‘The Banner Saga’ cloaks ’90s-style strategy in outstanding design

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“The Banner Saga” might be the best-looking game released this year. Reminiscent of the style of mid-1900s Disney animation, the game’s high-resolution, hand-drawn graphics contain some of the most mesmerizing set pieces in a game. Underneath its incredible visuals, “The Banner Saga” is a nostalgic callback to early ’90s adventure and role-playing games, built upon decision trees, turn-based combat and resource management. The result is an experience that can best be described as classic, both in trendsetting but also in trend-following. For such a gorgeous, well-built and well-designed game, “The Banner Saga” is rooted in an old-school approach to game design, for better or for worse.

Set in a Norse-influenced fantasy world, “The Banner Saga’s” thematic elements are part Disney adventure, part “Game of Thrones.” Its world is occupied by humans, horned giants (called varl) and mechanical beings (called dredge), which are in constant conflict.

The game alternates between two different points of view that focus on two characters who attempt to lead their caravans to safety. As in “Game of Thrones,” there’s plenty of death, betrayal and loss within this world, but “The Banner Saga” keeps itself relatively tame by delivering most of the game’s story through text and lightly animated dialogue scenarios. At first, the game’s lack of voice acting makes the world seem sparse, but the game embraces this silence within the theme of sparsity as the subtle musical score helps make up for it.

Developer Stoic is quick to throw you into the world with little knowledge of your surroundings, but the game is so well-paced that you’ll intuitively understand key parts of the world as you play through the game. The overarching plot is strong, but some of the best writing in the game exists in small moments of character dialogue. These moments do more than enough to make your party members characters rather than pawns to use on the battlefield.

Most of the game is played as you manage your caravan while traveling from city to city. Involving resource management and decision-making that can result in life or death for certain characters, “The Banner Saga” is highly reminiscent of “Oregon Trail,” except more scripted. Every decision, including recruiting new members to your caravan, has lasting impacts. Some decisions might pay off, some decisions might not work, and some decisions will bite you in the ass much later on, beyond the point where you can load your last save.

Yet while half the game is based on the “Oregon Trail”-esque style, the other half of “The Banner Saga” is built upon a turn-based strategy role-playing game. Throughout your caravan’s travels, you’ll encounter enemies you will need to battle. Combat involves choosing six of your party members to put into the battlefield and controlling their actions in a turn-based format. As your party members fight more, they’ll level up and become stronger. While battles have the right amount of difficulty and the systems of combat are fair and well-designed, the combat becomes tedious when you’re forced into two or three battles in a row. Battles are fun in small intervals, but combat lacks the complexity to be enjoyed entirely on its own.

“The Banner Saga” isn’t innovative in its design. Taking influence from “Oregon Trail” and grid-based strategy games, the game feels sort of dated. Yet “The Banner Saga” combines all these elements, along with a phenomenal aesthetic, to make a classic experience that’s hard to forget about. Instead of feeling outdated, “The Banner Saga” is comforting nostalgia, a revival of the best ’90s strategy and adventure games under a new coat of paint.

Art Siriwatt covers video games. Contact him at [email protected].