Review

The Banner Saga Review (PC)

One of the early Kickstarter success stories, the ex-Bioware guys at Stoic envisioned a simpler but no less compelling form of RPG. Like a playable 2D Disney/Don Bluth animation, The Banner Saga would combine a compelling plot inspired by Scandinavian legends, hard choices and dark consequences at every step, interesting turn-based battles, and a straightforward play-style. Have they succeeded in bringing all this together? Read on to find out.

As the opening to The Banner Saga explains, the gods are dead (already an interesting idea), the sun has stopped in the sky, and three peoples vie for control of the world. The humans and giant Varl have reached an uneasy peace forged in their wars against the monstrous armoured Dredge. Since the last war many years ago the Dredge had vanished and a time of prosperity came to the world, but now they have returned in great numbers and threaten all. The Viking style nods to Skyrim but story-wise the plot is closer to Dragon Age: Origins and that game’s Darkspawn Blight, but done so uniquely you won’t care about any minor similarities to other RPGs.

Despite having a bow across his back the entire game Rook only fires an arrow twice at maximum. Idiot.

One of the most interesting parts of the tale is that it is played from two sides of the conflict. The first is a large group of Varl lead by the gruff Hakon and the arrogant human prince Ludin, and the second is a smaller group of refugee humans lead by a man called Rook and his long-time Varl friend Iver. They do meet each other eventually (and depending on how you play they don’t necessarily get on) and in a refreshing twist, neither side are heroes setting out to save the world. Hakon’s group are happy to take on Dredge forces but are not looking for glory, and Rook’s group are just looking for a safe place to stay or escape to. This brings a realistic side to the fantasy, making it feel like you’re playing real people dealing with an invasion of their home.

The choices that you make along the way reflect this. Now, I’m going to make one thing very clear right now so no one gets the wrong impression: The Banner Saga is completely linear. It’s still an RPG based around actions and consequences but the path you take is nearly the same every time. The non-combat portion of the game, which is the majority of the game, involves watching your caravan and all your followers move along a (lovely) 2D plane, making decisions as they pop up – which is every few seconds. You don’t control the caravan, can’t affect its speed and unless a specific rare choice offers it you can’t even decide the route it takes. Stoic have designed a lovely map for their world but you can’t do anything but look at it.

This fact will shock a lot of people when they pick up the game. It’s not a bad thing but you have to be prepared for it, and I find it rather refreshing. There are battles, but the main focus of The Banner Saga is on the events that occur daily, your decisions in response to them, and living with them. Some may cost lives, others may gain bonuses, some do both, and others might set up a chain of events that you have to deal with. In many ways the game is a choose-your-own-adventure story, and that’s not a bad thing if you’re expecting that. That said it is rather disappointing that you can’t even choose the path your caravan takes, and that pretty map really is totally useless. I don’t care that I’m going to Grosheim if I can’t even click the map and decide whether to take the high road or low road. Sometimes a choice will be given on-route, but it’s not the same.

There’s a few things to manage in the caravan, too, although very little is done directly. Supplies are your lifeline, have plenty and you can keep morale high and your people fed, but if you run out you’ll lose people every day and morale will plummet. Low morale affects your Willpower in battle, which can make a lot of difference. Supplies can be picked up along the way if you’re lucky, but otherwise have to be bought at Markets in towns. You never know how many supplies you’ll need so you’ll have to buy lots, but that leads into my main bugbear in the game regarding Renown.

Yes, I’m hoping sheer brute force is going to win the day. Sue me

There is only one form of currency in The Banner Saga, and somewhat perplexingly it’s Renown. You earn Renown through battles and great actions, and then spend it on hero upgrading, supplies, and trinkets to equip your heroes with. It’s XP and money combined, but around Chapter 5 it suddenly becomes scarce so you’re forced to choose between supplies and upgrading. Don’t upgrade and you won’t last long in battles, but don’t stock up with supplies (and remember, you never know how much you’ll need) and your entire caravan could die. I like how you’re forced to manage and make hard decisions but I don’t feel the balance is quite right as I felt consistently low on Renown, upgrades, morale and supplies, especially as the difficulty in the fights ramped up. Then again, it is meant to be a tough game.

