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Discussion The Patient Gamer: The Banner Saga - The Scandinavian Trail


Diamond Member
Nov 16, 2006
Everyone has played the Oregon Trail at this point, on those old Apple IIe computers. A caravan of hopeful, doe eyed settlers start out from the eastern US to arrive in the west and a new future. As the journey proceeds your settlers are faced with disease, lack of supplies, and a number of other hard choices. Every once in a while your character would have to hunt for food to restock supplies. We all named the settlers after our friends and laughed as Chris/Andrew/Bill etc suffered from dysentery or Cholera or starvation.

The Banner Saga is a three part fantasy Viking/Norse based Oregon Trail (Of which I've only played the first installment). The hunting segments are replaced by a fun but somewhat unintuitive turn based combat system. The plot revolves around gathering people and fleeing an impending invasion of an evil race of armor clad bad guys known as the Dredge. Lastly, the game is a work of three former Bioware devs and it really shows in the best kind of way.

This game is incredibly beautiful. The whole game has this clean animated style (not Anime) that is used throughout, with beautiful vistas while your caravan is traveling to striking character design when you're engaged in dialogue. The game is incredibly relaxing. Everything from the style to the music really reinforces the notion of this epic journey across a continent. Landscapes change, you find little villages and trading posts, massive cities, enemy fortifications etc. The combat is fully turn based and once you get a hang of its slightly different rules, it too becomes very relaxing.

Lastly, while the plot and story are nothing super unique (Ancient Evil awakes and a placid world is not ready to deal with them), they are presented and told extremely well. In Classic Bioware fashion, there are a wide number of choices and consequences for your main character to face: basic stuff that results in an increase or decrease in supplies all the way up to choices that have multiple named characters permanently dying. And the arcs for choices are not always immediately clear: a decision you make in Chapter 3 can have extreme consequences on something that happens out in Chapter 6, several hours of gametime away. I can see how this turns some people off, because the outcomes for making some choices can see arbitrarily punitive or can even kill of a character you had leveled up and were relying on for the turn based combat. Personally, I really loved it and it made it easier for me to actually role play my character (a good guy with a big heart and an independent streak) rather than incessantly worry about "making the right choice" as well as making the world seem more alive and actually reactive to your decisions.

A major gripe for a lot of people seems to be the turn based combat. Its an admittedly weird system: There is no initiative or "rounds", each side simply alternates characters when taking turns. As a consequence, the team with fewer units fielded actually cycles through their roster quicker. Not a huge issue until its combined with the health/damage mechanic, where a unit's health is strangely (or not) also that units strength, or ability to damage other units. As units take more damage, they also conversely do less damage. A consequence of this is that it becomes strategically necessary in battles to badly wound or cripple as many enemy units as possible before you actually start eliminating them (which is a complete inversion of the standard strategy most people would logically employ which is to focus fire on a single unit to eliminate it from play before moving on to the next). Otherwise, you're simply allowing the enemies full strength units to get more turns in and do more damage or injure your characters instead of letting the enemy waste turns on characters with 1 or 2 strength.

I personally enjoyed the combat as soon as I started to understand the game's rules. Its not intuitive, but it does still allow for a lot of fun tactics and strategy to be had regardless of its "realism". Combined with each unit or class having a primary activated ability and a secondary passive ability, there were multiple paths to victory as well as defeat if you do not leverage the game rules to your favor. My biggest gripes with the combat were largely that the the enemy variety was severely lacking for much of the game (you spend a lot of time only fighting the Dredge, which have maybe 2 to 3 different kinds of units) and that all battles were two sided only, with no additional complexity by including a third or fourth group all competing against each other on the field.

All said and done, I really enjoyed my time with the first Banner Saga and will definitely pick and and return to the world for the story's continuation with BS2 & 3. My understanding is another Bioware staple, carrying choices forward into the story by importing saves, are definitely a thing with the game. However, I also understand that BS 2 & 3 are not true sequels in that there are no actual changes to gameplay/graphics/mechanics but really represent once continuous story that was chopped into three parts due to the game's indie status and funding sources.

If you guys don't want to do the run and gun shooty shooty insanity to wind down after a long day and just want to sink into your couch/chair and just chill (and sometimes get hit in the feels), you could do a lot worse than The Banner Saga.
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