GAME NAME: The Banner Saga
PUBLISHER(S): Versus Evil
PLATFORM(S): Xbox One (Reviewed), PS4, Vita, PC, iOS, Android, Linux
GENRE(S): Tactical role-playing
RELEASE DATE(S): January 12, 2016
When The Banner Saga Kickstarter was started and fully funded in 2012, the art style immediately stood out with it’s beautiful Nordic Rankin and Bass inspired visuals. It looked like the love child of The Last Unicorn and Tactics Ogre. The world based on Viking myths and the dire straits the story finds you in are a welcome respite from the majority of games out there right now. The decisions you make will have real consequences and the leadership you show your people has to come right from your gut and your logic. It’s a lot of fun and the 10+ hour campaign does a fine job mixing grid based tactics gameplay, with Oregon Trail type management and the impending doom of your caravan across a landscape doused in winter. Hopefully your crew doesn’t die of dysentery.
Humans and the Varl, giant humanoids with horns coming out of their heads, must work together in a bleak struggle against The Dredge as well as the elements. The Dredge, hulking all in black juggernauts, don’t provide as much of an intriguing antagonist I was hoping for but the inner workings of your team and the leadership second guessing you’ll do was enough to propel me forward in the story. The characters themselves and the politics that are there, but thankfully not heavy handed, bring a lot to the table thematically.
You are not able to save whenever you want. That may sound like something out of the NES era, but the game autosaves frequently and is done to make your decisions carry weight. I cannot stress enough how well this system works in the advantage of the game. You as the player cannot repeatedly make decisions to see what works in your favor. It’s tough but fair and a welcome challenge that gives a real weight and gravity to your surroundings. One decision could lose your supplies, lives, and leave you feeling like a failure to your horde.
If you’ve played games like Disgaea, Final Fantasy Tactics, or Tactics Ogre you’re going to feel right at home in the grid based system the battles take place on. Banner Saga does a decent job giving you tips and a tutorial but could have been explained a little bit better in game. Thankfully they included a training mode when you’re in camp that allow you to test strategies without permanently damaging your party. I highly suggest trying this mode out once you’re able to. It helped me greatly in understanding the capabilities of different class types in a safer environment.
Each party member has a armor rating and a health rating. Damaging armor before you can damage the health of an enemy is sometimes required but the strategies involved vary from battle to battle. Your enemies may look like muscle bound meatheads but they are tactically intelligent and if they have the chance to take out one of your team members they take it. You will have access to 25 playable characters across 7 classes and 2 races and each one has their one individual special abilities. The classes vary from your standard quick but low health archers, and slower damage dealing “shieldbangers”.
Artistically and musically The Banner Saga stands as tall as the Varl. Grammy nominated Austin Wintory created the original soundtrack, which isn’t at the level of his work on Journey, is still a stirring and sweeping score. Graphically and the animation of the game is a bright and vibrant cast of characters juxtaposed with the landscape ravaged by a seemingly never ending winter. Attacks by your characters are well animated with momentum behind their movements. The interaction behind characters are not voiced and placed in front of brilliant illustrations that look like they came out of a Viking myth.
While the end of The Banner Saga comes out of nowhere, it is still satisfying, and the knowledge that Stoic is already working on the next chapter helped me keep my spirits up. After waiting for over a year to play this game on consoles it was well worth the jealousy of PC gamers getting their hands on it before us lowly console peasants. You’ll find some performance issues with navigating in and out of menus and wading through load screens, but overall it runs really well. If you enjoy a tactically solid battle system mixed with a Game of Thrones type story set in a fantasy realm rife with heart breaking choices I highly recommend The Banner Saga.