I just finished my third playthrough. I last played through it in 2018. I first discovered the games in 2016, after the second one came out. Whenever I sit down to play the trilogy, I clear all other games from my schedule, because I knows it gonna dominate my time completely.
The Banner saga is a turn-based RPG series set in a viking-esque world that is constantly in chaos. The gods died a long time ago, leaving 3 races behind; humans, the Varl (essentially a race of giant men with horns), and the dredge (creatures made of stone that communicate through sound.)
This info is all given in the opening of the first game, so it isn’t too spoilerish.
First thing: these games are notoriously difficult. There are 3 difficulties; easy, normal, and hard. Easy is essentially normal in any other game, normal is hard in any other game, and hard is sheer insanity. I always play on easy, because I’ve tried playing on normal/hard and I always get my ass kicked.
In every game, you control two different caravans travelling across the world. So, two different POVS with two different teams of characters that you control in combat.
Gameplay is divided into two sections; combat and a light-novel-esque travelling segment with a bit of resource management.
Essentially, you follow the caravan as it travels from place to place, encountering random events alongside the main story. You make many tough decisions, deciding the fate of your caravan. Your choices will have consequences; at the least, you lose resources/time, and at the most, characters (meaning combat units) can die.
A quick note: The first game is a bit annoying with regards to choices with some events. It would essentially give you a pop quiz and you’d have to choose between several random actions with no hints of which one was the “right choice” that would prevent a unit from dying. There weren’t that many of them and the second and third game are much better about it, but they do stand out. It’s more a nitpick than anything.
Another part of travelling is the aforementioned “resource management”. Your caravan is made up of several hundred people (fighters and clansmen) and they need food and time to rest.
As the caravan travels on, days pass, and if there isn’t any food, then people on your caravan will die. This will affect some story decisions.
You buy supplies in towns with “renown”, the main currency of the game. You gain renown after battles and some decisions. Renown is also used to level up units. So, you need to manage the wellbeing of you caravan vs the strength of your units. (More of this in the combat section.)
As for resting, the caravan also has a “morale” system. It measures how happy people feel, from “high” to “low”. It declines the longer they travel without rest. You can stop the camp and rest to increase morale. The problem is it uses up supplies that could’ve been used on the road.
Morale also dictates which events you get on the road. E.g. a high morale means you’ll get more troublesome events, while a lower morale means you’ll get more events that could increase morale. The games changes with your progress/playstyle (love this!!).
Right, so you have caravan size, morale, resource management, and story decisions. This where the trilogy gets a little complicated. It never outright tells you how all of these complex systems interact…but they decide the speed of your caravan.
I struggled to explain this, so imma just copy and paste a helpful section I found on the Banner saga wiki:
The decisions made along the way will affect how the caravan is traveling, while the speed of travel will be dictated by the manner in which the caravan’s endurance, morale, size and supplies are managed.
Endurance will inevitably decrease the longer the caravan is on the road. The only way to restore endurance is to rest, but that costs time.
Morale comes and goes based on player actions, how successful they are in combat, and how much the caravan agrees with their leader’s actions.
The size of the caravan will directly affect its mobility – the fewer people are traveling in the caravan, the faster it can go. However, smaller caravan may mean fewer survivor after negative events.
Supplies amplify all of the other factors. Going too long without finding food or medicine will mean that everything else deteriorates more quickly.
Combat revolves around 3 things:
+Strength (essentially the “health” of your unit. It also decides how much damage they do. If it’s depleted completely, your unit is knocked out and can’t participate in the battle anymore)
+Armour (essentially an extra layer of defence protecting your unit’s health, if it goes down, then more damage can be done to their strength)
+Willpower (which you use to power up moves. Only 3 can be used per turn, but your unit can have much more. E.g. an archer can have 9 willpower in total, but can only use 3 per turn. Also, as you kill enemies during combat, a war horn is filled up with extra willpower; 1 willpower per enemy.)
As for battles, combat takes place on a grid. Like a chess board.
It also plays like a chess match. One move at a time, one unit at a time in a set order.
Your unitenemy unityour unitenemy unit etc
This means that turn order and unit placement is important; do you let your archer go first? Your warriors? Or your spearmen? Who do you place at the front? Do you deplete an enemy’s armour first, or their health? Which units do you focus on? Decisions, decisions….
It took me quite a while to wrap my head around combat, and I can safely say that I never got good at it. I always tended to just focus on just wearing enemies down and then killing them, without thinking about my own units. I tended to lose one or two per fight.
There’s one more thing to explain: Injuries.
Because I play on easy, I never had to deal with it. But if a unit is knocked out in battle, it is “injured” and
can’t be used again for a few days. you can use them but they are weaker (been a while since I played on normal, sorry.) This means you have to let time pass in game before you can deploy them again. It means you have to mix n’ match your units around if you play recklessly, adding another thing to think about in combat.
Graphics and music
The games are very beautiful. The characters have a Disney-esque quality to them and your caravan goes through some jaw-dropping vistas as it travels across the world.
Unfortunately, this is where the game has some limitations.
For one, there is very little voice acting, and characters tend to reuse the same few models in conversations and combat.
I get that it’s an indie game, but a little variety would be nice. Thankfully, the second and the third game fixes this.
As for the music…it’s my favourite thing about the trilogy. They were scored by Austin Wintory, who also composed the soundtrack of Journey. From sweeping horns and trumpets in combat, to quiet sombre piano pieces in more tense story moments, the entire soundtrack is varied and interesting. Oh, and gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous.
A bit about story
I don’t want to talk too much about the story to avoid spoilers, just my opinion of it. I really liked it! It is very dark, and can get rather tragic and pessimistic at certain points, but it has light moments as well.
There are several great twists and turns, and you can figure out what’s going on if you pay attention to the characters/events. There are certain choices that are absolutely heart wrenching. Afterwards, you’ll be constantly wondering: “did I do the right thing?”
The story is also pretty brave at several points. By this, I mean how the devs weave game play and story together in some pretty clever ways. Especially at the end of the first and second games. Choices you made in the first game will impact events in the thirdgame. My jaw dropped once or twice.
It’s a bit like Game of thrones…
My favourite game is probably the second one. It has the best balance of suspense/adventure with a lot of amazing moments during the caravan journey.
I’ll probably replay the trilogy in a year or so. It’s always so fresh in my mind. It’s one of my favourite games. The story still gets me and I always worry over the choices that I will have to make. I also listen to the soundtrack outside of playing it, especially if I need to do something stressful.
Anyways, you should definitely play it if you like story-based games or RPGS!