The Banner Saga (PC) Review
Posted by Marc Morrison on 01.28.2014
411maniaís Marc Morrison looks at this quirky Nordic-themed strategy game. See what he thinks of it inside.
Title: The Banner Saga
Publisher: Versus Evil
The Banner Saga comes by way of a successful Kickstarter campaign a few years ago. Like with other games driven by this model, itís a tad smaller in scope than a traditionally funded development/publisher game, but has the benefit of being more experimental and creative in its mechanics. While The Banner Saga is a good game on the whole, which Iíll detail below, one annoying issue kept me from fully enjoying the game.
To put it simply, The Banner Saga kind of takes two game concepts and mashes them together in a unique way. Most of the actual gameplay is a turn-based strategy game, akin to Disgaea or Final Fantasy Tactics. You control units on a square based grid map, with different units having different movement stats, health/strength stats, weapons, special abilities, and so on.
You can take up to 6 units on a given battlefield, where you can say which you want to go first, second, third, etc. One interesting aspect is how turns are doled out. Before the battle starts, youíll have the chance to initially position your units in a small starting area. Itís a good idea to generally place tank-type characters ahead of ranged (but weaker) characters, so they can soak up some punishment. When the battle starts, you get a chance to use one unit (from your pre-determined turn order) to move, attack, or do something. Once youíre finished, the enemy moves a unit. Then you move your second unit, and then the enemy moves a second unit for them. The turns are on a one for one system where each side gets one turn to use a unit, and then the other side responds in kind.
The types of units you have fall into a few different classes. The big differentiator is between humans and Varls (think Vikings with horns). Humans only take up one square on the grid map and are fairly weak. Varls on the other hand take up a 2 by 2 (so 4 total) spot on the map. They are a lot tougher, have their attacks be stronger, and only use melee weapons (usually swords). Humans tend to have a few different weapons, either swords, a lance/spear, or ranged weapons like a bow and arrow. Itís usually a good idea to take a mixture of both humans and Varls in most missions, since it gives you greater flexibility when fighting.
The combat system is old hat for most strategy game fans. When you go to attack an enemy, youíre given a choice of either attacking their armor, or their life. Attacking their life seems the obvious choice but donít be fooled. Some enemies will deflect the attack entirely. When this happens, any attack made by that unit will get brushed off, until the armor is destroyed. As they game says, itís best to try and attack both life and armor equally, at least until you get the hang of it.
You do have an extra resource at your disposal which is Willpower. When you select a unit, youíre given a blue grid which shows their movement range. However a yellow grid also appears further out which you can also move to, if you spend willpower. You can also power up an attack with willpower (by clicking the yellow stars) which will give your attack the extra ďoomphĒ it may need to break the armor, or kill a baddie. Willpower is a finite resource for each character though, so you need to be careful on how you spend it. Once you kill an enemy, you get a willpower star in a horn at the top of the screen (for up to 5 stars). You can use this horn to refill the willpower of a given unit, but only the one whose turn it is currently.
Lastly, each unit has a special ability they can use, at no cost to willpower. These attacks are like, spinning around and hitting enemies that surround you, knocking an enemy back with a battering ram move, impaling an enemy causing them to bleed when moved, or setting up trap squares so when an enemy moves over it, they get damaged. There are some other combat concepts also, like morale, or how you attack an enemy, but this is the basic fundamentals of the strategy element of the game.
The other important half of the game is essentially ďViking Oregon TrailĒ, which is actually pretty great. In between the strategic battles, your Varl/Human caravans travel the desolate winter landscape, visit towns, have random experiences happen to them, and eat up supplies. Itís an effective and relatively fun way to manage how your units are doing.
During battles, when you kill an enemy, you get ďRenownĒ which is the gameís currency. With it, you can buy items in town markets, buy supplies for the caravan, or else use it to level up your own heroes. You have to have a certain level to equip certain gear, with the higher level gear being tied to the player level. You can also buy supplies with the renown, with the rate usually 3 renown for 5 days of supplies. As you travel the landscapes there is a day meter that gradually fills in. Once a day is complete, your supply cache will be subtracted by one, and the meter empties, then slowly fills up again.
