This review contains slight spoilers that are presented as vaguely as possible. If you don’t want to be spoiled, even slightly or vaguely, please proceed to another post.
As my caravan of men and giants marches through the harsh snowy cold, I glance at my rations. I realize that we might not have enough to keep us all alive before reaching the next city. I hope and I pray that our food lasts or some kind soul decides to be our savior. But before long, bandits stop us in our tracks and demand that we give them a load of our food. The dredge are following right behind us so I need to handle this quick. I’m faced with a few options: 1) hand over the food and have my caravan starve earlier, 2) tell them about the incoming threat in hopes that they will leave us be, or 3) fight to keep our rations.
Not being a person who frequents Kickstarter, I only heard about Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga when I first saw it open up for pre-order on Steam. Enticed by the stunning visuals and the grand orchestral music from the trailers and first impression videos I saw, I read more about the game and was pleased to find that it was a role-playing strategy game that seemed to have an emphasis on story. I decided to purchase the game and keep it in my inventory to redeem at a later date (I was still trying to finish Sleeping Dogs). Despite having read some unfavorable comments that got me reconsidering my decision to get the game, I thought it would be better to experience all the ups and downs myself.
The Banner Saga markets itself as “an epic role-playing viking saga where your decisions directly affect your personal journey.” And oh boy are these decisions difficult. One wrong click could lead to a loss of lives or a loss of resources, but the right one can bring new additions to your group. The situations that they present to you will make you stare at your screen for a while to think, because whatever you assume is the best choice could actually bring a very unfortunate result – with the worst case probably being that you’ll lose one of the fighters you use during the battle sequences.
You cannot escape the responsibility of leading your caravan and making tough calls, because that is what pushes the game forward and as a result, it manages to immerse players into story.
Sometimes though, the decision making can get frustrating because at certain points in the game, the wrong decision can serve to waste a player’s time with no indication whatsoever that there was an alternative. I went through the same battle over and over again, thinking the problem was with my strategy during the fight, but in reality, had I chosen another option I could have had stronger warriors help me.
Other times, decisions don’t seem to matter at all. I won’t go into detail about what exactly happens, but let’s just say that renown – the in-game currency which is used for both purchasing items/supplies and upgrading your warriors – is better spent on creating the strongest lineup possible rather than keeping your clansmen from starving.
Even more disappointingly, once you finish The Banner Saga, you’ll realize that the ending you get essentially relies on only one decision in the whole entire game. Whatever ending you get won’t seem to be very satisfying either because it all ends with a huge cliffhanger and too many unanswered questions.
Decision making aside, I did enjoy the refreshing take they did on the traditional turn-based strategy combat system. Although The Banner Saga’s combat includes many of the typical elements found in games such as Final Fantasy Tactics (i.e. tile-based movements, classes with different skills and ranges), the developers have managed to create a unique mechanic that actually works really well and makes the game interesting.
In battle, damage can be dealt to either Armor or Strength. Strength is a measurement of both your health points and the amount of damage you can deal, while Armor is pretty self-explanatory. When your Strength is lower than your opponent’s Armor, the chance of dealing damage to his Strength is smaller. So you need take his Armor down as quickly as possible in order to damage his Strength and reduce the amount of damage he deals to your party. Additionally, instead of mana points, characters are given a stat called Willpower – used to move further, attack stronger and use special abilities – which doesn’t regenerate over time. This forces players to really think about their moves. Should I lower his Strength so he doesn’t damage my party too badly? Or should I take down his Armor to open up the opportunity for larger blows in the future? Should I use my willpower now or should I save it up for later?
What did bother me about the battles was the fact that if you made one tiny mistake, you’re given no option to undo even if you happened to misclick. Instead, you either have to deal with it or restart the battle, and if there were cutscenes or dialogue that happens before that, you have to go through those again too. While I do understand wanting to put emphasis on the weight of players’ decisions, I find it a little silly the even battles had to have this sort of permanency. I ended up wasting a lot of time having to reload a save to start battles from the beginning because I accidentally clicked twice and made the wrong move. If they really wanted to emphasize permanency, I think it would’ve been nice to have had a confirmation button before performing moves.
In terms of replayability, there really isn’t much unless you want to go through the same decisions and battles on a different difficulty or to get the Steam achievements. The Banner Saga does not have side-quests, nor does it have random events. You don’t get to choose which path you want to take, which is a shame because the team created such a huge map. Character customization is limited: there’s a limit to how much of each stat you can add to each class and there’s characters can only equip one item. In addition to that, the difficulty of the game suddenly jumps up near the end, so if you made mistakes while leveling up your party, you may find yourself having to restart the whole game in order to finish that last battle because the game doesn’t give you the privilege of having save slots.
The Banner Saga is a stunningly beautiful game with its hand-drawn characters and environment, and the addition of Austin Wintory’s talent for the game’s soundtrack really portrayed the grandness that would be expected of a saga. But apart from that and the unique take they had on the battle system, The Banner Saga has very little to offer for those who are expecting a superb story and a great emphasis on players’ decisions. All in all, I found the game to be disappointing and at many times, frustrating.
With The Banner Saga being greenlit for a sequel, I hope that Stoic Studio can improve upon some of the negative feedback they’ve gotten and fully realize the potential the series could have.