By Sam Greer
It is unusual to play a game as grand in scale, ambition and achievement as The Banner Saga. It’s even stranger that it’s success was so relatively minor - doubtless many have heard of the game, but it seems like few played it. There are explanations: it's an indie game that lacked a big marketing push, and the second chapter was released in the middle of a surfeit of great games. There are plenty of hidden gems like this, of course, but with the The Banner Saga it baffles me so because it's an honest-to-god epic, a thrilling RPG as compelling - and some would argue moreso - as the Mass Effects and Skyrims that dominate sales charts.
OK, there are no romantic options with sexy aliens, but it does have very foxy beards, and crucially that same kind of momentum that underpins the best stories: an excitement about where this could be going and where it's been. More than that, of all the games I’ve played over the last few years, The Banner Saga has stayed with me. Let me tell you something of the journey that Stoic Studios has laid out for players.
From the dark comes Austin Wintory's sorrowful score. There's pride in it, a sense of the people about whom we're going to learn but hints of what they will face. Then comes the wonderful art style, characters and animation hand-drawn in the vein of old Disney. And it’s a style that, in what it does and doesn’t do, grounds these characters as recognisably human - gives their unfamiliar world a reality.
These people are stoic but their small changes in expression don't go unnoticed, and the animation communicates a lot whilst maintaining restraint. There are few exaggerated movements or postures. They inhabit a world inspired mainly by Norse mythology, with familiar legends, but they’re not the kind of stereotypical Viking warriors we've come to expect: they’re vulnerable. These people are to be taken as human and so they act like it, even if they look like cartoon characters.
The Banner Saga begins in a sombre atmosphere. The sun has stopped in the sky and night no longer comes. On one side of the map a band of Varl, horned giants of legend, are tasked with protecting a human Prince on a mission to secure an alliance between two races. At the other, an ancient enemy called the Dredge has returned to the world, seemingly unstoppable. The two groups are destined to meet, but your story lies with neither of them. The player’s main controllable character is the simple hunter Rook who, with his daughter Alette and others from their village, must flee their homes and find safety from the clash between these factions. What starts as a small group becomes a huge convoy as others join on the way, all various groups of people fleeing the same danger. At the front of this convoy is borne the titular banner, the story of its people sewn along the fabric.
Your huge convoy is nevertheless minuscule against the dramatic landscapes of this world. The Banner Saga’s world is a stunning vision, its backgrounds inspired by Eyvind Earle's striking landscapes and the contrasts of light and shadow conveying the quiet tension that underpins everything. You press on but, everywhere, there are things hidden in the trees and behind the mountains.
One of the main components of The Banner Saga is the turn-based combat in which you select a party of fighters from your group to defend your convoy. In a striking departure from gaming convention, your character's attacks grow weaker as their health diminishes. Succeeding is a matter of endurance, not just skill and tactics. If you lose the characters aren't killed, but wounded, and the real loss is to the whole convoy’s chances.
The Banner Saga is an RPG with a survivalist slant. In your journey you must attend to the convoy’s supplies and ensure there's always food to eat. Without it people will starve and the number of soldiers in the convoy will dwindle, leaving you vulnerable to further attack. Supplies are measured in the number of days they'll last, and sometimes you do have a stockpile, but all it takes is one unfortunate event to send you back to the precipice.
This colours your decisions throughout, meaning you cannot simply consider what feels like the morally ‘right’ action in any given situation but instead the practical consequences of making it. Every choice is fraught with danger. Will you investigate the rising smoke over a hill? Let a band of mercenaries join your group? Rescuing a group of stragglers might be noble but it will cost time, bring your pursuers closer, and result in more mouths to feed. And even if you’re comfortable with being a ruthless pragmatist, the wider group isn’t - their morale must be considered and maintained to prevent in-fighting and betrayals.
It's a game that tests you with a cruel world. I started out an idealist, the hero this world needed. I'd share my supplies and rescue those in need. When my character suffered an embarrassing mistake, I joined in with the laughter to soften myself in the eyes of the group and gain their loyalty, their trust. I took a chance on some ruffians who did indeed prove their worth, coming to our rescue when everyone else doubted them. Eventually though, hardship has a way of grinding down good intentions. The people I saved stole our food in the night, and disappeared. The ruthless warrior I took a chance on tried to kill me when we were alone.
Your relationships with characters are one of the game's most important aspects. There's no meter measuring their loyalty or fondness, there's only judgement. You’re never privy to the entirety of character's lives, and have to read between the lines of what you do know - passing hints of what they’ve been up to between fights and conversations. Every direct interaction must be weighed and measured, because you can only spend so much time with each person - and moments will come where you have to decide who to rely on. The cost of a bad decision can be great indeed.
Losses are inevitable. Right from the outset our characters lose their homes and, soon after, loved ones and friends. Oddleif, archer and ally, loses her husband at the game’s outset and the character’s quiet grief is a permanent reminder of the stakes. In time, inevitably, you too will face loss of one kind or another. The young hand you've been tutoring, slain by a brigand you naively trusted. A close friend sacrificing himself for the good of the group. Each one weighs upon you, the burden of leadership heavy to bear.
One of the game’s most brilliant characteristics is that, in the face of this world, as the story progresses the characters lose hope, growing more desperate by the day. They almost drift through the world at times, each subsequent destination just another name with no meaning other than temporary respite. There is wonder when you arrive at some legendary sights - the altars of ancient gods and lost, fabled cities - but a helpless melancholy too. This is the first and last time you'll ever see them, because nowhere is safe or spared from the Dredge and you must keep moving. As the trilogy continues, apocalypse threatens to engulf the world, sinking mountains and plunging entire kingdoms into chasms. Amidst that, you and your band are small, insignificant. You are helpless, only able to flee the coming storms. And as the losses pile up and the threat grows greater, it’s easy to lose hope.
At the outset of the second game I was shocked to realise just how cynical I had become by default. I refused aid, hoarded our supplies and trusted nobody. I'd long forgotten any good intentions, and was paranoid of more losses. Past mistakes haunted me, and I would throw myself into danger rather than risk the group. Soon my character was a shell of their former self. My companions could see it, and they dared not confront me about it. And only when the losses continued, when the people I was trying to save were terrified of me or dead, did I stop to think about what had happened.
The Banner Saga is an RPG with scale, a rich setting, and an atmosphere like no other. Yes it has gripping combat and a host of branching narratives within this saga, making replays as surprising as your first attempt. But at the heart is something human, something real. The Banner Saga is a game about loss and grieving amidst an indifferent, hostile world. How pain can linger beneath the surface for far longer than anyone realises, and manifest itself when all-but-forgotten. How the world never quite seems the same again when certain people are gone from it, and how that knowledge can twist good intentions into smaller shapes. How wracked with guilt survival can make you.
There are no assurances, no safe havens or reprieves. You hope the world's ending can be halted, but you've nothing to make it happen. Hundreds of lives depend on you, and you can't promise them anything. With only two instalments released, we still don't know how this story ends.
The Banner Saga shows we keep pushing onward, in spite of the obstacles and troubles in our way. When it's all over, when each crisis has passed, the survivors emerge and raise the banner once more - then start moving. Still standing, still surviving, still together.