The Banner Saga Review

January 12, 2016 by Adam Barnes

Stoic Studio's Viking strategy game comes to console.

Console gamers haven't had it this good for years. You can complain about the number of PC ports all you like, but it's impossible to deny that niche strategy games like The Banner Saga simply would not have made it over to console during the PS3/Xbox 360 generation.

For those not already aware, The Banner Saga is an isometric strategy game that originally released on PC after a very successful Kickstarter campaign. It’s set in a rich Viking-styled world where the sun has stopped its cyclical trip around the globe, creating permanent daylight. The gods have abandoned the world, too, and an evil force known as the Dredge are becoming a persistent and sizeable threat. In other words, things are more than a little bleak.

You'll play as different characters throughout The Banner Saga--which, incidentally, is only part one of a planned series--with the gameplay divided into two distinct styles.

The core of these two is the combat phase, which initiates at pre-scripted moments throughout the tale. Despite the RPG elements that pop up outside of combat, there are no random battles nor any need for grinding.

Combat itself is grid-based, pitting your group of able and varied heroes against the threats that this desperate world throws at you. The beauty lies in its simplicity: every unit has two health stats, armor and strength. Either can be directly attacked, with strength acting as both health points and damage potential, while armor restricts the amount of damage that character will receive.

It's a symbiotic system that often means the armor must be attacked first if you're to have any hope of piercing through to the soft, spongy bits beneath. Battles aren't only about tactical positioning, then, but careful management of these two resources. While there are extras to consider during the course of a single battle--such as class-specific abilities or willpower points to move further and hit harder--this unique, dual-stat system is rich enough by itself to create absorbing, strategic battles.

While combat takes up the largest chunk of The Banner Saga, it is the story-based segments where things get a little more interesting. The threat of the Dredge quickly becomes too much to handle, and the story soon has you guiding two separate forces--one of villagers, the other entirely of warriors--away from the encroaching doom to safety.

This results in a lot of marching, with much of the game spent watching a mass of tiny people slowly walk across the screen. In truth this particular aspect is as tedious as it might sound; the classic Disney animation-inspired art style and soundtrack by Journey composer Austin Wintory are utterly fantastic, but even they don’t do enough to mask the tedium of the perpetual march.

But this is a necessary evil for The Banner Saga. This is a tale fraught with danger, and in trying to shepherd your flock to safety there needs to be a sense of progression, a perceived sense that you’re escaping.

Your groups are separate from one another, so two individual stories play out in tandem. They function the same, though, requiring you to manage stocks of supplies, army morale and even the members of your troop--individually and in smaller groups.

At its most basic this means you can control when yours forces stop to rest. Within camp you’re free to level up any promoted units you may bring into battle, interact with certain key characters of the story, or simply initiate a rest period to recover lost morale at the cost of some supplies.

While travelling, though, you’ll encounter different events, each scripted as part of the game’s story. Some may be minor--such as choosing to spend time attempting to rescue supplies from a waylaid caravan--while others come via pit stops at towns and key plot points. In most cases it’ll be you deciding how these events unfold.

The repercussions are often subtle, too. Perhaps refusing to rescue that caravan will leave your army without food later down the line. Or maybe the time spent gathering them up gives a sizeable Dredge force time to catch up, cutting your number of soldiers in half in the resulting battle.

This is just one early example you’ll encounter. Even seemingly innocuous decisions like this can often have unexpected and significant results, to say nothing of the more dramatic, spoilerific story-led choices you’ll be forced to make.

It’s here where The Banner Saga succeeds most. While the combat can proudly stand among its contemporaries, it is the decision-driven story element that secured The Banner Saga in my heart--thanks, in part, by the rich, detailed lore. It’s a beautifully crafted experience that doesn’t need to try hard to convince you of its world; you’re there before you know it.

This is all thanks to many moving parts: the amazing audio, fantastic visuals and rich world; the complex combat and intricate systems; the decisions that have tangible effects on the ensuing story. There are few games where the obvious passion from the team is so palpable.

For console players, however, there haven’t been quite enough adjustments to match the game’s new, big screen experience. Though the controls are functional and rarely result in mistakes, they never quite feel intuitive. Worse still is the HUD, which doesn’t seem to have been altered all that much from its PC equivalent; the text may be too small for many players to make out clearly.

These are minor issues, especially when The Banner Saga more than makes up for them in every other department, but it’s still a shame more care wasn’t taken to port the game over to the living room environment. Strategy games don’t often make it over to console, and faults like this are often enough to convince skeptics to overlook the genre on controller-based platforms.

And that’d be a damn shame if these problems did put anyone off. The Banner Saga might not have the emotional impact of Telltale’s The Walking Dead or the explosive cinematics of Mass Effect, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t every bit as affecting, compelling or beautiful.

It’s a subtle beauty. Stoic Studios has crafted an adventure that--once its climax is played--feels truly special. Though you may reach the finale questioning your strength as a leader and the decisions you’ve made, you may well--like me--find yourself instead wondering when you’ll be able to get ahold of the second part of the proposed trilogy. PC players might have the upper hand in this regard, but that doesn’t mean console-only gamers should ignore The Banner Saga.