The Banner Saga Review
A beautiful but sometimes technically flawed adventure
There are shortcomings in the gameplay design of The Banner Saga, but unlike the narrative missteps, these wounds are not due to budgetary constraints. While the game can be extremely difficult on its normal setting it becomes almost too simple when toned down to easy. Battles go from brutal scenarios that you are almost certain you will lose, to a lazy walk in the park. A fine tuning of difficulty would have been nice to make sure everyone can get the right level of challenge. The larger problem is that, while The Banner Saga has a handful of tutorials and well-placed instructions, there are a certain moments where elements are poorly explained. One encounter really tripped me up as I missed a special power-up I had to use, another time I didn’t have the right item equipped. The Banner Saga is plenty challenging without occasionally stumbling over vague instructions.
There are other small issues with the game that take away from the experience. Most of this is related to the UI and options menu. The Banner Saga is sorely lacking in simple options such as subtitles, volume controls, and graphical settings. Much like the narrative issues, it is clear to see that these are things that had to be scrapped given the size of the project, but even with its $700,000 budget The Banner Saga deserves to be compared to the best games and lacking these options does stand out.
For all of these small complaints, there are small things to love about The Banner Saga. The art of game is absolutely gorgeous, capturing epic landscapes and intricate character details with equal precision and skill. Each location and person you talk to is completely unique, helping add to the epic scope of The Banner Saga’s vision. Seeing the dredge slowly crowd in around your resting screen as you prepare for large scale battles adds tension to each passing moment, demonstrating the desperateness of your situation. Topping all of these little bonuses off, is Austin Wintory’s absolutely astounding score. Combining strong horn themes with plucky strings, Wintory captures themes that build the grandeur of the adventure and creates suspense. The score also features vocal soloists that sing ballads as you approach certain markers on the ma;, these songs add to the Viking-fantasy flavor that Stoic worked so hard to create. There are a lot of things to love when it comes to the big picture of The Banner Saga, but there a plenty of finely crafted details that are equally great.
The biggest issue, bar none, is the game’s instability. During my playthrough I experienced a handful of crashes and since the only way to save your game is through autosaves you never know where the game is going to leave you when you boot back up. There is a pretty generous autosave function and I never was pushed back to the point of frustration, but it is still plenty annoying. The timing of these crashes is particularly troublesome as they always seemed to occur during major plot points, derailing the momentum of my playthrough, betraying the excellent pacing and structure of the game.
The Banner Saga has its shortcomings, most of them the result of a small budget and a smaller team. There are missing features, and at times the production fails to support the writing and gameplay. But on the whole the game is a triumph. The story feels finely tuned, and the gameplay feeds back into the brutal, visceral, wintery world in which the game is set. All elements of the game make you feel like your time at the head of your clan is filled with hurdles and impossible odds, but it is these overwhelming odds that lead to a feeling of reward. The game makes you feel like you are always on your heels, always one step away from failure, but keeps you going even you think you can’t. The Banner Saga is a game that roots itself under your skin, and will have you thinking about it long after its poetic and emotional conclusion.