As you travel, you can have the caravan camp, which halts your progress. At the camp (or at towns), you can level up your heroes with the renown. The unit will have needed to kill a certain number of enemies before being able to level up. Once they are ready, you spend an increasing number of renown to buy the next level for them. This gives them a higher item ranking and higher stats. You also get two skill points to drop into their character tree. You can put points into strength, armor, willpower, exertion (how much willpower you can use for an action) or break (damage you naturally do to enemy armor). Itís up to you how you want to distribute the points but be careful, thereís no way to reset them. Also at camp, you can rest for a day, which takes one of your supply cacheís, but boosts the morale of your troops.
The last bit about the Oregon Trail side of the game is random events. As you play, youíll encounter random bits like, one of your men is drunk, or your gold caravan is falling over a cliff, things of this sort. Youíre given a series of options on what to do, which is up to your call. The game is pretty unclear about how these events will unfold though, so it can be disconcerting to go down a path and have it blow up in your face. There are a few times where the game doesnít seem like itís playing fair, and feels like those old ďChoose your own AdventureĒ books, only most of the choices end up bad.
This fusion of strategy vs. slightly puzzle adventure parts is actually a lot of fun. Both game styles have been around for a good long time, but I think this is the first time theyíve been put together like this. With a lot of Viking stuff complimenting the package, itís a unique and interesting game, save for two things.
The first thing is minor, but I wish there was a manual save option. It would certainly be beneficial when youíre in a battle, as sometimes I made stupid mistakes by the pathing not quite working out. If not a save option, then at least an undo button.
The more critical issue I had was that the game was pretty crash prone. After about 3 hours of playing, whenever I hit 4 or more battles in a single session, the game would lock up, and crash to the desktop. Sometimes it would only take one or two battles to do this. It didnít completely kill my enjoyment of the game, but it definitely became an annoying issue, and one you may want to pay attention to.
Graphically, the game is kind of gorgeous to look at. Itís not pushing the technical bar any, but there is a distinct artistry and design to everything going on. From the detail to the characters, to how the banner flows and animates behind you as you walk, with the snow falling, it really looks great. Imagine if Don Bluth could make a game with todayís technology, to get a sense of how this game looks.
Audio is also done well, with some good music drawing you into the atmosphere of the visuals. Itís all orchestral score and fits well into the game world. The sound effects also are executed well, fitting in the same as the music. There is some voice acting in the game, but not a lot of it. From what there is, it all sounds genuine to me. With a voice actor name of ď Petur EinarssonĒ, Iím betting that dude is either Finnish, Polish, Swedish, or Icelandic, and all the others have similar Nordic sounding names.
Replayability is a small issue because of the lack of a manual save option. The game does keep track of auto saves fairly well, but itís not the same. Because of this, it can be hard to replay certain specific battle sequences or see how a different decision could affect your party. Still, the game has multiple difficulty options, some decent achievements, and the like.
The strategy game aspect is a bit similar to other games, but is well done
The trail gameplay is fun and adds a unique twist that most games donít have
The game looks gorgeous and has a lot of nice little details to make the world come alive
The game crashes a bit which is a bit unfortunate
No manual save option means thereís no room for mistakes
Some of the choices in the traveling section seem weighted against you
The Banner Saga is a quirky and enjoyable little game, through and through. It features a nice mix of tried and true strategic gameplay with some light rpg mechanics to keep you invested in the overall journey your characters go through. The game can be a tad hard to follow in spots, and the repeated crashes I had were annoying, but I still had a good time playing it, and would recommend it to strategy fans, or indie game fans, everywhere.
Itís a bit on the technical simplistic side, but the art style really drives this game. The neon blue writing to display labels looks great.
Thereís some good depth to the strategy game, where Willpower comes into play. The trail stuff is a good way to break up the tedium.
The music is really solid, the voice work is authentic, and the sound effects fit into the world of the game. Iíd like more voice work, but thatís just me.
The lack of a quick/manual save hurts it. The random travel events are neat but a bit illogical in spots. Achievements and harder difficulties are it.
I really enjoyed my time with the game, crashes and all. It may be a bit on the short side, but is a fun journey to be had.