playing the second and third arcs).

While the stellar writing is appreciated, the lack of representation is a glaring fault.

This game is not a historical reenactment of Norse history. Therefore, the argument that Stoic sought to factually represent the population of ancient Scandinavia is a flawed one. The story is LESS believable due to the lack of representation, not MORE believable.

Stoic had the chance to include a skin tone other than alabaster, but didn’t. Stoic had the opportunity to include non-heterosexual relationships or romances, but didn’t. This may be partly forgiven since romance is not the focus of the story, but the fact remains that only heterosexual relationships are represented. Also, the Varl are an all-male race; it’s  far fetched to believe they didn’t form more-than-platonic relationships.

But I must commend Stoic for not writing women simply as death fodder; many of the leading characters are strong females who learn to lead and fight on their own terms. This is rare in a narrative genre dominated by the alpha-male head space, so it’s much appreciated.

Verdict

The Banner Saga is a nearly perfect experience. The PS4 edition has frequent loading screens, though none last too long. The visuals and score are among the best the gaming world seen in a while. And despite the lack of representation, the narrative is an engrossing and emotional experience not to be missed.

4.5/5

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