Review: The Banner Saga (PC)

The Banner Saga
Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Versus Evil
Genre: Strategy RPG
Release Date: 01/14/2014

The Banner Saga can be considered one of the biggest Kickstarter success stories. The Kickstarter for this game raised more than seven times the initial goal with its promises of a grand epic featuring Vikings where choices you make significantly affect the story and classic tactical battles, all rendered in beautiful hand drawn animation. A free-to-play multiplayer component, The Banner Saga Factions, was released first to whet people’s appetites while the full story driven single player game was finished. Let’s see if it lives up to the promises laid out on the Kickstarter.

The story starts long after the conclusion of the Second Great War in which the humans and a race of horned giants known as the Varl worked together to vanquish a race of armored beings known as the Dredge. However, the Dredge have returned, and a Third Great War seems imminent. To make matters worse, the gods are dead and the sun has stopped moving, leaving the sky forever grey and overcast. Survival and finding ways to make it to the next day or town are the main focus rather than trying to save the world. There’s immersive world building, with lore for every place on world map. However, when you visit the towns in the game, you don’t usually see much of what was described on the map. In a way it’s understandable given the dire circumstances and the functions of towns in gameplay, but it would’ve been nice to see more done with the lore established on the map rather than every town being just markets and inns with a different appearance. It can be a bit difficult to keep track of all the characters initially, especially with the perspective switches between Hakon and his Varl caravan and Rook and his human one, but it gets easier as you get further into the game and see more of them. However, it’s possible to lose some of them depending on certain choices you make, which puts more weight on said choices. Since this is meant to be part of a trilogy, there are some loose ends for the sequels to potentially tie up. It’ll be interesting to see how choices made in this game will affect the games after this one, especially since former Bioware employees are working on these games. The main overarching story seems to mostly play out the same regardless of your choices, but it’s possible they’ll have more of an impact in later games, and the possibility of losing characters still means you have to think carefully before making your choices.

The overall presentation of the game, both visually and aurally, are rather well done. The characters and environments are depicted with detailed crisp lineart. The art also conveys the dreary circumstances and devastation caused by the Dredge and in which the humans and Varl trying to survive rather well. Characters portraits are unique and distinct and have little animations like hair blowing in the wind. I do wish there were more fully animated cutscenes because the few that were there looked really good and were fluidly animated. Most of the story cutscenes are only partially animated and voiced, and voice acting is rather sparse outside of battle cries and narrations at the beginning of each chapter. The soundtrack was done by Austin Wintory, who also composed the music in Journey. The orchestral feel complements the epic feel the game is trying to establish. It ranges from horns and drums to strings and Icelandic chants, all accompanied by winds. Slower and lower pitch tracks accompany somber scenes, while faster paced tracks herald a (hopefully triumphant) charge into battle and present themselves when the tides of battles turn in your favor.

The gameplay resembles a mix of games like Final Fantasy Tactics, Tactics Ogre and Fire Emblem and Oregon Trail. Like the aforementioned three games, this game features grid based movement and turn based battles. Unlike some of the games falling into those series, classes, weapons, and abilities are set. The closest to customizing your characters that you get is that you can allocate points to stats. I generally prioritized maxing armor break first, then strength, then armor with whatever was left. Armor reduces the amount of damage taken, while armor break indicates how much damage the unit inflicts on armor. Health and strength are both tied into same stat (called strength), so less health means less damage dealt by that unit. Strength and armor can be targeted separately, and once armor is depleted all attacks deplete strength. Willpower is another important stat, since it fuels special abilities and allows you to move farther and deal more damage. Exertion determines how much willpower you can put into an action. However, willpower doesn’t replenish unless you choose to rest a unit (skipping their turn).

You can use up to six characters in battle. Player and enemy units alternate turns until there’s only one unit left on a side, which triggers pillage mode and it essentially becomes a free-for-all. The way turn order works in this game has its advantages and disadvantages. On one hand, the order your units and enemy units take their turns is predictable, making it easier to plan strategies out ahead of time. On the other, it means that it’s usually more advantageous to leave some enemy units at low strength so they take turns from healthier enemies, which can run counter to your first instincts to kill enemies every chance you get and as soon as possible. You do also have to pay attention to armor and try to chip away at it so your attacks will do more damage and are less likely to miss or be deflected. You can decide turn order and reposition units at the beginning of battles. Only units that get the killing blow gets a unit closer to promotion, which makes it more difficult for those who are better at breaking armor to get enough kills to be promoted. The battle system is a bit simpler in some respects, but there’s enough factors you need to keep in mind during battles that battles are generally enjoyable. However, there’s a lack of variety in terrain and height and in recurring enemy types, which makes battles a bit monotonous if you’re going through a bunch in a row in one sitting.

Outside of battle, you mostly watch your caravan travel across the lands to the next destination. There’s a lot of resource management involved. Reown is used to buy supplies for your caravan, items for your units, and to promote your units to the next level. You only get a limited amount of it, so you have to decide carefully on where to spend it. The morale of your caravan affects willpower available during battle – at worst you can have -2 willpower at the start of battle, at best +2 willpower. However, you can gain willpower by killing enemies. You can also garner supplies during random events depending on choices you make, like taking supplies in exchange for looking the other way upon encountering a tense conflict between two parties. If you have fighters and Varl in your caravan, you can also choose to try to have them take on enemies you encounter in the overworld, which can help thin out the amount of enemies you’ll have to face down yourself, but you run the risk of casualties in your caravan. You can also choose to engage directly from the onset, which will lessen the casualties in your caravan, but also means a tougher battle for you. If your units are defeated in battle, they require rest to recover from injuries (injuries lower their strength), but resting requires supplies for each day of rest. It’s possible to lose characters through some events, meaning the renown and any item you put on them go away along with them. There’s a lot of weighing risk versus reward and balancing the two involved.

