Title: The Banner Saga
Platforms: PS4 (Reviewed)/Xbox One/PC
Every so often, I come across a game that sounds amazing despite the fact that it is part of a genre that I don't particularly care for. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of turn-based strategy games. The methodical planning and amount of time it takes to play these games has always been the biggest hurdle to enjoyment for me. That said, there are definitely a few turn-based strategy games that I love in spite of the genre (XCOM: Enemy Unknown is at the top of this list). I’d heard a lot about The Banner Saga — a game heralded for its great story and beautiful hand-painted world — prior to its release on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, so I once again set aside my distaste for strategy games in order to experience what developer Stoic had to offer fans of the genre. And I’m glad I did, because I couldn't be happier with my decision.
The Banner Saga puts you in the shoes of two different caravan leaders. Part of the game follows the Varl (Vikings), while the majority of your journey will be spent with a ragtag mix of Varl and humans led by a hunter named Rook, and a Varl legend by the name of Iver. Each caravan faces a common threat in the Dredge, an enemy force that has begun to attack humans and Varl alike for unclear reasons. Over the course of the narrative, players will learn about the sudden appearance of the long dormant Dredge as both caravans seek to locate a safe haven during their roller-coaster trek across the land.
As alluded to above, combat in The Banner Saga is on a turn-based grid. This system can seem overwhelming at first, but sticking with it pays dividends as players eventually develop a fairly good understanding of how to handle themselves in battle. Would-be generals can command up to six possible warriors in their party during combat, while enemy numbers can vary by encounter. Each fighter has their own strengths on the battlefield as well. Your team will range from aggro-drawing shield wielders, to archers who hang back and wear down the enemy defenses from afar. Success in combat will come down to not only knowing the attack range for each class of fighter, but having a good idea of where to place them at the beginning of battle. Using your archers — who deal less damage than other classes — as pawns to setup your high damage guys bringing up the rear may not be the best combat strategy (and often isn’t).
Most battles are one round. Once a lone enemy remains, all of the fighters left on your team attack back-to-back to ensure victory. However, not all battles in the game are a single fight. Occasionally, as players make their way through the game’s gorgeous world, a massive amount of Dredge are encountered in what is known as a war scenario. Players have several options during these impasses: charge into battle, wait it out, or retreat. Those who decide to battle will typically find themselves in a normal battle with the option to continue fighting more enemies after winning the first round. These second rounds can yield a nice additional pay-out, but it's not always a good idea. While the extra Renown — the game’s currency for supplies, items, and leveling up your toughest warriors — is a resource worth the additional effort, you have to keep in mind that these extended battles won't revive party members downed in the initial fight. This places a premium on knowing not only who's left in your party, but how worn down they are following the opening bout.
As players engage the Dredge in combat scenarios, party members can be injured in battle, and it may take up to three days until they’re back to 100%. You can bring injured fighters into combat, but they will face a damage penalty. You can stop the caravan for a few days, but it will come at the cost of valuable resources.
Renown plays a big role in The Banner Saga, and learning how to manage it is crucial to success in battle. It’s also used to keep your caravans stocked during their travels across the game world. Towns, which are encountered in-between cities, often have a market for players to buy days’ worth of supplies, while simultaneously giving you the chance to check-in on your squad and see if anyone is able to be promoted. Promotions are earned based on a required number of kills. Promoting party members allots ability points which are used to increase character stats such as armor, strength, and willpower. Again, it is crucial to know what role each character plays on the battlefield, as spending Renown to promote someone just to boost a minor stat, as opposed to buying another 15 days’ worth of food, may not be the best choice. Running out of food will begin to weaken your warriors, shrink your caravan, and drain morale as the pool of survivors dwindles.
The majority of the story plays out as situations that occur while on the road. From minor squabbles amongst drunken clansmen, to bandit attacks that drain supplies, the fates of some warriors are determined after the decisions you make when handling these non-battle scenarios. I was not familiar enough with some of my warriors’ names, so it led to some poor decisions on my part that cost me a valuable fighter. I unknowingly lost a character I didn’t want to lose during one of these non-battle scenarios. When I entered my next combat section, I noticed I was down a fighter and I realized what had happened.
Many of the game’s most memorable characters have their own interactive cutscenes. None of the characters are voiced or heavily animated during these sequences, with the exception of the occasional eyes blinking or hair swaying in the gentle breeze. At first, it bothered me that there wasn't at least some background music playing during these exchanges. However, I soon came to appreciate the background noises that set the tone for the conversations taking place, as key characters discussed strategies and tales about themselves. It is in these moments where players will learn the most about everything happening around them, as well as grow attached to specific characters and their relationships. There are fully voiced cutscenes at key moments throughout the game, but it’s these quiet moments of conversation that will stick with you the most when all is said and done.
I would be remiss if I did not mention how amazing the landscapes are in The Banner Saga. Watching your caravan grow as they make their way across the world is simply beautiful. It’s stunning to see the snow slowly fall as Austin Wintory's superb score sets the tone for the continuing journey ahead. Stopping by key landmarks, referred to as Godstones in the game, sees the soundtrack utilized to its fullest as your caravan gets a chance to rest and learn of the fallen gods that once protected the lands.
As the first game of a hopeful trilogy, The Banner Saga is a well-crafted tale from the talented trio at Stoic. Sporting delightful visuals, a wonderful soundtrack, a compelling tale, and addictive combat, this debut entry in the series sets a strong foundation for any franchise titles that will follow. Decisions made here will carry into the next game, and some of these decisions come with severe consequences. I eagerly await the journey ahead, and I can’t wait to see where Stoic takes our heroes following the events of this incredible first chapter in the series.
The Banner Saga was reviewed using a PlayStation 4 code generously provided by our friends at Versus Evil.
Frankie loves pizza, gaming, and controversial opinions. Follow his gaming adventures on Twitter @Vyprstryke.
- Another fantastic Austin Wintory soundtrack
- Rewarding combat system
- Story beats are handled uniquely and effectively
- The results of some decisions are punishing...
- ...almost TOO punishing in a certain instance
- Not knowing character names can lead to the "accidental" death of a party member
- In-depth combat system could push away those unwilling to give it a chance