The Banner Saga is an Old Norse Epic set in a land whose Icelandic sounding cities and volcanoes come straight from Viking tales. It is the end of the World. The sun has stopped its course and hangs in the skies (if you’ve lived in Scandinavia it will no doubt remind you of many revels under the Midnight Sun). There is sadness in this World. The Varl, a race of horned giants, and man, forge an uneasy alliance to fight the return of the Dredge, an enigmatic race of black armours.
Playability: Hardship made easy
Fleeing from war, you pick up meagre supplies and gather the survivors of your tribe. The main element of the Banner Saga is the Caravan made up of clansmen, fighting men (and women) and Varls. As you juggle morale, supplies, renown, population and time, you must lead your Caravan to safety. Of course there is the combat, and the Role Playing Game elements. I often read in video games review that combat ought to be “highly satisfying”. Whatever that means? That you’re having fun killing people to keep your own people safe? The RPG elements and the combat mechanics are fine in the Banner Saga. But you don’t look forward to a good fight. Because you’re on the run, because people look up to you. You don’t want to lose more supplies, more men, more friends to the cold. Keep it together, keep everybody safe. The challenge is not in the brawls, it is in the moral choices and ethical trade-offs. This is a world where there are surprisingly few win-win situations.
Annoyance: Waiting several years for the next tome
The Banner Saga is not a long read. It is closer in length to the Hobbit than it is to the Fellowship of the Ring. I completed the game in about ten hours taking the time to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, Godstones and wuthering skies. The most annoying thing about a good book is waiting for the next tome to be written. If you’re used to waiting six years between the volumes of the Song of Ice and Fire, then you won’t mind waiting a couple of years for Banner Saga 2. Alternatively, you could wait for the trilogy to be published to start playing the game. The ending closes a chapter, so fortunately it’s not an insurmountable fjord-hanger.
Beauty: Artistic visuals and sounds
The Banner Saga is a work of art. Everywhere you look you see beautiful drawings and paintings. From the windswept steppes to the towering fjord mountains, the landscape flows with poignancy. The characters are reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty. Indeed, the visuals are inspired by the work of Eyvind Earle, a Disney Legend whose drawings and illustrations are familiar everywhere. Eyvind Earle himself found inspiration in Italian Renaissance, Persian and Japanese arts among others. The soundtrack is superbly performed by the Dallas Wind Symphony with haunting soloist vocals.
The Old Video Gamer’s Prattle: Excellent frosted cake 9/10
The Banner Saga is proof that you don’t have to be a pedantic git to enjoy fine arts and culture packaged in a fun video game. A longer game would have scored perfect points on the Old Video Gamer’s impossible rating scale. The Banner saga is hand drawn, animated, played and sung by artists. As a gamer you are invited to step on the stage and be part of the performance. I’ll gladly wager that this Scandinavian Epic will stand the test of time and become a video game monument. But whether it will, depends on the next tales of the trilogy.