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Review: The Banner Saga

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Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platform: PC/Mac
Release Date: Jaunary 14, 2014
ESRB: N/A (Mature Recommended)


Shortly after Double-Fine made a huge impact on the gaming space through the use of crowdfunding, one of the developers to quickly follow-up on the kickstarter fever was Stoic, the people behind The Banner Saga. Thanks to a great premise and development talent that included a trio of ex-Bioware employees, The Banner Saga was very successful in its funding and also managed to rally up prolific figures like composer Austin Wintory to aid in its development.

Even though it created some series identity confusion with The Banner Saga: Factions in early 2013, as a multiplayer and combat focused strategy-RPG title, The Banner Saga creates a grander scale, solitary adventure and is intended to be part one of a would-be trilogy. Does the final product hoist its banner high and proud, or does it fail to maintain the wind and morale that supported it through its original foundation?
 

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The Banner Saga paints a very ominous setting right from the get-go: the gods of the world are believed to be dead, the sun remains stagnant serving as a bad omen, and the end of the world is perceived to draw ever closer. In this harsh and decaying world a conflict between men, Varl (giants with horns, basically), and the terrifying resurgence of the Dredge (stone-like juggernauts) begins to unravel.

I“ve heard this game pitched multiple times as "Oregon Trail mixed with Game of Thrones", but as one of two people who hasn“t seen the TV show or read the book, I can“t personally make or fully understand that comparison with complete confidence. What I can say, however, is that The Banner Saga does certainly have a Viking-influenced setting, with events that are in close comparison to something like Ragnarok (the death of the Gods in Norse mythology), despite having its own very distinct internal lore. The narrative also switches focus between different main character perspectives throughout. Because of the alternating focus, The Banner Saga has no problem emphasizing the mortality of the cast of characters through its gameplay and narrative systems.

As strange as it may be to make a comparison to Oregon Trail for something that is displayed as an SRPG, it is actually quite accurate. You can certainly tell Oregon Trail's influence was very intentional to the game“s core design. Thankfully, things don“t seem as actively unfair and dice-roll based as that title, and you (probably?) won't die of dysentery, but the pace and unpredictability of narrative events and gameplay makes it feel very much the case. You have to manage food, morale, and make plenty of tough choices throughout that will alter the course of your adventure in order to have your caravan survive. Playable characters, regardless of narrative stature, will also live and die, or join and not join, based on your choices or by-products of unintentional consequences.




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One of the best things that the The Banner Saga outright nails is the harsh atmosphere and bleak feeling of circumstance throughout. It always feels like you are at a disadvantage in some way: you may be short of food, leading the caravan to starve, morale may be low and cause the caravan to act irrationally, or the choices you made at an earlier point in the narrative may come back later to haunt you. There were many times throughout the course of the game where I thought to myself: "Man, this situation is my fault and I have to live with it." Of course, there are also very brief moments of optimism that can easily turn your fortunes for the better. It is because of the very unpredictable nature throughout that makes The Banner Saga“s so very engrossing and definitely personalizes the experience from start to finish.

Still, not everything is resolved through simply managing your caravan's well-being, or choices throughout the narrative, and you will be forced to sortie into battle for one reason or another. The combat system is turn-based based and is reminiscent of more traditional strategy-RPG staples of the genre, but also brings its own personal spin as well.

One of the more unique mechanics in battle is how it handles armor/health as well as "willpower". Health dictates both attack strength and life, so the lower the health, the lower the maximum threshold a character can dish-out to damage their enemy. In addition to their health, characters also have an armor stat value, where the higher it becomes more difficult to even scratch or hit their actual health, and it becomes absolutely crucial to learn how to whittle sturdier foes or go straight for health for less defense-oriented foes. There is also willpower, which is sort of like a consumable resource for characters, which can be used to extend a character's attack power or movement range, but is hard to regain except when killing an enemy foe or waiting stationary for a turn. Despite its more unique nuances, the combat is surprisingly easy to learn as well as managing to be strategic too.
 

