The Banner Saga initially released two years ago on PC and smart devices, yet today it remains a satisfying turn-based strategy game that mostly succeeds as an enjoyable introduction to a larger adventure.Now available on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, the game is set in a Viking world where an evil force has begun to take over the countryside. The story is generic in its broadest summary, but The Banner Saga tells a narrative that is actually quite enjoyable, while its combat is a relatively simplified version of the turn-based genre, with a few unique twists.
In The Banner Saga, you’re tasked with leading a caravan of hundreds of people across the in-game continent. The gameplay is split into two parts: travelling and battles. Travelling is part resource management, part choose your own adventure. As you travel from village to village, you have to be aware of how many days’ worth of supplies remains. You’ll also be presented with various situations through text that call on you to make decisions. Some decisions are superficial, having you decide between fighting and fleeing, while others carry much more weight, as the fates of party members’ lives are often placed in your hands. Perfectionists will be bothered by their inability to predict the outcomes of decisions, but generally these situations help weave the narrative together while giving the player a break from the turn-based fighting. There are a myriad of different situations that you face as you play through the game, and it can be a lot of fun to see how your decisions affect the make-up of your caravan.
As for battles, they play out as a turn-based strategy game taking place on a grid, reminiscent of Final Fantasy Tactics or the Fire Emblem series. As you might expect, The Banner Saga allows you to choose your party from a pool of characters with different roles, level them up as you see fit, and acquire and assign items to your party. The game also adds a few fresh twists on the genre. The first of these is willpower, which allows you to do a bit of extra damage or move an extra space every turn, but can require strategic use to do its limited availability. The second is how the game treats health and strength as the same stat, so as characters take damage, they will output less of it against foes. It’s refreshing to see some new elements in an age-old genre, but ultimately neither willpower nor the treatment of health and strength as the same stat forced me to approach The Banner Saga’s combat in a significantly different way, when compared to other turn-based strategy games.
While The Banner Saga does include some novel battle system ideas, it also lacks the depth of gameplay that we see in other turn-based strategy games. This depth of gameplay in the best strategy games comes from the interaction between different systems, and The Banner Saga simply doesn’t boast much variety of them. There are no terrain modifiers during battle, no team attacks, and each character has only one skill move. Big fans of the turn-based strategy genre will find The Banner Saga’s combat to be a decent, but largely simplified version, of what they are used to. However, despite its relative simplicity, there is enough going on to keep the battles largely entertaining throughout the 8 to 10 hour game. Only towards the end of the game did the novelty of combat start to diminish.
The events that take place through the campaign are interesting enough to warrant engagement from the player, but there were times when I grew tired of reading the dialogue scenes between characters. The dialogue isn’t poorly written, it’s just that the subject material can be a bit boring. These particular scenes are made even more dull by the character models, which look good, but are static. On the whole, I was never particularly impressed with the tale being told, but the writing is solid, with the text descriptions painting a detailed picture of events, characters’ motives and personalities.
Animations in The Banner Saga are solid, as they telegraph the weight of a weapon or the effect of taking a sword to the gut. The hand-drawn art style used for the character models is reminiscent of an 80’s cartoon, but with a bit more care and detail. Of particular artistic beauty is the backgrounds as you travel with your caravan. They feature massive, snowy mountains and monumental religious shrines that make up the awesome landscapes.
The Banner Saga is the first game in a planned trilogy from Stoic. It’s a fantastic game to play through and will serve as a strong base for the developers to build upon. The gameplay could use a bit more complexity and conversations could be presented in a more entertaining way, but the method by which The Banner Saga ties battles together, through the travelling aspect, keeps the game fun throughout its entirety. For fans of turn-based strategy who want something a little different, or for those who want a short but fun game to play through, Banner Saga certainly merits a look.