The Banner Saga Review
Initially released on PC in 2015 after a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Banner Saga has now made its way to the Xbox One and Playstation 4. After being relatively well received on the PC, how does the game stack up in its new console-based environment, and more importantly should you be excited for the impending sequel? Let’s find out.
The Banner Saga runs a pretty strong Viking theme with its core narrative taking cues from elements of Norse mythology, creating unique and interesting core storyline. The story itself follows the exploits of several groups of Humans and Varl (giants) as they work their way to and fro across a large continent trying to escape and mitigate the impact of an invasion of a rampant army of a long forgotten enemy – the Dredge. Despite its cartoony visuals, the game’s content is remarkably bleak with lots of death, gritty themes and a substantial sense of foreboding running throughout.
The Banner Saga is a turn-based Strategy RPG that can draw favourable comparisons to Final Fantasy Tactics, Fire Emblem or X-COM: Enemy Unknown. The game’s narrative is text heavy and relies primarily on character interaction and decision making which is broken up on occasion by combat scenarios in which you control a group of soldiers in a Chess-style turn-based combat system. Whilst the game itself is not particularly long, its decision making ensures that there is plenty of optional routes and changes to the narrative to make multiple playthroughs appealing.
The combat is the main draw to the title and it can be difficult to get a grasp of at fist due to character movement restrictions, the range of friendly/enemy classes and special abilities on offer. With the checkerboard fields of battle, the game feels very much like a more complex version of Chess. For the combat scenarios, players are granted an array of Varl and Human characters and successful utilisation of their specific stats and skill sets will determine how best to use them. Each piece on the board has its own armour and strength (health) rating which can determine how successful they will be upon attacking and how much damage they can take when encountering enemy units.
The character classes are very important and spending some time in the game’s training tents to understand and experiment with them is key to success in combat. Varls take up four spaces on the battlefield as opposed to one that Humans require and for the most part are heavily armoured, making them great blockers/tanks. Ranged classes are often weak and will fall quickly if targeted directly by opponents, but can attack from range. On the other hand, melee/shield-based classes can only attack from short range and can deal high damage and have additional armour/health and are able to soak up additional damage as a result.
Class-specific special abilities also come to the fore, with some able to attack multiple units at once, force back enemies or leave damaging elements on the field to create obstacles for opponents. In addition to the classes, positioning of units is incredibly important. Prioritising moving the weaker classes away from enemy units or using your heavier units as blockers to prevent enemies from reaching your archers and tank damage is a good way to get started, but only after mastering the utilisation of the relative size of various units, exploiting special abilities to create obstacles/traps and knowing when and where to attack will the system truly click… And when it does click, it is a hell of a lot of fun and an incredibly rewarding system.
After battles or particularly tough narrative decisions, players will be rewarded with Renown. This acts as a form of currency in the game which can be spent to level up characters once they have reached a certain number of kills, purchase supplies for the army’s march and purchase items which can be equipped by combat units for passive bonuses.
Whilst outside of combat, it’s not all smooth sailing as players will need to manage their army’s morale whilst also ensuring that they have enough supplies to stay alive during the long marches between rest stops. During said marches it is also not uncommon to be presented with numerous random encounters that require decisions which can further impact on numbers of soldiers, supplies and morale. These random encounters range from in-army squabbles that you’ll need to moderate, to bandits on the road, disease outbreaks and many, many other happenings. These random events are an interesting touch and one that makes juggling your army’s effectiveness a little more difficult, whilst also providing a small diversion to the main narrative that will often differ between playthroughs.
In terms of presentation, The Banner Saga is truly excellent. It has a fantastic visual style, with some hand-drawn environments and character portraits really nailing the Viking theme that the game has aimed for. The audio is likewise excellent with the background music doing an excellent job of matching the graphics and the occasional narrated scenes are quite well done. Together, with the story the game has not only nailed the Viking aesthetic, but has also created an atmosphere that feels incredibly bleak and gloomy despite the vibrant colours on-screen.
There are a few issues with The Banner Saga that hold it back from reaching its true potential. The biggest issue I had was with the turn-based combat always alternating between sides, no matter how many units each army has left. Once one side starts getting low on units, the last few on the board can move much more freely and cause significantly more damage as they are constantly being given additional turns. It’s also obvious, that being a Kickstarter funded game that the budget has not allowed for voice acting or cut-scenes, instead forcing every bit of dialogue and narrative as text onto the screen to read, it’s not necessarily a bad thing per se but for the impatient gamers out there, it might be difficult to stomach.
The Banner Saga is a great, budget Strategy RPG that lacks the depth of Fire Emblem or Final Fantasy Tactics, but provides a unique experience with enough decisions, outcomes, permutations and random events to ensure that no two players receive the same narrative experience. Its strategy RPG combat system presents a solid and rewarding challenge that becomes more enjoyable over time and the game’s visuals, music and story are dripping with an excellent atmospheric style. I highly recommend it for fans of Vikings and Strategy RPGs alike!
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