The Banner Saga Review

[As Read on GIO.]

The Banner Saga is many things- one of them being a ‘good game.’ It is also a role-playing game, a game of tactics, and a turn-based strategy game. It is by far one of the most polished Kickstarter titles I’ve played to date, and goes a long way towards being the best as well. It has the awesome graphics of the animated ‘Hobbit’ and ‘Black Cauldron’ movies, as well as an amazing and chilling melodic accompaniment. Throughout The Banner Saga, you will be forced with making tough decisions and difficult sacrifices in order to ensure the survival of your viking group, scour the surrounding lands for supplies, and battle tough foes. In typical Game of Thrones fashion, your world is quite unforgiving, your enemies numerous, and morale often low- it is quite an adventure to undertake, and one few will return from unscathed or even return from at all.

As your characters level up, it is essential that you try to keep your overall stats as balanced as tactically possible, and that you have specialists in certain areas without being overly dependent on that one character for a particular task or ability. As with any tactics-based title, managing your resources is incredibly crucial as well, and always a sticking point in most games though not so here. In and out of combat, you will be tasked with managing different resources- from armor and special abilities to more potent strikes and cunning tactical abilities. You have many different types of heroes at your disposal, from specialists in long and close range scenarios to large allies that take up multiple floor tiles. Each unit has the potential to spell defeat for the enemy, as do the enemy units for you- one simple archer can turn the tide of a battle if used tactically.

Although I suppose it shouldn’t be that surprising, considering much of the talent at Stoic Games is made up of former BioWare developers and staff, the tactical combat in The Banner Saga is not only tactically and refreshingly difficult, but it brings a great many welcome twists to the classic role-playing and turn-based formula as well. Then again, as I said- what should I have expected from such a talented group of men and women? After all, some of them have brought us multiple Mass Effect games, the Knights of the Old Republic series, and Jade Empire… In most combat related encounters, brute force is out of the question- in fact, even the so-called ‘tutorial’ stages of the game are easily lost if you rely on brute force to save the day. There are countless decisions to be made in each unique combat encounter, opportunities to be taken advantage of one way or another, and for these main reasons The Banner Saga is an excellent tactics simulator i the flames of war as well.

The heaviest irony of all comes from the fact that sometimes it may actually be more beneficial to spare an enemy and leave your opponent with only a weakened soldier in position to attack, instead of killing them and leaving yourself open to a fresher attack from a more rested up foe. Add in the matters of proper positioning and careful approximation of countless stats and numbers, and you’ve got an excellent yet still not overly complicated tactics system in place. I say not overly complicated, and I mean that- complicated as it is to actually master that system and The Banner Saga itself.

Back to the topic of leveling your characters up, as with any part of this game, simply leveling up your characters is risky business as well- as the permadeath instilled from a early point in the game forces you to live (or die) with every decision you make. There are several potentially game-changing decisions and a smattering of more minor decisions with less impact as well. As with games such as Dark Souls, where there is a high level of leveling risk involved and of tactical gameplay as well (despite there being no permadeath to speak of), it really does suck to lose your highly leveled character after a series of mishaps leave him open to attack from the next roving band of enemies you come across.

Thankfully, because your in-game currency can be spent on character upgrades or purchasing items for your party of characters, you can avoid wasting all your time leveling up characters who will inevitably bite the dust later on, and simply reinforce your core team while still outfitting the others to improve their chances marginally. The largest statement throughout the game that should easily stand out to any who have played it or plan to play it is definitely the recurring theme of “decisions count.” This isn’t a game such as Telltale’s The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us where we haven’t yet seen how everything plays out. No, these day to day decisions truly dictate whether you live or die right here and now.

