The problem with most tactical RPGs on the market is that they’re essentially solvable, as once you’ve done the math and the grinding (see Disgaea), there’s little risk. Not so with The Banner Saga, which upends these traditional mechanics by, ironically, returning to the basics of The Oregon Trail: Your heroes will never fall in battle, but they may fall off a cliff or get stabbed in the back as your Viking caravan travels through the harsh environs of a godless land in which the sun has stopped and the monstrous Dredge walk the Earth. The march is inexorable, but the game is the opposite of execrable, unless you hate the difficult decisions of games like The Walking Dead and can’t stand the unfairness of the permadeath found in, say, XCOM. (For what it’s worth, The Banner Saga is not a roguelike filled with random events; by your third playthrough, you can begin to optimize your choices, though the connections between events aren’t always obvious.)
As befits a game funded through Kickstarter, The Banner Saga doubles down on risk/reward mechanics throughout its rather lengthy journey. Before a battle even begins, you’re tasked with choosing not only the number of characters to bring into battle (the more you have, the farther apart their turns), but the right balance of character types. The large Varl can both soak up and deal out damage, but they’re far from mobile and, because they take up four squares on the tactical grid, often end up blocking one another. Humans are faster and filled with long-ranged skills, but are also exceedingly frail.
Once in the thick of combat, you’ll constantly have to determine whether it’s more important to whittle away a foe’s armor, thereby making it easier to attack their strength in subsequent turns, or if it’s crucial to immediately reduce their strength, thereby permanently weakening them. Moreover, as characters can only be promoted (leveled up) after getting a set number of kills, it’s important to plan several moves in advance to ensure that your weak heroes get the opportunity to sneak in that valuable experience. This is especially true since so many abilities are based on a character’s proximity both to allies and enemies; an archer, for example, deals bonus damage to foes that have taken armor damage…but only if the archer doesn’t move.
In truth, however, the most important decisions are made out of combat. Renown, earned in battle and through successful story events, is shared between all characters and is a limited resource: It’s the currency that promotes eligible characters to the next level, but it’s also used to barter for food (lest your caravan starve) and valuable equipment. Spend these points wisely, for nothing burns like watching your most experienced character abruptly get stabbed in the back, or seeing all of your expensive food spoil. (As with classic Adventure games, mistakes you make early on may prevent you from beating the game, hours later.)
All of these risks pay off, as The Banner Saga is as rewarding as it is punishing. Chaining together a combination of attacks in battle is exhilarating—pushing an enemy into a strength-reducing trap, just in time for the rest of your party to surround and kill it in a single action. Keeping your characters alive is useful not only for their prowess in battle, but for the deep and oddly humorous conversations you might have with Yrsa, a self-proclaimed witch who likes to loudly boast about how she doesn’t talk, or Oddleif, who proves that she’s a so-called “strong woman” by knowing when to step back from power. (Things don’t get as deep as in Mass Effect or The Witcher, but it’s in a similar vein.) The intimidatingly vast World Map is filled with the sort of additional history and lore you’d expect to find in A Game of Thrones; even the battlefields are dotted with the scars of battles past, as corpses stick halfway out of the ever-falling snows.
The Banner Saga is a lovingly detailed, deeply challenging, brilliant game, marred only by a few minor technical complaints—like the lack of an undo button, should you miscalculate your attack range after moving, or the inability to check stats before a battle begins. For all the compromises you’re forced to make within it, the game itself never compromises on the quality of its writing, art, and tactical combat.