There really is a lot more to it than that (we need to discuss the heavy tactical RPG elements), but if you want a succinct, one sentence summary of The Banner Saga, then you just say that it’s Oregon Trail with Vikings.
I’ve been interested in The Banner Saga for a couple months, mostly based just on the fact that I knew it was a tactical RPG and I thought the art direction looked especially beautiful. Beyond that I didn’t know precisely what to expect, but when I saw it on sale for five dollars on the Playstation Store, I couldn’t pass it up.
The story of The Banner Saga is a pretty straightforward apocalyptic narrative. The protagonist for most of the game, Rook, is a guy from a small village on the eastern end of the continent where all the action takes place (it’s not clear if there are any other landmasses in this world), and through a series of unfortunate circumstances he finds himself leading a caravan of refugees running from the invading armies of dredge, a race of stone creatures who have started migrating south for an unexplained reason. Along the way you learn that there’s some end-of-the-world level stuff going on, but Rook’s primary concern is protecting his daughter Alette and getting as many of his followers as possible to safety (the fact that safety is a moving target with dredge popping up pretty much everywhere continues to complicate things). It’s very much in the same narrative vein as a lot of zombie apocalypse stories (like The Last of Us or the movie version of World War Z), but it’s set in a Viking fantasy world, and the dredge are actually intelligent, if belligerent, adversaries. Though there’s nothing especially outstanding about the story, I do find the small scale story set against a massive world-changing backdrop pretty compelling stuff.
There is some exploration of what exactly is happening that’s causing the dredge to leave their homeland, but nothing is definitively explained in this installment (the sequel, which I’m assuming continues the larger story, just recently released, though it’s not yet been ported to consoles); there’s just enough to get a sense that this is serious stuff (there’s a giant serpent that’s really upset because it’s supposed to eat the world and whatever’s happening means that it can’t), but because Rook’s our perspective character we don’t worry about any of that. Overall, I’d say that the general sense you pull from the narrative is that Rook’s attempts to escape are probably futile, but that’s not going to stop him from trying as hard as he can.
Besides the macro story that plays out in conversations and cut scenes over the course of the game’s seven chapters, the tension for the player is derived from one of the game’s two core mechanics: caravaning. Because this is a game about running away from danger, most of the time you’re watching Rook’s caravan move along from one location to another. Time passes as they trudge along, and the end of each day marks a reduction in supplies that will become reduction in followers if you have no food left. Most days also involve a randomly generated or pre-scripted event that requires Rook to make a leadership decision which will have a variety of effects on the state of the caravan. This is where the game is most like Oregon Trail, because the decisions come frequently, and they often carry unforeseen consequences that have the potential to make travel more or less difficult. I’m pretty confident that the outcomes are all pre-scripted, which limits the fun of replaying the game (I replayed a large middle swath of the game after I found out a decision I made resulted in an unavoidable character death two chapters later; it wasn’t unpleasant, but scenarios I recognized worked out the way they had previously in every instance where I made the same decisions), but they’re well written enough that they carry decent emotional weight; this is an important thing to pull off when the state of your caravan is mostly just reflected by a few numbers at the top of the screen. As if the Oregon Trail connection weren’t already strong enough, there’s also a moment late in the game when you have to decide how to move your caravan across a body of water, and the choices are all straight out of Oregon Trail.
The other half of the game is tactical combat, which I found to be remarkably challenging. About halfway through I decided to turn the difficulty down to easy because I was getting frustrated with some of the fights, which are designed to pretty much always be wars of attrition between your units and the enemy’s. The tactical combat is very similar to many other TRPGs where each unit has specific strengths and weaknesses on the field, and much of the strategy comes from deciding how to compose a team of units that complement each other and can defeat enemies faster than they can defeat you. The most unusual innovation is the direct connection between a unit’s offensive strength and their remaining health. As characters take damage their capacity for dealing damage to other units diminishes so that, much like in real combat, someone on the verge of being incapacitated isn’t of much use offensively (conversely, it becomes a pretty standard tactic of sacrificing near-dead units to draw attention away from healthier fighters who can still do damage). To add complexity to this system, units are able to attack each other’s defense stat, which leaves a unit open to taking more damage but doesn’t diminish their capacity to hurt others; it becomes a balancing act between attacking the offensive and defensive stats to keep your side’s offensive edge over the enemy’s.
While I enjoyed the game very much overall, I do have one pretty major complaint. This is a fantasy story set in a pseudo-medieval world filled with stone monsters and giant men who have horns sticking out of their heads (they’re called varl, and they’re a literal all male race, though this is hand waved by the world’s lore saying that they were all created by their patron god, and now that the gods are dead there are no more varl being made), but it’s stuck in a patriarchal attitude regarding women as participants in warfare. The number of female characters is incredibly small compared to the men (in a roster of about twenty playable characters, only four are women), and they are all the same unit type (archers). There’s a subplot where one of the women, Oddleif, begins training other women to use a bow and arrows so they can help defend the caravan, and you have the opportunity to support this move as Rook (it’s a good idea to do it from a purely mechanical perspective because it converts some clansmen, who are functionally useless, into fighters, and unlocks a character later in the game), but the game leans on the narrative convention of the men being unhappy with the decision. This is pretty infuriating, since we have historical evidence that women were participants in combat in actual ancient Nordic cultures. Sticking to a story where women aren’t supposed to be fighters derives from a patriarchal attitude that we know just isn’t accurate.
Despite the game’s flaws, I enjoyed it overall. The art really is quite beautiful, and the soundtrack was composed by Austin Wintory, who also composed the soundtrack for Journey, one of the best games I ever played. If you enjoy tactical games and a bit of Oregon Trail nostalgia, then you should pick it up. I’m definitely going to keep the sequel on my radar for the future.