Game: The Banner Saga Trilogy
Genre: Strategy RPG, Visual Novel
System: Nintendo Switch (also available on Steam, iOS, PS4, and Xbox)
Developers | Publishers: Stoic Studio | Gearbox Publishing
Age Rating: US Teen | EU 16
Price: US $49.99 | UK £44.99 | EU € 49,99
Release Date: 20th September 2018
No review code was used for this review.
Welcome to “Fire Emblem meets Viking visual novel.”
Readers, you’ve struck gold if you like strategy RPGs and visual novels! Doubly if you want nothing more for Christmas than plot decisions with real consequences.
Now, there aren’t actually any Vikings in Banner Saga, but the inspiration is there. Allow me to introduce the Varl: Horned giants with long lifespans and love for mead and battle.
They have an uneasy relationship with humans, but in this tale, Varl and man stand together against a common foe, the stone-like Dredge. This is the Third Great War, in which the Sun has stopped moving and the Gods have long died. Let lore lovers rejoice! Let fanfiction writers run wild!
Fire Emblem of the West?
For marketing purposes, I call Banner Saga the West’s best answer to Japan’s Fire Emblem. But while there are general similarities between the series, there’s one very important difference to know upfront.
In Banner Saga, there’s no relationship/romance system, which is a key pleasure for Fire Emblem fans. But BS’s unique combat system is more interesting to me than FE’s combat, and I’ll get to that later.
Like FE, it offers a huge roster of Heroes to pick from. So many, in fact, that by Banner Saga 3 you’ll have more characters than you know what to do with.
Some are pretty forgettable. Others are brimming with personality despite the concise writing. Prickly Prince Ludin and strange ol’ Tryggvi come to mind if you’re only asking about Spearmasters—which, by the way, was my favourite class.
Yep, there are classes in Banner Saga, but these remain fixed throughout the game. Sorry, no job changes here! Just regular levelling up.
But whatever Banner Saga may lack in romance and cutesy-ness, it makes up for in spades with plot and replayability. I enjoyed BS1 so much that, instead of moving on to BS2, I reloaded old chapters to experiment: Could I have prevented so-and-so’s death? What if I had been more selfish? The game conveniently keeps an autosave of each chapter, plus one “current” autosave, so you can revisit past decisions.
It’s gritty, but not gory. Tragic, but not depressing. It’s legendary, yet believable. A change of mood and style from the more lighthearted, anime-like Fire Emblem. Yet not devoid of humour.
I appreciate the realism, the nearness of death. In Banner Saga, your characters don’t die permanently in battle (though they do get “Injured”). Instead, they may meet untimely deaths based on your plot choices. It shocked me the first time I accidentally killed a character through one of my decisions. It was both dismaying and oh-so-cool!
Some choices are far-reaching, affecting the next game. This makes the story in Banner Saga far more engaging than in Fire Emblem.
A Long Visual Novel in Bite Sizes
Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game, but I think its greatest accomplishment is the visual novel element.
While most of your time is on the battlefield—commanding a battle party of Varl and humans, each with their own little story—a good portion of the game is spent making countless plot choices.
Will you help other survivors or hoard food for yourself? Will you rest or march on? Forgive or punish? Bulldoze ahead or sneak around? As a leader of a caravan of survivors, you face many small and big decisions.
It’s not wordy as some visual novels are. Each narrative chunk is concise, packing tension and meaningful events into bite-sizes that even book-haters probably won’t mind.
On top of that, fantastic visuals and sound produce a truly cinematic feel.
A major inspiration for the game’s art was illustrator Eyvind Earle, best known for his work on 1950s Disney films, particularly Sleeping Beauty. From painterly landscapes to hand-drawn animation, Banner Saga evokes Disney movies of old. I never tired of watching the combat animations. They’re so expressive and accompanied by lively sound effects of crunching axe blows, zinging arrows, and cracking armour.
Even while you’re reading, little sounds bring the words to life with a well-timed creak, whoosh, or war-cry. I even enjoyed the quiet, duller moments of watching my caravan roll along as days ticked by. By the way, the game’s orchestral soundtrack was composed by Austin Wintory, Grammy-nominated BAFTA winner and composer for Journey. It’s a sombre collection, fitting for a time of war and loss.
