The Banner Saga Review
Sony PlayStation 4Also available on PC, Sony PS Vita, iPad, iPhone and Microsoft Xbox One
The Banner Saga first appeared in 2012 as a Kickstarter project and was one of the first games to popularise the crowdfunding format that is now recognised as a viable option for many developers. Since then it has been fully funded and seen release on PC back in January 2014. Now The Banner Saga has marched its way onto the PS4 and Xbox One. Does the console version match up to the PC or will this console saga be forgotten?
The Banner Saga was developed by Stoic Games and follows the story of Rook and his caravan of companions as they search for a new home. Rook’s original town is invaded by the mechanical and tireless machine-like goliaths known as Dredge who level the town while Rook and his daughter Alette escape with the rest of the townspeople. It is a simple premise that sets up an epic adventure with many branching paths and extremely hard choices to make. The Banner Saga story is the driving force behind the whole experience and draws you into the world, characters and lore. Talking of the game's lore The Banner Saga takes a lot of influence from Viking mythology. The world’s setting is a refreshing one as it feels very real while also allowing the fantastical to exist. The Banner Saga world feels like a medieval setting but never fully embraces it, it allows creatures such as the Dredge, Varl and Gods to live side by side in this world and yet still feel real.
A large majority of The Banner Saga sees Rook and his caravan of friends traveling along a path to find their new home. This seems like just a way to load the next scene and show off some of breathtaking art but the large majority of the game play takes place while traveling. On these traveling sections you are presented with a lot of different choices be they keeping your community of people alive, choosing who joins your group of fighters or just making small choices. Choice is a lot of what The Banner Saga comes down to. Not just a simple good or bad choice either but choices that a leader would have to make. When presented with a problem you are given five different options. Some seem logical like something a good person would do. People are asking for food so you give them food. Except that wasn’t the best choice, a few days later the people return and rob you for the rest of your food. That is what makes The Banner Saga choice system very different. There are points where it feels like nothing is the right choice but you soon start to realise that making tough choices is what a leader has to do.
The combat comes in the same style as Square Enix’s Final Fantasy Tactics series. Each character gets one turn to move and one turn to attack with you taking 6 characters into each fight. So far it works exactly like Final Fantasy Tactics but The Banner Saga then introduces its armour and stamina values that each character has. Stamina is the player’s health while armour is exactly that. What players have to do is reduce the enemy’s stamina to zero to defeat them, however a player’s armour value can make that really difficult. If a character's armour is higher than their stamina then a player will do little to no damage to that character's health. It is a really interesting mechanic that adds an extra layer of complexity to the battles.
Although the complexity of the combat is refreshing to play it can often be unforgiving at the start. The Banner Saga teaches you that armour should be kept in mind when in combat but the early enemy units have such high armour and your units do such little damage that many of the early battles feel impossible. You barely get past the opening battles with just one of your units left alive. It sets a bad feeling for the rest of the game but getting past the opening battles will definitely be worth it.
The Banner Saga music is composed by Austin Wintory. The same composer as Thatgamescompany’s Journey, without even having to say it, the music is stunningly pretty. They use a lot of Norse horns and each track has this great Norse feel to it. At certain points in the game you reach objects known as God Stones with great images of the God from The Banner Saga world. They are not only pretty to look at but each God Stone comes with its own soundtrack and feel. These tracks are accompanied by singing with the voice being the gender of the God displayed on the stone. It is absolutely beautiful to listen to especially after the game has beat you down again and again on the road. The God Stones and the accompanying music really make it feel like all the early battles are worth it just for those few minutes of downtime.
One of the let downs in the game comes in the form of the levelling up system. Each kill within battles count as one experience point for that one unit. That means that your most powerful units are quick to level up but it also means that your weaker units stay weak for a lot of the game. These less impressive units are just not doing enough damage to get the kills they need to level up but you can’t leave enemy units alive for them to defeat as that could mean the end of one of your other party members. Not only are weaker units not getting the experience they need to level up but you also need a type of currency to level up that comes in the form of renown. Renown is earned each time you do something good or when you defeat enemies in the battle. You can spend your renown to level up your characters but it is often best to use it to buy supplies for your caravan of warriors and people. This makes levelling up even tougher as if you run out of supplies for your caravan your people start to slowly die.
The Banner Saga is a stunningly beautiful game both in its art and musical score. The caravan sections of the game with the scrolling hills and Norse themed backgrounds are the kind of video game art that should be displayed on walls. Its battle mechanic with the player having to focus not on an enemy’s health but also their armour value really makes each battle entertain if not insanely hard at the start of game. Its theme is kind of grim with it placing you in the role of leader but also making it feel like you are leading by having you make the difficult choices. Overall The Banner Saga is a great game if a little unforgiving at times but that harshness and challenge lends to a fantastic theme of leadership.