BADGP Reviews: The Banner Saga
The Banner Saga (Stoic, Versus Evil)
Released: January 13, 2014
January 26, 2014
Review: As Brutal As it is Beautiful
What is The Banner Saga?
The Banner Saga is at its simplest, a hybrid of a strategy RPG and Oregon Trail. Try to picture playing Oregon Trail that is broken up with turn-based strategy gameplay like that found in Fire Emblem, XCOM, or Final Fantasy: Tactics. While marching on the trail, many decisions will be heaped upon the player as to what to do next. These sections are presented in text with options as to what course of action to take.
What is most striking in The Banner Saga is the inspiring hand-drawn artwork and amazing animations. It is like an exceptionally bloody and brutal Disney movie. The game boots to a gorgeous title screen that makes it clear that the game is in a class of its own when it comes to visuals. The game begins with the now typical statement of “Choices matter in this game” thanks to TellTale’s The Walking Dead beginning that trend. With multiple endings and characters that can be recruited or missed, it feels as though the decisions the player makes do indeed affect the turn of events presented in The Banner Saga.
Pedigree might be something to consider when looking at The Banner Saga. Stoic Studios is comprised of ex-Bioware employees who worked on Star Wars: The Old Republic. They also netted the composer of Journey to do the music for the game, Austin Wintory.
The Banner Saga is a tale of family, trust, betrayal, and survival. These themes permeate throughout the narrative and the gameplay. The player is constantly bombarded with decisions about if this group can join the caravan or can “these” types of people be trusted. Many narrative hooks revolve around characters that may or may not join the party. The player controls two different sets of adventures as they travel across the countryside in order to fight and run from the mechanical Dredge. One side is a band of Varl, a race of horned-giants, who have much experience in vanquishing the Dredge; the other centers on a man and his daughter who are humans. Their respective journeys inevitably collide as the game progresses. The game begins slowly and very densely. Like the opening to The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the player is assaulted with meaningless proper noun after meaningless proper noun that does nothing but confuse the player. After two hours, however, the game gets its narrative and gameplay hooks into the player and does not relent until the credits roll.
As the end of the game approached a fear began to run over me: the fear of a cliffhanger. I knew the game was a baby of Kickstarter and that this is part 1 of scheduled trilogy. This premonition proved false as the game ends quite well, and can end in multiple ways. Despite the fluidity of the storytelling, the final fight is rigid in requiring the player to use two specific characters. One of the characters that I had neglected to properly level through the rest of the game was worthless at this point. The absence of a free-battle or place to grind made the final encounter an enormous difficulty spike on what was rather smooth curve up until the end.
The grid-based gameplay is familiar, but has some nice points of distinction. Every unit has Armor and Health. Health equals damage. Attacking it lowers an enemy’s ability to deal more damage, but Armor subtracts from the amount of damage that can be done to Health. It is a good balance that is explored by differing enemy types. The Dredge have loads of Armor, but enemy Varl have a ton of Health and can therefore do damage quickly if allowed to. Turn order is important to remember as well. It might be wise to leave a couple of weakened enemies alive, so that the stronger enemies will not attack as frequently. Add in a well-balanced upgrade system, and some special class related abilities and one has a good idea of the core gameplay present within The Banner Saga.
While moving from city to city and balancing the food supply and the caravan’s morale, the player will be tasked with responding to the many encounters the game possesses. These may range from a simple investigation of a fire, to determining if a group of people may or may not join the caravan, to decisions that result in the death of party members. The Banner Saga pulls no punches, and is not afraid to wreck the player’s best character after a poor decision. Another type of encounter is “War.” A number of Dredge or bandits may be spotted and then the player may try to avoid the fight, go in leading the charge (resulting in a harder battle for the player, but will result in less casualties), or lead from the rear (resulting in an easier fight with more potential casualties). There is also a river crossing section that is clearly a nod to Oregon Trail, where one can ford the river, caulk the wagons, or attempt to find an easier place to pass that could eat up precious time.
One minor critique of the gameplay would be how experience is handled. Characters level up based on the number of kills they accrue on the battlefield. Level one characters are essentially useless until they get two kills. Fire Emblem handles this by awarding experience when any amount of damage is done, but gives much more for the final blow. In The Banner Saga, kills are all that matter. This is in no way a deal breaker, but a small irritation.
The Banner Saga is an excellent and engrossing experience. Every decision is doused in consequence. The gameplay is intense and it ties wonderfully into the game’s narrative providing a cohesive and full gaming experience. The visuals and score accent simple but gripping mechanics, and many of the characters are memorable and well realized. There is startlingly little to complain about in The Banner Saga; a slow start, a questionable experience system, the difficulty spike in the last fight, and a “speed up” option when traveling for additional playthroughs would have been nice. It is hard not to respect a game that took three of my best characters at the conclusion of one dialogue section. The Banner Saga is brutal, beautiful, and most importantly hard to stop when has started it. The depth and care that went into crafting the world of The Banner Saga is evident, and that hard work should be praised. Those looking for a Kickstarter failure will have to continue to look elsewhere.
8.8 out of 10