A Unique SRPG
Within a unique combat system, the most distinctive mechanic here is how attacks work.
You can either attack a character’s Strength or Armor. Strength doubles up as two things: health points and attack points. So, whittling down an enemy’s Strength weakens not only their health but also how much damage they can deal. Armour, meanwhile, is what you’d expect: it reduces damage upon Strength.
In other words, you must decide if it’s wiser to lower enemies’ Armor first (to deal a heavier blow later), or to lower their Strength (so you don’t get hit as badly).
Party members who lose all Strength are knocked out for the rest of the battle. They can return in later battles as “Injured,” which means fighting with lower stats unless they rest in camp for a few days.
The flow of combat is pretty typical of an SRPG: Move, then take an action. Turn order works differently from games like Fire Emblem, though.
Instead of moving your entire team, you only move one guy—then the enemy moves one of their guys. You take turns moving one character at a time. The exact turn order is displayed onscreen, so you’ll know who moves when. Part of strategizing is to decide your own team’s turn order before battle commences.
Another difference worth mentioning is Willpower. It’s not an unusual mechanic but one that does make combat more interesting than merely a “move-then-attack.” Every character may spend their limited Willpower points to move further, strike harder, or perform a special class ability.
My favourite class abilities were great openers in a fight. “Bloody Flail” is an axe wielder’s ability that damages both Strength and Armor, weakening enemies before they attack. “Rain of Arrows” makes an archer set a short-term trap on the battlefield, causing victims to take damage and forfeit an action.
Combat is fun once you get acquainted with the controls, enemy types, and your favoured attack style.
A Tale of Two Caravans
Apart from combat and story decisions, there’s a minor element of management too. Deciding how to spend Renown points, earned from successful battles, is tricky.
Renown, the game’s multipurpose currency, is pretty tight in supply and yet you’ll need it for three different things. Do you level up characters, or buy equipment, or buy Supplies?
Given the huge cast of Heroes, I had to focus on only a few favourites to level up. Equipment’s pretty expensive, so I made do with free items that came my way. Supplies seemed worth investing in, though, to keep my caravan population from starving. Keeping people fed and rested also helps with Morale. Heroes with good morale fight with more Willpower points, while dispirited ones suffer Willpower penalties.
Speaking of the caravan, you actually lead two. The narrative switches back and forth between the two caravans until they cross paths late in each game.
One of the first caravan leaders you’ll play is Rook, an ordinary hunter and father. Rook and his daughter Alette flee their home village of Skogr when the Dredge attack. He’s accompanied by a handful of long-time friends including Iver, a Varl with a past. Over time, a motley assembly looks to Rook’s banner for protection. And that’s how Banner Saga 1 starts . . .
Banner Saga 1
Well, actually, the saga began in confusion for me. Not with Rook, but with a bunch of Varl and humans and circumstances I knew little about and was thrown into headfirst.
While I did like the no hand-holding approach to storytelling, and the strong sense of lore and politics lurking in the background, it was occasionally a bit . . . hazy. I had so many unanswered questions. But it got better. When Rook and Alette appear onstage, the epic saga finds a strong anchor in their personal (and relatable) story.
Before that, though, I struggled with the interface and controls. Who’s actually speaking? Who’s stats are those? How do you initiate an attack? How does this weird thing called “War” work?
I also didn’t know how the save system worked. So I’ll spare you the trouble: The game keeps an autosave of every chapter. It also keeps one current autosave. It will NOT autosave during combat or conversation. It does NOT autosave between special back-to-back battles. (I was very unhappy about replaying three back-to-back battles at the Tower of Ridgehorn.)
But I got the hang of combat and controls. Switching from PS4 controller to mouse helped (I began my saga with the PC version). By the end of Chapter 2, I was drawn into the story. About 10+ hours later, the plot’s climax took my breath away. It ends in a good place, not a cliffhanger.
You don’t have to commit to buying the whole trilogy; you could sample it through a standalone copy of Banner Saga 1.
