With its ‘choose your own adventure’ decision options, a Disney meets Don Bluth 2D art style, European medieval fantasy setting and intuitive yet tactically deep combat, The Banner Saga is primed to immerse you for hours on end. Moreover, its many branching paths means each playthrough spins its own unique tale in a world where the sun has died and the Varl and Human races’ precarious alliance is on the verge of collapse.
The Banner Saga sees you take control of two caravans of warriors marching across the frozen land to pay tribute to the old gods and combat the demonic dredge that threaten to bring chaos to the dying world. The caravans march on a beautiful 2D layered panoramic perspective of the land is punctuated by events that occur during the march, stops in towns and camps with further events, and grid-based combat.
The events themselves are a mixture of narrative moments and random occurrences, seeing you converse with your fellow adventurers and make decisions on how to proceed. These decisions can have long-lasting effects on your story, removing a character from your caravan or even killing them off. Meanwhile, other decisions can affect your supplies and morale which can cause issues in the near future. It’s a terrific minefield of unknown consequences that can play out completely differently for each person’s playthrough, resulting in a wonderfully complex web of narrative possibilities. This also occurs with combat, where defeat isn’t necessarily game over, making the adventure feel somewhat more grounded in reality than in many other games, despite the Tolkien-esque fantasy setting.
The combat itself is a grid turn-based affair that centres around three stats: strength, armour and willpower. Your strength doubles up as both your health and your attack power, introducing an interesting tactical challenge where the longer a battle continues the weaker you typically get. Armour, meanwhile, simply measures how much of an incoming attack can be deflected, whilst willpower offers the chance to increase your movement and attack strength from a finite pool that only replenishes outside of combat. It’s a fairly simple system that’s very easy to fathom. Characters and enemies receive a turn based on the order shown at the bottom of the screen, and a turn allows you to move and attack. Varls are larger than humans and take up four squares on the grid whilst humans take up one. The complexity comes with how you use this simple system to defeat your foes.
When you attack you can choose to target their strength/health or their armour. Reducing a foe’s armour means you can deal more damage in the future but means your foes will hit harder come their turn. Meanwhile, if a foe’s armour is higher than your strength, then your ability to inflict damage is reduced giving you a percentage chance to hit, therefore encouraging you to reduce their armour before targeting their strength/health. Additionally some characters have special abilities they can unleash, such as the ability to hit multiple opponents with one attack. When attacking and moving you can spend willpower to increase the amount of damage you inflict or grid squares you can move, adding a tactical consideration, but willpower is limited and won’t replenish automatically in combat, so you need to spend it wisely. It all comes together to offer a fun and easy to learn combat system that offers a nice range of tactical possibilities.
With the experience shifting between combat and narrative heavy dialogue and decisions it’s a shame so little of it is voiced, meanwhile the sound effects for the environments, weapons and attacks are disappointing. The soundtrack is fantastic, however. Environments are also lacking in variety, and whilst the narrative doesn’t allow for anything but a frozen landscape there was still plenty of opportunity for more variety and detail in the combat arenas. Then there’s the loading, which, whilst fairly short, was relentless. Practically every screen transition required a black loading screen, and with the lack of any heavy-duty assets to bring in the constant need for loading is baffling. There was also noticeable stuttering during dialogue sections when the camera transitioned between characters. It’s not the worst case of poor optimisation but it’s noticeable enough to threaten your immersion in the otherwise excellent storytelling.
The Banner Saga offers a brilliant branching path story with intense and accessible turn-based combat that’s hard to put down. Death can take any number of characters you’ve learnt to love away and decisions can seriously affect how your tale unfolds, making it a wonderfully compelling personal experience within an intriguing fantasy world. Here’s hoping the other two parts of this saga see completion and fix the technical problems that keep the title from achieving the high praise is otherwise certainly deserves.
Thanks to Xbox and Stoic for their support
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