The Banner Saga Review: Tour de Norse

While on the road, players must react to both scripted and random events that test their leadership and moral judgment. With the caravan on the march through the wilderness, beset at every turn, the game has a whiff of the Roguelike about it. The better comparison is probably XCOM, or the random events in Paradox titles such as Crusader Kings II. The dilemmas present problems without any attractive solutions. Can you risk defending that group of travelers beset by bandits? If you defend them, can the travelers be trusted to join your caravan? If you make an unpopular decision against the wishes of your cohort, do you risk an attempted coup?

The dilemmas are all elegantly written, and some of them are downright heartbreaking. More than anything, they give players a real sense of how hard it is to assume leadership in a crisis. Every choice you make has consequences, whether it’s a random event, a scripted event, or one of the set-piece, plot-crucial conversations. These consequences can be unexpected, but none of them seem arbitrary or unfair.

More than anything, they give the game a satisfying sense of maturity. The Banner Saga is a deliberately adult game, but it achieves this effect without resorting to any nudity or gore. Instead, this strength results naturally from the game’s core elements. The storytelling is confident, and respects its audience. The combat is defiantly unsexy — instead it’s intellectually engaging (but still fun). The random events are thought-provoking. The plot and dialogue ooze human tragedy without being exploitative.

The intangible thing that ties everything together is the mood of the game — grim and somber in a way that fits the setting perfectly. Whether it’s the hard-bitten characters, the swirling snow, or the haunting score by Journey composer Austin Wintory, The Banner Saga is a game about an apocalypse that actually feels like there’s something being lost, not one that feels like a chance for an unkillable hero to simply kick more ass. Stoic Games imbues their game with the uncertainty of leaders who never expected to lead, the frustration of warriors who never expected to lose, and the sadness of mourners who don’t have time to grieve. When I finished The Banner Saga, I wanted to start playing again immediately from the beginning.

Pros:

  • Gorgeous art and design throughout
  • Norse-inspired setting offers fantasy that feels original and fresh
  • Tactical combat is satisfying and deep
  • Well-written dialogue and well-realized characters
  • Caravan gameplay is a fascinating depiction of crisis management
  • Superlative score by Grammy-nominee Austin Wintory

Cons:

  • Certain game mechanics could be better explained and implemented
  • Story ends a bit abruptly (although another episode is on the way)

Final Score: 88/100


Game Front employs a 100-point scale when reviewing games to be as accurate about the experience as possible. Read the full rundown of what our review scores mean.

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