Review of The Banner Saga (PC)

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The Banner Saga is the debut game from developer Stoic, a fledgling studio made up of former Bioware employees. Loosely based on Norse mythology, the game is set in a dying world that is coming to terms with the loss of its gods. Players take control of a trade caravan containing a mix of humans and a race of giants known as the Varl. Your immediate goal is simply to survive as your group travels across a region that is being ravished by the Dredge, a wicked force of armoured invaders. As you would expect from a company that has ties to Bioware, the game features some Mass Effect style decision-making. Things in the Banner Saga are however never as clear-cut as picking between paragon/renegade. If you are the sort of person who wrestles for hours on what starter to pick from a restaurant menu this may not be the game for you.

As a fan of strategy RPGs the Banner Saga was high on my shopping list as soon as it appeared on Steam. What really caught my eye though were the game’s gorgeous visuals. Although the background characters, appearing in the battle and caravan sequences, could benefit from extra detail the artwork featured during the story segments is stunning. It’s reminiscent of what you would find in a classic animated movie such as Sleeping Beauty. Oh how I miss the days when Disney appreciated the artistry of hand-drawn imagery. I have never understood why modern audiences are so wowed by their current CGI offerings. The character models used in those movies are often inferior to what you would find in a video game cut scene.

Gameplay is divided into two parts – travelling and combat. Battles occur on an isometric grid map (similar to Disgaea) were the player and enemy forces take it in turns to move their units. For the most part the action plays out much like other strategy RPGs, although it does feature a unique mechanic were attackers choose whether to target an opponent’s strength or armour. Cracking a combatant’s armour doesn’t harm them directly, but in the long term is beneficial as it increases how much damage they take. The strength attribute is both a fighter’s vitality and offensive potency. As their strength drops so does the amount of damage they dish out. Any unit whose strength drops to zero is eliminated from the battlefield.

Defeating enemies earns you renown, which is the game’s currency. Renown is used to level up your characters, purchase equipment and buy food supplies. I’m not sure how using renown for trades works in practice though. Do you just walk into a shop, boast about how you are famous for killing people and then get free stuff? Anyway, using one resource for all these tasks plays well into the game’s theme of making difficult choices. How much renown you accumulate during the story is limited, so you have to be savvy with how you spend it. Blowing it all on beefing up your fighters may be tempting, but doing so will prevent you from buying new gear and will condemn your caravan to death via starvation.

Speaking of the caravan, I cannot finish this review without touching upon the game’s travel segments. In a way they remind me of the retro classic the Oregon Trail, as they involve watching your troops trek across the inhospitable landscape and seeing what misfortunes befall them. At any time you can setup camp to rest your weary bones to replenish morale, but be aware that doing so prolongs your journey, which isn’t a good idea as every day out in the wilderness is depleting your food rations. As your caravan ekes onward various events will occur, which you need to deal with. What shall you do if you come across a starving traveller? Leave them to die? Share your dwindling food stocks with them? Perhaps you can invite them to join your party. Selecting the latter option may bolster your ranks with an appreciative warrior or you may find that the ungrateful git vanishes one night after looting your stores.

My rating for the Banner Saga is four stars out of five. Despite being a truly excellent game it just misses out on a perfect score as I felt a little short changed after completing it. The game retails for over twenty quid, which is pricey for an indie title, especially when you consider that an average play through clocks in at just nine hours. The game is also part of a planned trilogy so expect things to end abruptly with a lot of loose ends dangling to be tied up in the sequels. Paying full price for something that feels partially finished can be a bummer, but I don’t mind forking out to support Stoic as they have delivered a tactical masterpiece with this inaugural release. I can highly recommend the game despite its asking price. If you cannot afford it wait for a Steam sale or try to become famous. Apparently you can buy things with renown these days.

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