Ex-Bioware employees Alex Thomas, Arnie Jorgensen and John Watson left the well known developer in order to make a game purely for their own enjoyment. The game that came out of this process was The Banner Saga, a tactical turn-based RPG that puts as much emphasis into the choices that are made while out of combat as it does the decisions made on the battlefield. The title was released on PC at the beginning of 2014 after being financed through the crowd funding platform Kickstarter. Two years after its PC counterpart, and 14 months after ports to iOS and Android were released, the title has finally made its way to home consoles, but has the wait been worth it?
Marching through the snowy wilderness with supplies that are beginning to run low and the people's morale following suit, the caravan is approached by a small group who is hoping that you may be able to help them with their plight. This group doesn't hide the fact that they are criminals doing whatever they can to survive, but their particular skills could come in handy on the long journey to come if they could be persuaded to join the group; then again, this could all be a ruse to strip the caravan of some of its hard earned supplies. The Banner Saga tells a tale of a world that is slowly crumbling, falling to its knees with little hope of survival, but it is these smaller confrontations that leave the biggest impression and drive the real plot: that of the caravan.
Every choice that is made by the player has a meaningful outcome; this can be anything like receiving extra supplies or a new fighter that is willing to join the group, having one of your trusted allies choosing to leave and go it alone, or a thief helping themselves to the food stores before making a quick getaway. While many of these outcomes occur immediately, there are occasions where a choice that was made much earlier in the journey, which may have once seemed beneficial, rears its head once more only to ruin your day. Despite this, like many games with branching decisions, the main downside is that the overarching plot is largely unaffected by these choices and the conclusion is still played out as intended by the story writer.
All of these choices are delivered through a series of text prompts that are accompanied by striking hand-painted animation sequences, characters and backgrounds that are reminiscent of the work of Disney in the late 1950's and early 1960's. Although there are times where they noticeably reuse a few assets, these occasions are few and far between and the artwork is beautiful overall, yet it still brilliantly manages to create a scene of a cold harsh world. Austin Wintory's soundtrack helps to solidify this theme too. It exudes emotion but is firmly grounded in the setting, full of cold and grim tones. The combination of artwork and soundtrack make the game both a joy at which to look and listen.
Combat, like that of many tactical turn-based RPGs, takes place on a grid system. Before engaging the enemy, players will first need to decide on which of their heroes they wish to bring into battle. Each of the different heroes have different abilities based on their class. Making sure that there is a varied group is key to victory and dealing with any unexpected changes in the battle. Allies defeated on the battlefield are not lost forever and are only injured, requiring a few in-game days to return to good health; if they haven't fully recovered from injuries incurred in the previous battle, they'll be less effective in the next. In fact, you are given the choice of resting at your camp or in the villages through which you pass before continuing on, but resting up uses an additional day's worth of supplies.
Once on the battlefield, you are first given the choice as to where to deploy your varied units, the larger hulking Varl taking up four squares with the more nimble humans only taking up a single space. The Varl are hardier than their human allies and they also deliver a greater punch. To stop players from rushing into the fray, there are armour values as well as health values. As expected, armour reduces the amount of damage that can be dealt in an attack and must be reduced first in order to allow your units to deliver a killer blow. In addition to this, there is also an extra resource called willpower that allows you to increase the strength of an attack or the number of spaces that a unit can move.
Overall, The Banner Saga's combat isn't too dissimilar to things like XCOM: Enemy Unknown or last year's MASSIVE CHALICE, where bad positioning or small mistakes can lead to defeat. Unfortunately, much of the combat is left largely unexplained and the game requires a lot of trial and error to work out which tactics work well, although once players understand how to use their units wisely, it becomes a far less daunting experience.
The achievements are largely straightforward. A large number of them are unlocked through story progression and reaching specific locations on the journey, whilst others are awarded for registering a kill with each of the many different classes of heroes. A few will prove to be a little more tricky to unlock, requiring players to complete the game on the Hard difficulty level without losing a single battle, which is no mean feat, or making sure that their caravan never reaches a state of low morale. It is not possible to earn the full 1000G in a single playthrough; multiple plays will likely be needed to figure out exactly which choices will lead to certain outcomes if playing without a guide, especially if you want to earn the Beat the Odds achievement for keeping Egil with the caravan to the very end.
SummaryThe Banner Saga paints a bleak world with its dialogue, artwork and soundtrack, one that engages the player with every tough choice that it presents. With each decision, the player helps to write their own story of survival against the odds, although the overarching storyline can at times pale in comparison to the struggles of the caravan. Thankfully, it also presents a tough tactical RPG that rewards the use of careful strategy and punishes those who rush in without a plan. Those with a penchant for a tightly woven narrative and tactical thinking will enjoy the deep layers that The Banner Saga provides.
- Beautiful artwork and soundtrack
- Choices lead to meaningful outcomes
- Challenging tactical combat that feels rewarding
- Combat tutorials are too simplistic and lacking
- The overall plot is largely unaffected by the choices made throughout
EthicsThe reviewer spent around 15 hours regretting many of the decisions that he made on his journey and trying to perfect his combat strategy, earning 31 of the 39 available achievements. An Xbox One copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
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