The Banner Saga Review – Tattered Banners and Bloody Flags

The Banner Saga, from Stoic studios, made up of ex-Bioware developers, is the latest in a series of successful Kickstarter projects.  Reaching its goal at alarming speed, Stoic wishes to create a trilogy of games out of its Viking tale.  The Banner Saga is unlike any game I have played, balancing multiple disparate elements into a cohesive whole.  The focus for the most part being story and challenging turn based combat, with grid based movement. While The Banner Saga claims to be about choice and their consequences, it is ultimately an illusion as much of the story unfolds the same way despite the decisions made.

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The Banner Saga is made up of three distinct elements; turn based combat on a grid, caravan management and dialogue trees.  The most fleshed out of these elements is the combat which usually pits players in 6 on 6 battles with a squad made up of important characters of the players choosing. There is unfortunately no say in class, armor or anything of that nature.  Specific characters are specific classes and they only change based on story circumstances. There are two main stats, strength and armor.  Strength doubles as health and damage while armor, depending on the enemies strength, will block attacks.  There is a balance between figuring out when to focus on strength, to lower an enemies attack capability, or to lower armor so one can chip away at their health.  Sadly the enemy variety is limited and the main foes, the Dredge are made of stone and thus 9 times out of ten, it is best to destroy their armor first.  The third element is Will, which players can sacrifice to move extra tiles, do special moves or add damage to an existing basic attack.

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Players units are made up of Varl, giant men with horns, and normal humans.  Their are a ton of classes but for the most part the only difference is each class has a different special attack, making units too specialized in many cases.  Having 3 or 4 different kinds of archers doesn’t make things more interesting, just more confusing.  On top of all this, the resource, or currency gained from combat counts towards player upgrades and supplies for you caravan.  Spreading you resources far too thin, especially since each level up costs more and more.  Adding to the frustration is when a favored character dies with no input, there were moments were I reloaded just to see, and no matter what choice I made that character died.  There are moments where choice does matter, but there were equal amounts where it didn’t and having a character who you sunk precious resources in only to have them die because of no fault of your own is frustrating.

The second element is managing your caravan.  Throughout the game you switch between two main characters, sort of.  You see, it was hard to tell at first who you are supposed to be.  Characters die quickly in the opening and your avatar changes constantly, only about 2 to 3 hours in do you settle into a role.   Each of these characters is the leader of a caravan travelling to a specific place.  There is morale, supplies and time that you have to take into account.  Resting allows your moral to be boosted at the loss of supplies.  Supplies keep people in your caravan from deserting or dying and you have to choose when to rest to keep morale up but also when to push through to make it to the next area to refit and restock.  The issue with this mode is that the system is explained well enough but the benefit for keeping your morale up and your supplies full is not.  Near the end of the game I just let my caravan slowly rot because it seems that as long as you don’t hit zero people left in your caravan, it does not matter what your morale is or what your supplies are.  Especially since one side of the tale has so many men and supplies that you don’t even have to worry about it whereas the other has such a small amount you waste too many precious resources, that could be used to upgrade your men and women, to buy useless supplies.  

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The final element is the choices and dialogue trees.  The trees come into play at heady story moments or when you stop to rest and for the most part are made up of static character screens where there is no spoken dialogue.  You choose what to say but for the most part the game forces you to say each option and in the moments you are presented with choices, many times you have no choice at all.  The choices in between, when your caravan is travelling however, greatly effect your caravans supplies and well being and also what items you gain.  The issue with this is that many times I had no choice on losing supplies, it wasn’t because of error but because a dialogue would come up saying men left in the night with your supplies.  It happens so often that you are always on the brink, wasting money on supplies.  There is not a perfect balance between resources, you have to choose, either one being neglected entirely, like upgrading your units, could make you literally fail the game.

The story is presented mostly through stills and one animated cutscene at the games opening.  The tale told is sparse but interesting, the sun has stopped in the sky and man, with the Varl have to join forces to survive the resurgence of the Dredge.  The story sets up more questions than it ever answers, leaving little in terms of a satisfying conclusion.  To The Banner Sagas benefit however, it is the mystery and the plot that pulls players along.  Traveling across the gorgeous world and fighting last ditch battles at every turn is what makes the game compelling.  The Banner Saga is at its finest when story is at the front and the stakes are high, as your desolate caravan moves through the amazing world.  You fight one difficult battle after another, each challenging you to the last man.  It is these moments that make the foibles of the other systems worth dealing with.

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The most obvious aspect is the games amazing art, like that of a classic Disney film, The Banner Saga has the most exquisite art seen in a game of its caliber.  Each character and environment is hand drawn or painted and the sweeping Nordic landscape shots, as your caravan makes its way, are the highlights of a game with a unified and gorgeous art direction.  Seeing the next character, the next vista or hoping for an animated sequence is a driving factor itself in The Banner Saga.  Unfortunately this whole review has sounded incredibly negative and yet, I thoroughly enjoyed my 9 or so hours spent in The Banner Sagas world.  Combat hits a groove eventually and despite a very difficult and unfair final sequence, its straddles a fine line between challenge and constant progress.  There are interesting characters and the writing throughout is superb, although I wish there was an option to just talk to whomever you wanted when you were camped and some characters who deserved much more on screen time are shunned after a conversation or two.  Finally there are also moments of true decision making, it might be choosing who dies but it still does effect the story, and the ending will have some different outcomes for different players for sure.

Despite how much The Banner Saga may have irked me, it also made me smile.  For every bad moment or frustrating design element there was a standout combat sequence or amazing scene of artistic beauty.  There are many things that need explanation and a little bit more balancing but the foundation is incredibly strong and I cannot wait to see where Stoic goes next.  Hopefully the next sequence in the trilogy is far enough away that the developers can fix the above issues without touching the heart of why The Banner Saga is a one of a kind experience, albeit one with many flaws.

7.25

Pros:

+Amazing visual style

+Gorgeous soundtrack

+Interesting story

+Challenging combat

Cons:

-Frustrating difficulty spikes

-Poorly explained systems

-Illusion of choice

-Pacing issues with character switches

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