Review: The Banner Saga
The Banner Saga is one of the latest in an ever-growing list of critically acclaimed games to be belatedly released on the PlayStation Network. While I had certainly heard of the game before now, I didn’t get around to playing it until it presented itself as a review opportunity. Though this is Stoic studios’ first offering, the former-BioWare trio are no newcomers to games; specifically to games of this genre. In a nutshell, The Banner Saga is a Norse Oregon Trail with a strategy RPG combat system. The gods are dead, the sun has vanished, and the humans and Varl are maintaining a tenuous alliance in order to stave off the Dredge, the persistent enemy. After sinking about a dozen hours into the game, I’d say the two year wait was worth it, for sure, with a few caveats here and there.
Immediately noticeable is the art style, which is distinctive, colorful, and altogether excellent. The several conversation or travelling scenes are made much more digestible by the prettiness of the package as a whole. While at first some of the character models – particularly the giant Varl ones – look confusingly similar, they do become individualized as the characters become more fleshed out. The resemblances may be a commentary on soldiers of war, but it made the game a bit more difficult to follow at first. To boot, most of the different Varl character classes have names that are variants on shield, war, and master. In battle, I’d have to check each Varl’s ability every single time I used him. Luckily, battles don’t typically stretch for more than 15-20 minutes, a personal sweet spot in this particular genre.
Combat takes place on a square grid. Each human character takes up one square while each Varl occupies four. There are corresponding enemies that take up equal spots on the map. Each character has armor, strength, and willpower. Armor blocks strength attacks, strength doubles as health, and willpower can be used to boost basic attacks or cast special techniques. When attacking an enemy, the simple math you have to do is your strength – enemy’s armor = total damage. The balance beam tips back and forth, though, as you must juggle the decision to whittle down armor or weaken an enemy’s attack and health. The depth of strategy surprised me in such a simple system. I often found that if my attention was drifting from the game, I would lose units or the entire battle. What’s nice is that in most cases, losing a battle isn’t the game over state that it is in most tactics games. This grants a more realistic lingering sting to defeat and doesn’t stop the flow of the game. Winning a battle or completing good deeds gives you Renown, which is the exp-like currency used to promote your units. In some battles, you’re given a decision to stick around and kill more dredge or leave the battlefield. I loved this mechanic. The first time I decided to stick around, only one dredge soldier popped up; an easy obstacle to farm more Renown. In the second battle that I decided to kill more dredge, five of them popped up, about as much as the initial battle. With a couple of my units already injured or downed, that stomach-dropping feeling hit pretty hard. The only drawback I found in the combat sections is that the UI is a bit clunky. In more than a few situations, I found myself frustrated trying to accomplish a simple act.
If you want to get the most out of The Banner Saga, know that this is a game with a lot of required reading. Only a small portion of this game is (very well) voice acted. I wasn’t 100% aware of that when I first booted up the game, and I wound up falling asleep on a couple of different occasions. An hour or so in, the story ramps up and gets its hooks in you, but the beginning was a bit slow-going for my taste. What interests me most about the choose-your-own adventure story is how I treat the characters in and out of battle. I can recall one part during a travelling section where one of my troops was holding a cart about to fall off a steep cliff. I had the choice of telling him to let go or trying to save the supplies. It was pretty obvious that telling him to let go would save him, but I didn’t really care about his special ability in combat so I treated the choice with abandon. In trying to save the supplies, of course, I lost one of my warriors. No big loss gameplay-wise, but I did feel a little bad about it. On that note, I remember reading people’s dramatic reactions to losing characters in this game. I can’t say I cared nearly as deeply. There were maybe two instances where I felt some remorse for a decision I had made or for the loss of a character, but by the end of the game I was more eager to finish than solemnly reminiscent.
Perhaps that’s due in part to some weird interplay between story and gameplay that breaks the immersion. As I alluded to earlier, decisions pop up during the travelling sections. You usually have three to five different choices to deal with a given situation, and the outcome is typically either a gain in Renown or a loss of supplies/clansmen. At one point in my journey, I decided to camp and rest for 2 days. As soon as I got back on the road, “Your warriors demand a break” popped up, making me feel like a random selection was pulled from a vat of programming code. At another point, my characters were injured and needed two to three days to mend. After a cutscene in which a character says it has been two days, my units still need the same amount of time to heal. There are some minor grammatical errors that should have been ironed out in a game that has had two years to be ported to a new platform. That’s not usually a hang up for me, but in a game with so much reading, I noticed it enough to be slightly put off.
Overall, The Banner Saga is a welcome addition to the burgeoning PlayStation Network library. A game with such style and strategic depth would have been enough, but the story (and the decision-based gameplay that accompanies it) helps raise this title to the top of the crop. If you haven’t played it, now would be a good time to check it out. Otherwise, you may be able to wait until the sequel.
A copy of this game was provided for review purposes. For more info on our review policy click here.
What I Like:
- Unique art style
- Norse mythology-based story
- Simple, strategic combat
What I Dislike:
- Some story/gameplay clashes
- Pre-shot reverse shot camera pan