Someone in my caravan is stealing food. I have three options: Question my apparently not-so-trustworthy clansmen, institute a rationing policy, or assign extra guards to the provision stores. I choose the first; panic spreads, reducing overall morale to "abysmal." Cue the reload to a checkpoint an hour back. I choose the second; panic spreads, morale is reduced to "super abysmal," and some of my clansman kill each other out of desperation. Reload, third option; nothing happens for awhile--until the thieves murder my guards and steal every ounce of food I have left. By the time I reach the next town, half my caravan is dead from starvation. Oh, and I have no currency left to buy anymore supplies. The Banner Saga is undeniably cruel, but its endless series of brutal scenarios plays perfectly into its wonderful, mature end-of-the-world tale.
Part tactical RPG, part Oregon Trail, and part depression simulator, The Banner Saga offers a rewarding journey drenched in misery. Its fascinating viking-inspired setting is overrun by the Dredge, a race of malicious rock people bent on destroying the world--your town included. With a caravan of survivors under your command, it's your responsibility to lead them to safety. Only, you quickly find out no such thing exists. Every trek is a perilous one, and while no one in your caravan will die of dysentery, you must defend them from brigands, Dredge, and even your own greedy clansmen, all while managing the supplies necessary to keep your followers from starving to death. Which is to say, you're basically screwed. Where many games task you with saving the world, The Banner Saga makes it clear that a handful of heroes can't do much when a million enemies are knocking at their doorstep.
Initially, hopelessness comes in the form of challenging tactical battles. These grid-based fights are similar to those in games like Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem, where you have access to a dozen or so classes, each with various strengths and weaknesses. Enemy AI is frustratingly sharp, as your foes prioritize killing blows and ganging up on a single, powerful unit. Even a single misstep can result in losing a battle, and when you win fights, you'll often do so with only a unit or two left standing. No matter the outcome, your journey continues. The difficulty isn't impossible to overcome, but it does force you to take advantage of every ability and item at your disposal. Thankfully, your soldiers don't die when defeated (otherwise The Banner Saga would be impossible to complete), though they do suffer health and damage penalties until fully rested, making the fact that another battle is inevitably just around the corner all the more devastating. Even when you're winning, it always feels like you've lost.