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That said, even if the combat is solid it doesn“t have enough depth and variety to its flow to keep it consistently engaging throughout. You fight a lot of the same enemy types throughout, primarily of the damage-sponge “dredgeé variety, and there isn“t really any unique scenarios to most encounters. Generally what variety you do get is customizing a character's base stats when they level-up or maybe having to adjust to a new batch of characters you may not be familiar with. As a whole, the combat is also not particularly challenging, minus the huge difficulty spike for the final boss, for avid fans strategy-RPGs. Also, In contrast to games like Fire Emblem or XCOM:Enemy Unknown, your allies can“t permanently die in combat, which alleviates a lot of the tension the narrative brings (although they do sustain injuries if incapacitated in battle, putting you at an disadvantage in future battles and they can't fully recover until they rest while camping.).

Even if the art direction may not be inherently my cup of tea, the visuals are quite well-done overall and definitely stand out with its hand-drawn animation. Backgrounds in particular are quite mesmerizing and it is a treat to see the many gorgeous snowscapes as well as the serene-appearing locales. The visual style is also pretty consistent throughout from the overhead view in battle to the character portraits in story conversations. Having said that, it does feel like it cuts a few corners with the character designs, and many characters seem to share a certain general body frame, despite their discrepancies in their visual appearance, instead of unique character portraits as well as in-game combat character models altogether, but that is a pretty minor thing to pick at.
 

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Austin Wintory of Journey fame composes the score for the title, and as you may have guessed, his work is quite excellent in The Banner Saga as well. His unique musical compositions are very powerful in helping pave the tone for the overall experience. The music primarily ranges from powerful percussion as well as the creative use of Icelandic vocals, and it goes an extremely long way in fleshing out the decaying viking-esque realm. I think one of the neater things it does with its audio is how it even dynamically changes, from tense to bombastic, in the midst of combat pending on how favorably, or unfavorably, it is going. Seriously, it's almost hard to believe this is an indie sort of title due to how high caliber and impactful the soundtrack is in service to the game from start to finish.

For as well realized as most of the facets of The Banner Saga are, it does feel like it doesn“t raise itself to its full potential, at least narratively. Even if it is part of a planned trilogy, it does not completely shake the feeling that certain larger aspects of the narrative are completely danced around despite their deliberate presence in certain portions. This is probably further emphasized because of the slightly different tone of the ending portion, and short overall playtime of the title. Also, in regards to the multiple storytelling perspectives, the human side seems to stand out a fair bit more in contrast to the Varl perspective. Regardless of my slight dissatisfaction with the narrative arc, the storytelling is well-written overall. Furthermore, because of the game's ambiguous overall structure, it is also certainly enticing to try and replay the game after finishing it to see its various event permutations.
 

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It's heartwarming to see that despite whatever controversy seems to surround Kickstarter nowadays, it can still also bring truly great things like The Banner Saga to fruition. Of course, it isn't flawless, with both combat and narrative that could certainly be expanded upon, but even as a first endeavor it is very gripping on its own merits. The Banner Saga successfully weaves an unpredictable adventure full of rough trials and tribulations, an extremely powerful musical score, and has very engaging gameplay systems work together quite well. I can only hope to see that a future part two (and three) goes above and beyond the already very high bar that this first entry has established.

 

Pros

 

+ Very ambiguous gameplay/narrative structure that leads to a lot of unpredictable scenarios
+ Excellent, dynamic musical score
+ Easy to learn battle system that is also strategic

+ Very distinct and cohesive art direction
+ Enticing replay value and well-written storytelling


Cons

 

- Combat doesn“t have enough depth and variety

- Certain aspects of the storytelling could've been touched upon more so

- Not very long

 


Overall Score: 8.5 (out of 10)

Great


The Banner Saga presents a fresh, engaging take on strategy-RPGs through the clever use of its dark setting and unpredictable structure.


A download code was provided by the publisher for this review



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Hmm, well it seems interesting enough. Let's hope to see more from this team in the future. :)

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For a second I thought this was a new Candy Crush game.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Great review by the way! I certainly look forward to playing it at some point this year for sure.

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For a second I thought this was a new Candy Crush game.

 

Great review by the way! I certainly look forward to playing it at some point this year for sure.

Yeah, The Banner Saga has no respect, it is such a obvious Bejeweled clone and infringing on the Candy Crush name too! Disgusting!

 

Sweet. It definitely deserves some love since the game is pretty "dope" as I hear the youngins say.

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For a second I thought no one would get the recent legal reference I was making.

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I love looking at this game perhaps more than I should. So pretty  :wub:

 

This is on the top of my want list right now, I'm mad I missed out when it was being kickstarted.

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