The Banner Saga is a crowd-funded game that came out a couple of years ago for PC, but has just come out (digital only, for now) for the Xbox One and PS4, with a Vita version in development. Banner Saga 2 is also in the works, though there’s no release date as yet. It’s also the first game I’ve acquired without a CD (well, not counting the cartridges for my Mega Drive. Or the cassette tapes for my Amstrad).
This will be a spoiler-minimal review. I’ll give away only the barest premise of the story, as well as some combat info.
Because this is crucial to the game, I’m going to be vague here to avoid spoilers.
The story is cut into chapters, sometimes focusing on different characters. The world is essentially mythical Nordic (albeit with original god names and so forth), and feature three races: men, varl (horned giants, all male) and dredge, (metal creatures who are antagonists for both men and varl, to the extent two previous wars forced the previously warring men and varl to form alliance against the dredge).
The writers have done an excellent job with creating dilemmas that have no right answer, and avoid the Good, Bad, Neutral options pretty well. More than that, being nice (with one character I was largely nice) can lead to bad consequences.
It’s also not clear (in a good way) whether a decision you take will have a minor impact, a serious impact, or a delayed but significant consequence.
The characters you acquire, or put off, through story decisions also have a gameplay impact, as it can increase or decrease your roster of potential fighters (up to six per fight), which is important as they can get injured and it’s better to have an unwounded line-up.
Combat is turn-based, and has some interesting strategy elements that can, with cunning, see the battle shift in your review. Every character has an armour stat, and a health stat (which doubles as strength). So, if your character loses health, they also become weaker. However, hitting an enemy’s armour can make sense, because damage is the difference between the attacker’s strength and the defender’s armour.
Not only that, humans take up one space on the 2-D isometric grid that comprises battlefields, whereas the varl (giants) take up four. This means you can use the varl to try and crowd your enemy and make it harder to reach your humans.
The turns are alternate between player and enemy, until you reduce the enemy to just one unit, then you enter Pillage mode. This means every character has their turn, so you might have three consecutive turns (if you have three characters left) before the enemy can move.
You also have a limited resource, per character, to either enhance movement beyond the usual range or do increased damage. You get one more of this per slain enemy, and can then allocate the points to your character(s).
It’s a clever but easy to grasp battle system. After the first few battles, I felt completely at home with it.
For winning, you get renown, which is the in-game currency (also acquired by some out-of-combat decisions). It can be used to buy things, including supplies, items for characters to wear (just one each), and for promoting your characters to make them stronger.
When in camp, you can pause to rest. This boosts morale and gives time for people to heal if injured, but also costs supplies. It’s a realistic decision that’s simple but means even the smallest choice puts you on the horns of a dilemma.
This section could be retitled ‘art’. The scenes of trekking across the frozen land, which could be tedious, are very attractive indeed. Not only does it give a real sense of journey and progression to the characters and plot, but the vistas are beautiful.
During dialogue, as well as often not speaking (see Sound, below) characters often stand there, facing one another, with a slight animation to indicate wind etc. This didn’t bother me (I still hark back to the days of Phantasy Star IV) but it might be a bit off-putting to some.
The map looks properly Norse, and lore-junkies will rejoice at being able to scan over the whole thing, getting more information about a bridge here, or mountains there. It also might be useful (at the time of writing this I don’t know) to check the area you’re heading towards.
Sound is limited. I enjoy the music, which helps (along with the excellent art) make the simple act of marching from place to place feel epic. Music is common, but voice-acting is very rare, and without subtitles.
In-game sound effects seem limited to combat, where they’re reasonable. Definitely scope to add more.
Bugs and Other Issues
Early on, I had a combat bug whereby an enemy moved, but didn’t attack or end their turn. I loaded up the last auto-save (which immediately preceded the battle) and everything progressed normally. In the whole first playthrough, this bug happened twice.
I like the language options (I might try a German playthrough. As I discovered with Dragon Age: Inquisition, my German is currently at the stage perfect for gaming comedy, as I can understand quite a lot of stuff, but not everything). However, the lack of subtitles for the voiced parts of the game is a little disappointing. I’m not hard of hearing, but some people are.
Longevity and Replayability
I’d guess the game took me about 12-14 hours. My understanding is that the forthcoming sequel will be available for consoles as well as PC upon launch, and that (on all platforms) decisions can be imported.
In a few weeks, I may well replay the game, taking a more ruthless approach and seeing how that turns out. I got a fair share of stuff right, but also made a few massive mistakes.
So, what score? I’d give it 8/10.