As much as the tactical combat is a large part of the gameplay, most of your time is going to be spent pondering over role-playing queries and options as you travel through the wilderness from settlement to sparsely populated settlement. Occasionally, the game will stop abruptly and prompt you to make a specific decision before you progress- these halts act as breaks in the action and allow you to rest your mind to some extent, while often challenging it in other scenarios. These options range from pillaging a nearby settlement in order to gather much needed supplies to resting in a weird area for the night, and these generally moral or sensory decisions really shape the game’s grim premise and storyline. Some choices even count so much towards the story that they have the ability to permanently remove characters from your party- through either death or other means, or to threaten your overall security and well being.

If these abrupt stops aren’t your thing, or you’d rather not deal with the heavily oriented role-playing aspect of these dialogue heavy scenes, rest easy (or less easily) in the fact that selected certain options that sound like bad ideas almost always results in immediate conflict or death, so the action will be back sooner than you expect. During most of your journey, you’ll often be harassed and assaulted by randomly generated enemy encounters, providing you with plenty of time to advance the plot further and to collect more supplies and cash. You can choose to bow out of certain battles deemed “less important,” however this is almost always detrimental to your characters and hard to come back from later when your team is low on supplies and forced into a fight they cannot win. Remember: Grim.

Another grim and more surprisingly realistic factor that The Banner Saga adds into combat and random encounters is procedural damage to your stamina and health over multiple encounters and time. Characters that are seriously injured during one encounter may need to rest for several others before they are back to fighting strength, and if they aren’t well enough rested before entering back into the fray, the consequences may be dire indeed- namely, death. Bear in mind that resting also costs supplies you may not be able to spare, and adds yet one more tactical element to the already heavy burden to shoulder.

Some interesting factors to also keep in mind, generally regarding The Banner Saga’s overall gameplay and story (which I’ve not yet managed to spoil, thankfully) are that your current game can be so screwed up that you are essentially forced to restart, and that there is a way to change the difficulty if you need to tone things down a bit. However, keep in mind that the game is never truly “easy” unless you’re a tactical god of some sort, in which case- feel free to put it to absolute shame by pwning your enemies so hard. As for the game-ending failure, you could potentially lose all but one or two characters and be virtually stuck in the game, impossibly able to continue on. That would be a true shame, especially if you were close to the end, so stock up and do well!

As for the game itself, a single playthrough of the story and some, all, or none of the side content and optional battles could take anywhere from about seven to twelve hours, depending on what kind of player you are, how well you can approach tactical gameplay, and how much you do or don’t suck. I have only noticed a few actual issues with the game, and polish is certainly not one of them- as on the whole, aside from one bug with some angles and odd camera jumping, I never encountered any coding issues with the game on a ten hour runthrough.

My only personal issue with the game, and something I’ve been hearing from a  lot of others as well, is that there isn’t really any unit variety for enemies or allies. Now, of course, given that there are about seven to ten unit types to begin with (or so), this isn’t too much of an issue, but I must nitpick in my review, so there you go. It didn’t affect my feelings towards the game, and was actually more of an afterthought and realization than anything else… It’s mostly the different special abilities that set each unit type apart anyways, rather than their cosmetic makeup.

Concept: An enriching, tactics heavy turn-based role-playing game through a grim world, with interesting characters, battles, and a pretty bleak story as well. Also, vikings.

Graphics: Makes me think either of the old Legend of Zelda cartoon or the animated movies such as The Hobbit and The Black Cauldron, in terms of the visual presentation. Whatever it is, it works.

Sound: The voice work, haunting sounds of battle and melodies, and clash of weapons and twang of arrows all work well, sound great, and seem pretty realistic for the setting.

Playability: You might not always get used to the unforgiving difficulty and the necessity of balancing so many tactical readings, but the controls and unit response work like charms and together resemble a well-oiled mechanic. Oh, and there isn’t really a tutorial, so get ready to bring the pain or feel it.

Entertainment: This is definitely a shining example of what a Kickstarted final product should resemble, as it’s been pretty well-received, is pretty good in my mind, and is a fairly decent length for an experience as rich as this as well. It’s no forty hour role-playing game by any stretch, but the replayability and grim outlook on decision making will have you wanting to replay it, or cowering in fear.

Replay Value: High.

Overall Score: 8.0

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