The Banner Saga Review
publisher: Stoic Studio
developer: Stoic Studio
|ESRB rating: RP
release date: Jan 14, 14
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With nearly two months behind us and the God-awful dead post-Christmas season almost coming to an end, Stoic Studio title The Banner Saga marches into view in all its artistic majesty. You may not have played the game, but it’s quite possible you’ve already caught a glimpse of its distinctive and brilliantly drawn 2D art. That’s one way, and possibly the best way to describe, The Banner Saga – a collection of impressive artwork and a really engrossing fantasy-themed story packed into a neatly-crafted premise.
The Nordish-style setting has been selected especially, as part of the developer’s effort to evade the worn-out 'elves, dwarves & orcs' type of background. Ah, so I see that they didn’t take the Tolkien route. But aren’t Vikings overused as well? So, basically just chose not to avoid the Vikings. I’m sorry – the Varl. Or at least that’s what a race of giant warriors is called in the game. And don’t misunderstand me here. Despite the obvious inspiration found in Norse mythology, Stoic has done a really masterful job in setting up its own premise and events in a world that’s about to be torn to pieces by war.
Do you know where I can buy some Rice Krispies?
You shall not... Ouch! Pass.
There are several key characters that are being followed throughout the main story mode, including Rook, Hakon, Alette, Iver, Ubin, Oddleif and many others. These heroes are not voiced, which is a bit of a bummer. The dialogue system works just fine though. You’ll meet a variety of interesting individuals, some of which you stumble upon accidentally. Some may even be avoided completely, depending on the choices you make in the game. Others may even fall to their death if you make the wrong decision (or right decision, well, again that depends entirely on your own viewpoint).
Must warn you about the upcoming spoilers right now. One thing is certain, Gunnulf, one of my favorite characters, was met with a rather unfortunate ending, because I chose a very specific course of action in a crisis situation. Although I was enraged by this course of action, I decided not to reload my checkpoint for two reasons. The first reason is that I was determined to see my way through this course of the story that is determined by my own actions. The second reason is that it would require replaying an exceptionally long battle, which has already been victorious for me.
This brings me to the most crucial aspect of The Banner Saga – the combat. Battles have a recognizable turn-based feel to it, with the player being able to move soldiers across a grid-like battlefield. Battles can be exciting and extremely challenging. Opponents can be outsmarted with skilled use of ranged and melee units. That involves making the right moves and choosing whether to attack the enemy’s armor or health. That’s right, each unit on the battlefield has an exact number of armor points and health points. The sooner you drain the enemy’s armor, the easier it will be to take out its health. Of course, units also have their unique abilities and attacks that can reduce both armor and health. Still, a lot will depend on how you place your units. Archers and magic-wielding units are very vulnerable in close-combat so it’s important to keep them protected, and out of range of any sword-happy enemy warriors.
So, the battles themselves are quite satisfying. The problem comes if you want to retry a single battle and frequently you are forced to sit through a ton of dialogue, since the game for some odd reason doesn’t always autosave just before a battle, but more annoyingly, just before the beginning of a major dialogue scene.
Since The Banner Saga has all the elements of a fine turn-based strategy, we were a bit baffled by some very weird design choices, which we felt could’ve been avoided. For instance, to keep in line with the game’s storyline, the player rarely gets the opportunity to level up heroes and rebuild forces to gain more strength. You gain renown points by fighting and making important judgment calls before battle or during your travels. Renown points are utilized to promote heroes, but as I already explained, there’s not nearly enough opportunity to distribute these points.
Blood. Blood! Help!
All the Varl I need. Let's kick ass!
Also, renown points are scarce and are also used for purchasing supplies, which are needed to feed your army. Also, the game has a tendency to take away characters unexpectedly. Just when I’ve got used to one character and his skills, the game shifts to a different plot point and I’m not allowed to upgrade that character anymore. Instead, I have to focus on a different group of characters. Normally, I don’t have anything against games shifting from one story to another. The problem is that during an entire playthrough that consists of a rather rich character roster, I only managed to improve one character to level 5. The rest never got passed level 2 or 3. This sort of defeats the purpose of having so many characters to upgrade and take into battle, simply because there are usually few renown points to spare.
The Banner Saga is a unique game, worthy of anyone’s attention. There is some gorgeous in-game artwork on display here, in addition to some rather delicious plot twists that could infuriate as easily as it can excite you. All the cool 2D art and well-written dialogue is accompanied by diverse ambient sound effects and an epic soundtrack that suits the Viking-style setting perfectly.
Regardless of some of our complaints, we invested many hours into this game, enjoying every bit of its refreshingly simple gameplay. We also couldn’t tear ourselves away from the breathtaking background drawings and impressive character art that portray a new and mysteriously beautiful world that awaits to be discoverd.
8.4 Very Good
Beautifully crafted 2D turn-based strategy with welcomed RPG elements, in addition to a rich and immersive fantasy setting;
Checkpoints can be annoying, promoting multiple heroes can take forever, the main campaign is relatively short.
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