The overarching plot remains the same throughout playthroughs, but decisions you make along the way can impact how certain events play out (to an extent), your caravan’s morale and supplies, and which characters remain with you. The game autosaves and there’s no manual saving, which limits reloading a prior save if you don’t like the consequences of your decisions unless you don’t mind playing through the same parts again and again. Admittedly, I initially tried to do that anyway to see the outcome of different decisions, but I eventually decided to just stick with what I pick no matter what unfolds as a result, not only because playing through the same segments over and over to get back to where I was got boring, but I figured I could always replay later if I wanted to see other outcomes (and also to set up a save the way I want depending on how choices made in this game will impact the sequels) and to pick up any achievements I missed. If choices you make in this game play huge role in the sequels, then being able to have separate save slots would’ve been a boon, even if I can see what they were aiming for with the save system as it is (namely, making your choices really have consequences that can’t be easily erased).

While there are decisions that can affect some events, some parts of the game’s flow is linear. Despite being able to see a lot of places on the map, you have no control over where you travel. While I can see the reasoning behind that, it still would’ve been nice to be able to do more with the map than just look at places and read a description of each. For most battles you can still proceed even if you lose, albeit with less renown and possibly supplies depending on context. There’s no permadeath outside of story deaths, which sort of balances out the lack of manual saving since it’d be harder to reload if you lost a unit in battle like you might in, say, Fire Emblem or X-COM (I certainly have the habit of wanting to preserve all my units if possible). You can adjust the difficulty at any time, so if you’re having trouble somewhere, you can turn it down to get through it. Conversely, if you’re looking for more of a challenge, you can have that too. On easy mode, units do not require rest to recover from injuries and battles are easier. On hard mode, they require more rest to recover from injuries and enemies are stronger.

In the final battles, three out of your six slots are taken by three required characters. While I can see the storyline purposes behind it, it also limits the amount of other characters you may have built up that you can use. If you haven’t been using and promoting the three required characters much, you’ll probably have a harder time with that battle, though some stronger units (and possibly lowering the difficulty if it’s bad enough) might see you through. I tried to focus on characters that seemed more like main characters and thus less likely to bite the dust, as well as some other units I felt were useful so that I wouldn’t be completely in the lurch if someone died (and possibly veered a bit too much towards even distribution), and I managed to get through the game despite not having any maxed units. It would also be nice if there was a way to forage or hunt for food as another way to keep up supplies (Oregon Trail had hunting, after all, and the Dredge were shown hunting for food as well), and it would fit in with the whole theme of surviving with whatever you could scrap together. Battles and trying to properly manage your resources can get difficult at times, but are mostly manageable, though you do need to make sure you have at least a couple of higher leveled units. It would’ve been convenient if there was a way for all units participating in battles to get something towards promotion, though towards the end of the game, the main limiting factor in promoting units is renown rather than number of kills.

It’s apparent that a lot went into story-gameplay integration and making the gameplay elements mesh with the plot. The mix between managing a caravan and tactical battles was an interesting one, and it mostly worked. There were occasional typos like “A lines of shieldbangers we might be able to force their way over the narrow pass…”, but the writing was generally rather solid and did well in world building and establishing characters. However, $24.99 might seem like a lot for some people for a game that takes about 12 hours (give or take) or so to complete. If you’re on the fence, you could see the battle system in action in the free multiplayer component, The Banner Saga: Factions, though there’s no story in that. I really enjoyed my time with The Banner Saga and felt it was worth experiencing (though it probably helps that I’m a huge fan of SRPGs in general). Even when battles started to feel like a drag or the dreary atmosphere started to weigh on me (which speaks to how well the game established that tone), I still wanted to get back to the game to see how everything played out (and I did actually enjoy the battle system). I look forward to the next installments and seeing where the story goes from here.

Short Attention Span Summary:
The first thing that would probably catch most people’s attention first about The Banner Saga is the presentation, for good reason. The art style is a joy to look at, and the music really amplifies the atmosphere. Underneath it is a enjoyable game that combines elements from SRPGs like Fire Emblem with aspects of Oregon Trail and a good dose of resource management.The battle system looks simple on the surface, but it does have its own depth and tactical considerations that need to be taken into account during battles. The writing does a good job in building up the world, and while the plot starts off as a slow burn, it shows enough to compel you to keep going to see what would happen next. The game is rather linear, though, as you have no control over where you travel despite being able to view a large map, and decisions don’t have as significant an effect on the overall flow of the plot as they could. The dollar to hours ratio also might not be much of a draw for everyone. Overall, it does some interesting things with the things it derives from the genres it did, and hopefully the next installments continue to build on the foundation this game established.



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One response to “Review: The Banner Saga (PC)”

  1. […] reviewed The Banner Saga last year, and I enjoyed it enough to put it on my list of top 10 games of 2014. You play as two […]

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