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The Banner Saga

Score: 90%
ESRB: Teen
Publisher: Versus Evil
Developer: Stoic Studio
Media: Download/1
Players: 1
Genre: Strategy/ RPG

Graphics & Sound:

The Banner Saga is a hybrid of gameplay styles that Iíve experienced and admired in other games, but never have I seen them all in the same place. And the fact that they are woven together so successfully speaks volumes about its overall quality. This bleak, beautiful adventure is deep on a handful of levels. Its exciting turn-based tactical battles provide the depth necessary to satisfy fans of strategy role-playing games, while its unconventional narrative provides all the emotional conflict of a Telltale Games adventure. It isnít perfect; its early hours are so excellent that they are borderline impossible to follow, and when the home stretch ultimately fails to live up to hours of build-up, itís hard not to feel a bit disappointed. But this is a game that prioritizes the journey over the destination, and the journey is a damned fine one.

Gorgeous. That is the word most befitting of The Banner Sagaís visuals. This is one of those rare games that will be held high as an example of amazing art design well after its generation has passed. Thereís something about hand-drawn entertainment, an infectious passion of sorts that is keenly felt when youíre experiencing something that is clearly a labor of love. Itís the kind of feeling you get when you see a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film. Through all the painstaking detail, you experience second-hand the amount of care that has gone into the work, and your appreciation of it increases exponentially.

I had that feeling throughout the entirety of my time with The Banner Saga. Hand-drawn and crafted games are hardly a modern novelty; weíve seen quite a few in this generation alone, including masterpieces like Ori and the Blind Forest and The Swapper. But The Banner Saga is drawn to resemble an animated film, and an incredibly beautiful one at that. Stylistically, itís very similar to the work of Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, Cool World), especially when it comes to faces. Between cutscenes and the sweeping vistas that your party treks across over time, the eye candy just gets sweeter and sweeter. And while most interactions are accompanied by portraits rather than fully animated speaking roles, they do more than enough to get you invested in the plight of these fascinating characters.

The Banner Saga is clearly going for a certain aesthetic. It seeks to evoke the brutal world of epics like Beowulf while keeping its fantasy world grounded, primarily in the harsh snowscapes of Scandinavia. This world of The Banner Saga is fantastical, but thereís a sense of restraint that keeps things somehow plausible.

Take, for example, its sound design. Little subtle touches are where this game succeeds in selling the atmosphere. Wagon wheels groan and complain under the burden, mead halls have the ambience of safety and camaraderie, and when a Varl Shieldbanger lives up to his unit type, you know things are about to go down. The soundtrack goes a long way towards establishing the desperate mood as well as the setting of the game. Itís a class act the whole way through.


Gameplay:

First impressions are important, but rarely are they good indicators of what to expect next. The Banner Sagaís opening chapters seem to be primarily about a single character, but the expectations created are ultimately subverted when it becomes apparent that this is the story of many people, with its opening moments used for world building Ė and to spectacular effect.

The Banner Saga is primarily the story of two races coming together to survive and overcome evil. Mankind has coexisted with the giant-like horned Varl, but naturally, the two races arenít the quickest to trust each other. But as we all know, times change -- and so do circumstances. When a great and seemingly indestructible evil known as the Dredge surfaces with sinister designs on the human race, it is up to a lone wandering army of both Varl and Humans to puzzle out its weakness and ultimately purge it from the land.

Describing how The Banner Saga plays might not give a clear picture of exactly what makes it work so well, but put simply, itís a blend of turn-based isometric strategy battles and lengthy storytelling sequences in which you make choices that invariably have consequences; some can be foreseen, while others simply cannot. On top of that, you have no idea when or even if your decisions might come back to help (or haunt) you. There is rarely a "right" way to proceed, and the world of The Banner Saga is every bit as capricious and cruel as the real world. Certain choices have unintended consequences, and as it is with life, a multitude of factors (both hostile and benign) can transform a show of good faith into an unmitigated disaster for your caravan. Perhaps most brilliantly is the sense of restraint accompanying decision making; the game doesnít overtly draw attention to it or telegraph each oneís importance, like so many other choice-driven narratives. This makes the storytelling feel far less contrived and "gamey" and much more natural. Lesser games would not be able to achieve this without accusations of cheapness. But incredibly, The Banner Saga makes these moments work, due to the excellent writing and characterization, as well as the organic way in which the story takes root and grows in unexpected ways. And its laser focus on the cost and responsibility of leadership is probably its finest asset.

Choice and consequence is the defining mechanic of The Banner Saga, and that extends to combat. Poor placement and decisions can lead to death. Itís not the permadeath that frequently breaks the hearts of the Fire Emblem faithful, but there are consequences that put a damper on your effectiveness and your resources. But armed with a healthy knowledge of your capabilities and limitations, your exploits on the field of battle trend towards victory, decisive and Pyrrhic alike.


Difficulty:

Strategy games are more often than not very hard to learn and even harder to master, particularly for those who arenít into micromanagement. If youíre not interested in going the distance to maximize each unit in terms of statistics, gear, and abilities, the chances are high youíll either have a ton of trouble with the game or quite simply not get enough out of it. The Banner Saga does a fine job of not only teaching each mechanic, but staggering the pace at which each one is introduced. Fans of role playing games of any kind should have no trouble getting into this one.

As tempting as it may be to strive for a "perfect run," I recommended that you make a straight, uninterrupted playthrough of The Banner Saga, where each and every choice is your own and you are forced to come face to face with the results, whether they were decisions on how to proceed with the journey or a mishap in combat that led to a terrible injury. Itíll make the game feel that much more intensely personal, and as a result, more rewarding.


Game Mechanics:

Time spent playing The Banner Saga is split between two main pillars: storytelling and combat. Since the two are intertwined, it makes the game extremely cohesive and focused. It may borrow from certain role-playing conventions, but it cuts the gristle and streamlines wherever possible. For example, exploring a town is as simple as moving a cursor over the place you wish to visit or the individual you wish to converse with and hitting a button. You never assume direct control over an individual, so youíre never forced to go wandering aimlessly down streets and alleys, or into shops and homes. You go where youíre needed, take care of what you need to take care of, and thatís that. Your objective is always first and foremost in your mind, and youíll always have a good idea of where you have to go next.

Combat is a turn-based affair set on a grid of squares. Your units and enemy forces take turns moving, attacking, and making use of a complement of character and race-specific abilities to ensure that your side stays healthy while the other side does exactly the opposite. In combat, two numbers determine the overall effectiveness and health of each unit. Armor and Strength are dependent on each other in ways that fundamentally shape the ebb and flow of combat. Strength doubles as hit points and the amount of damage you can inflict. Armor naturally has a direct impact on how much damage can be absorbed. Finally, Willpower is that special extra something that allows your units to move farther and hit harder Ė but it must be used sparingly, lest you find yourself in a fix when you need it the most. It takes a bit of time to learn proper positioning and acclimate yourself to the advantages and weaknesses of all the units in your command, but as it is with all things, you learn by doing.

While I would argue that most of the emphasis in The Banner Saga rests on the storytelling, there are some allowances that give your characters more of a personal touch. You earn a resource called Renown over the course of your adventures. This can be spent on recruiting new units or upgrading the ones you already have, which in turn make them more effective in battle. The challenge here is in finding a nice balance between the two or finding a way to maximize the rate at which you earn Renown.

The Banner Saga comes highly recommended for fans of excellent choice-driven storytelling, quality animation work, and strategy role-playing games. It isn't perfect, but it's more than worth the asking price. Not to mention, there's a richly-deserved sequel in the works...


-FenixDown, GameVortex Communications
AKA Jon Carlos

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