Games have a unique advantage over other media to take us to places we’ve never been. However, when developers don’t invest the time to set the scene properly, it seems to have the opposite effect. Luckily for gamers everywhere, The Banner Saga is one of the few games that grabs you by the shoulders and never lets go, fully immersing you into the bleak, yet incredibly intriguing environment. While we have seen this type of story before, rarely has it ever been executed so well.
The Banner Saga takes place in a Viking-inspired world where the sun stopped rising and the world turned brutally cold. To make matters worse, an ancient and powerful enemy, the Dredge, have awoken. The Dredge are sacking towns all over the land and they must be stopped before they wipe out humanity. In order to fight the Dredge, humans look to the Varl, giant men-like creatures with horns coming out of their head, to form an alliance and fight the Dredge. Your party is the envoy on its way to Grofheim, homeland of the Varl, to shore up this shaky alliance.
As the Dredge continue their push southward, the small village of Skogr lay in its wake. The chieftain of the village is killed which leaves the town without any leadership. However, Rook, the town huntsman, takes charge of the village and leads them away from the encroaching horde. This group of people are the second party you will control in the game and it gives you a different perspective of the events unfolding.
As you could probably tell from the description, The Banner Saga is an incredible tale on its own, but what makes this game great is your interaction with the world itself. Throughout the campaign, you will make a number of decisions as leader of your group. Some decisions are small which will result in a small stat boost or increase of supplies, while other times these decisions can effect the entire course of the game. This style of game design really speaks to the developers roots as ex-Bioware employees. However, where this game differs from other Bioware games is the constant shift of focus and characters. You will switch between Rook’s party and the Grofheim party several times throughout the narrative. It spreads out your interest so you’ll find yourself being attached to more than one character as you play the game. This approach to storytelling is very interesting and it ensures that you are always playing with someone you care about while the story is dimensionalized with the use of several characters from several different perspectives.
In addition to the unique take in storytelling, the game furthers immerses you in the game by presenting the player with an incredibly beautiful world both artistically and audibly. The world has a hand-drawn look but the art is incredibly detailed while the animation itself is extremely fluid and smooth. This combination of technique and artistic direction blend together to display one of the best looking games on the PC. Obviously, this game is a blend of 2D visuals with isometric gameplay mixed in so it wouldn’t hold up to some of the 3D environments we see with other titles. However, when you compare this game to others of its type, this game looks the best by far. As if the art direction wasn’t enough, the music placed in the game was simply stunning. Austin Wintory, the man behind Journey’s soundtrack, took the reigns on this title and his work shines throughout the game. Often his music blends with the gameplay, but always finds its way through when it needed to be. You can see why his work with Journey was so highly regarded and his work on The Banner Saga should be held in just as high of a regard.
From a gameplay perspective, The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy RPG at its core. Players control heroes which they level up stats and abilities through experience gained in battle. However, the game is more about the journey than the battle, so there are long sections of your caravans march to their next destination. This is where all your decisions are made and this is where you will suffer the consequences of your choices. Sure, you can march your army straight to the next outpost, but you’ll wear out your heroes and they won’t perform as well in battle. If you rest them too much, you’ll run short on supplies. It is a constant balance of resource management and making the best decisions possible, especially when these decisions can lead to perma-death. It has an Oregon Trail appeal to the game and it works extremely well in this instance. Often, you’ll be faced with hard moral decisions which aren’t always clear cut, yet the impact they have on your party is immense. It is extremely well done and worth your time.
In addition to normal battles, your caravan will sometimes get involved in larger battles called “wars”. This elevates the combat strategy and further emphasizes the need to properly manage your troops. Your heroes will often man the front lines of these large-scale conflicts, which make them even that much more important. These wars are some of the best examples of combat in the game and are fun to test your strategic ability. However, they do more than just diversify the combat, they give you a sense of how well you are doing at that point in time. If you are doing well, these wars will go in your favor, however, your weaknesses will be revealed and exploited. Say if you didn’t heal your characters properly, or pushed too hard through the march, you will suffer major losses. However, no matter how bad you did or how many of your heroes died, the story still moves forward. This gives provides a light a the end of the tunnel so no matter how grim the story looks, you know there will be a resolution at the end.
However, as great as this game is, there are a few flaws and shortcomings to speak of. First, the biggest issue is the fact that you can’t change your battle order once you saw the battlefield. You choose your order blindly so if you want to change things once you see how troops are laid out, you’ll have to reload your last save. For a game that relies so heavily on strategy, this is a major flaw. Second, the game has a narrator which is voiced, but all the other characters are silent. Dialog is displayed via text box and while that is fine, a voice acted cast with some acted cut scenes would have went a lot further. It feels like a missed opportunity, but hopefully this project is successful and increased in scope.
In conclusion, The Banner Saga is a beautiful and immersive world that is begging to be explored. It is one of those games that need to be played and if you haven’t done so already, you need to get this game. Even if you aren’t a fan of RPGs or SRPGS, it is still a highly recommended title. The world will grab you and you are going to want to see the game through to the end. It is a rare opportunity to have a game do this so when it does manage to come around, you have to seize the opportunity. Therefore, we give this game our highest recommendation. Look for this game as one of the best of 2014.
This review is based on a review copy of the PC version of The Banner Saga developed by Stoic Games.
- Beautiful Visuals
- Engaging Gameplay
- Lack of Voice Acting
- Battle Order Issue