Release Date: January 12, 2016 (PS4), January 14, 2014 (PC)
Platforms: PS4, PC
Review Platform: PS4
The Banner Saga is a hand-drawn RPG with a turn-based combat system and consequential decision making. Released initially on the PC, this suprise gem has found its way onto the PS4 nearly a full two years after its debut.
In The Banner Saga, horned-giants known as Varl, and man, live in unison. Despite the gods having died many years ago, the world is at relative peace. However, for an unknown reason, the sun has stopped working. This is the premise for the game’s unique story.
You begin as part of a caravan doing an annual tax run through the land. Though you’ll begin in control of members of this caravan – and one Varl in particular – you’ll quickly (roughly an hour into the game) switch characters and locations, and will continue to switch between different main-characters throughout the game (coming back to characters after some time apart). This offers players a varied perspective on the game’s world and story.
As the initial crew, you’ll quickly (and unsurpisingly) run into trouble, and will be thrown almost immediately into battle. The game’s combat-system is grid and turned-based. Players can move up to four tiles per turn, with each character having the option of attacking an enemy within their range, using their special power (which ranges from defensive abilities to powerful offensive attacks), or resting which increases their willpower. Willpower is an important feature of combat that can be used in several ways; for example, players can move up to two addition squares in addition to their limit of four by using willpower, and they can also use the willpower to increase the impact of their attacks. Although you’ll face human combatants, your primary opponent will be Dredge, an enemy species to human and Varl.
Each character, friend and foe, has a strength level and an armor level. A character’s strength level accounts for their attack power, as well as their health. As strength decreases, a character’s attacks do less damage; once strength decreases to zero, the player dies. If a character’s armor is higher than an attackers strength, there will be a considerable chance of the character deflecting the attack (represented by a percentage point), making it sometimes necessary to chip away at armor before attacking an enemy’s strength.
If a character defeats enough enemies, he’ll have the option of being “promoted”, which increases their stats and armor at the cost of renown; renown is earned through taking down enemies and achieving victory in battle, and acts as both the currency in the game, and the means of leveling up your character.
The combat system is accessible, relatively deep and most importantly, fun. As you get towards the end of game the battles lose some of their enjoyment and grow a bit repetitive (especially considering the game has a fairly small amount of enemy types), but never to the point of it ruining the overall experience.
Outside of combat, the game – although there is the occasional voiced-over scene – relies heavily on text. You’ll read a lot of dialogue between characters, often being given the option to steer the conversation. Actions and descriptions that occur are handled through italicized text to separate it from the dialogue. In conversation the positioning of the characters – which are hand-drawn – stays the same, despite a few small facial expression changes (in most instances their character positions remains unchanged throughout the game). There’s no real movement made by the characters, other than an occasional gust of wind slightly shifting their hair or clothing, or their eyes/lips sometimes moving. The art-style of the characters is great, however, and the character-models detailed.
The game really shines when it has you making tough decisions, which happens fairly often; do you allow a group of people who claim their village burnt down join your caravan? Do you banish the drunkard who’s causing trouble among your group? These choices are fun to make, often tense and can at times have a significant impact on the game.
When traveling between locations, your group will occasionally setup camp. Here you can train, which allows you to battle without consequence, look over your group members (equip any purchased or found gear, level up and establish a battle lineup are the primary options), and rest, which takes up supplies (which you have to keep stocked or members of your caravan will begin to die of starvation) but will help any injured character heal. On occasion, you’ll also be given the option to converse with some of your group members. Once done, you can simply leave the camp and continue on.
The game, which is primarily hand-drawn, is artistically impressive throughout, particularly the backgrounds as you’re traversing. The game’s music is top-notch and atmospherically fitting. The story is good, bordering on great, though it never quite reaches its potential.
In the end, The Banner Saga – which took me roughly 10 hours to complete – is a game that entertains. It’s fun to play, has a fascinating story and gives you a bevy of difficult and fun-to-make choices. The game stands strong as one of the better RPGs released in the last couple years.
The Bottom Line
The Banner Saga is an engrossing and artistically brilliant RPG that shines due to its simple yet deep combat, its intriguing story and the meaningful (and entertaining) choices it allows you to make. Although the combat can at times become repetitive, The Banner Saga is a gem of a game that succeeds by most all accounts.