Which brings us neatly to the battles, the second part of The Banner Saga’s gameplay. Turn-based on a decent-sized grid which changes shape (and often background) every battle, after selecting your Heroes (up to six), their turn order and their positions on the board the fight begins. Characters have three stats – strength, armour and willpower. Strength is both health and force so characters get weaker as they get more attacked. Armour obviously makes pieces harder to hit. You and enemies can attack either of these two, but willpower is instead spent to charge up attacks, move further than normal, or unleash special attacks.

Thinking tactically is the name of the game, even more so than other games with turn-based combat like XCOM or Wasteland 2. You have to know when to use special abilities, Willpower, even when not to move. The battles are generally quite fun but around Chapter 5 the difficulty ramps up significantly, with some Dredge turning up who can kill heroes with a single hit, and from Chapter 7 even Easy can be tough. I don’t want to sound whiny but it’s a little bit too tough to be honest, and I can see a great many players giving up around the halfway point. On the bright side many battles can be skipped and you can knock them down to Easy difficulty if things are getting too much, but on the downside the game doesn’t make a number of things very clear. For example in every battle I wasted many turns simply because I’d moved a hero to a place where I thought they could attack but couldn’t (this primarily applies to long-range fighters, who often became more trouble than they were worth). I only found out in the final damn battle that enemies flash subtly while you hover the mouse over a square if you can hit them from there. Frustrating.

The biggest annoyance in the game though is the save system. As this is a highly choice-based game there’s only one regular save slot (although it does keep a permanent save at the beginning of a major area), so often there’s no skipping back to undo a bad choice. Which is understandable, except that The Banner Saga never tells you when it’s saving. It’s literally any random spot. Sometimes as you leave a town, sometimes after a miscellaneous choice, sometimes after talking, but never before or after a battle. What?! I played two battles back-to-back at one point, exited the game, then later had to replay both and the large dialogue section before it because it hadn’t saved at any point. Then had to replay them again because of a bug. Yes, there’s a few of those (although Stoic are doing their best to stamp them all out), but there are also a couple of odd moments too. Sometimes the dialogue text gets who’s talking wrong for example, and at one point a Dredge actually cheated by moving one more space than the game said it could.

Einartoft, home to the Varl and the most epic battle since Helm’s Deep. Okay, you have to imagine half of it, but still...

The story and dialogue in The Banner Saga is compelling with some neat twists, the animation is lovely, the music by Journey composer Austin Wintory is moving, the turn-based battles are mostly fun, and the “linear RPG” thing isn’t shocking as it actually smoothes out and simplifies things so it’s easy to find yourself addicted to the game. Unfortunately things get far too tough around the halfway point and while that’s kind of the point it does make the game both frustrating and easy to give up on. The invisible save system, not having crucial information easily on hand during battles (like heroes’ abilities before combat or some of the more subtle systems in battle), and the fact that using Renown as the only currency never quite works makes The Banner Saga a little bit more annoying and a little less fun than I’d hoped.

If you don’t mind a tough experience and a little frustration The Banner Saga is well worth picking up as it’s a unique experience, and both story and animation justify a purchase. However the game’s flaws mean it may annoy more than delight, and while decently sized at around 15 hours play time I can’t honestly say I’d play it again just to make the right choices. Beautiful, well written, but aggravating. That’s The Banner Saga in a nutshell.

Top Game Moment: The epic siege of Einartoft, with just a long bridge dividing the armies of Varl and Dredge with your party stuck in the middle.

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Comments

By LS35A (SI Member) on Jan 15, 2014
LS35A
I've been very interested in this. But the weak save options and the difficulty level ramping up crazy high part way through the game - that's a killer for me.

Maybe if there is quite a bit more post-publishing polish going on I'll try it. But for now, I'm out.
By Kres (SI Elite) on Jan 16, 2014
Kres
I'm in between. Yesterday I wanted to buy it but it wasn't released. Today it is released and I'm well undecided still...
By The_Tingler (SI Core) on Jan 17, 2014
The_Tingler
It's definitely worth picking up for the story and choices you have to make alone, it's an interesting world for sure. And if you have trouble with the battles (which you will) you can knock it down to Easy. And it'll still be tough towards the end , but doable. I can't even imagine doing the last few battles on Normal, let alone Hard.
By V4ndall (SI Veteran Member) on Jan 20, 2014
V4ndall
A weird yet quite good game. I like the style, but it still feels like a browser game. The battles are so hard because you're SUPPOSED to loose some characters :/