Banner Saga 2
I spent close to 20 hours on this fantastic follow-up. The best entry in this trilogy, BS2 does not suffer from middle book syndrome. I love it. Guess I’m partial to Bolverk and Folka, the most fun to watch of all human-varl partnerships. Their misfit crew of mercenaries provide an interesting counterpoint to BS1’s protagonists.
Everything gets more interesting here—dialogue, story choices, abilities, combat, enemies. There’s also some great writing, though also a few awkward lines.
Heroes now have Talents, special bonuses that can be unlocked if a stat is maxed out. “Artery Strike” was very useful and satisfying talent to invest in, enabling frontline Heroes to perform critical hits more often.
Another new thing: Renown economics have changed. Levelling up characters costs less Renown, and you can earn extra Renown through optional combat tutorials. Say goodbye to tight rations!
Banner Saga 3
Roughly 10 hours long, BS3 is the shortest game in the trilogy. Still, I’m afraid to report that my attention waned and wandered to other games.
Combat felt a little boring and draggy, despite new challenges like a countdown clock that motivates you to finish a battle before more enemies appear. Just wanting to enjoy the story, I eventually switched from Normal to Easy difficulty. (You can change difficulty between battles.) Unfortunately, combat became too easy and even less engaging. But I attribute my lack of enthusiasm more to being distracted by other games.
Don’t get me wrong, BS3 isn’t dull. Here, the saga swells to epic scale both visually and narratively. The plot gets more otherworldly, almost far-out. It ends well, and I was moved by one of the final cutscenes.
Even if you’re not impressed by the grand plot, you’ve gotta credit the developer’s effort to give brief but loving attention to individual characters. Everyone gets at least a little dialogue airtime.
You’ve probably got favourites by now. Their stats can be beefed up further through Heroic Titles. Titles are a unique set of bonuses, and each can be claimed by only one Hero.
Lastly, you’re still switching back and forth between two separate caravans. But BS3 throws in something new and cool, though very late-game: The two caravans’ fates become intertwined as your success in one benefits the other. A really nice touch!
All in all, I’ve had a long trek from the obscure village of Skogr to the great capital of Arberrang. It was quite a journey, one I’ll remember fondly.
Banner Saga: PC vs Switch
I played on two platforms. While I much prefer lounging with the Switch, the PC version wins my vote this round. While controls on the Switch are excellent, the combat interface gets a bit cluttered during big fights. There’s also a lot of detail in the paintings and animations that I’d rather enjoy on a larger screen.
I don’t usually elaborate on pricing, but you should know a few things. On all platforms, each individual game is priced at $24.99. You’re thinking, “$75 to complete the trilogy?!”
Thankfully, no. On Nintendo eShop, owning BS1 gives you a 40% discount on BS2. Owning both games gives you a 60% discount on BS3. So the real total is $50, not $75, for the Switch digital version.
The Switch physical version, meanwhile, can be found for much cheaper. But it requires an Internet connection and microSD card to access Banner Saga 3.
Both eShop and Steam have great sales for the individual games and trilogy collections. Discounts range from 50% to 85% off. But Switch versions lack the goodies offered on other platforms’ trilogy packs (e.g. soundtrack, wallpaper, novel eBook). That’s no biggie, though, if you just want to play the game and not collect digital memorabilia.
Is The Banner Saga for you? Could be, if you’re into SRPGs, stories with tough choices and real consequences, or Viking stuff.
The combat isn’t what I’d call super addictive or mind-blowing fun, but it’s nevertheless unique and engaging. I like that it’s fairly simple yet quite challenging (unless you play on Easy difficulty).
I love that the visual novel element is very, very substantial. It’s half the game’s weight, even if not half the game’s length. Combat isn’t merely broken up by cutscenes where you’re passively watching. Here, you’re directing the story. Or at least the details, if not the overall plot. Most notably, you decide if major characters live or die.
The Banner Saga trilogy is an all-rounder. Despite an initially confusing plunge into the deep end, I came out gasping at its beauty, most of all the landscapes and hand-drawn combat animations. Both story- and combat-wise, expect a meaty game lasting 30 to 40 hours or more.
Final Verdict: Two Thumbs Up