Banner Saga has been on my radar for quite some time, but never quite grabbed my attention enough for me to try it out. With all the buzz regarding it and its ports and sequels, it was hard not to be aware of its presence regardless. After Mario + Rabbids ignited a love for turn based strategy within me, I have been branching out (particularly on Switch) with more games in the genre. When the opportunity arose to explore Banner Saga on the console, I gladly took on the responsibility of leading countless warriors and clansman to safety, and sometimes to their deaths. Banner Saga is a bolstering epic, one lead by excellent design, memorable characters, and a risk/reward system.
Banner Saga seeks to explore the vast world of Norse mythology and Viking times. It is now peacetime between the Humans and the Varl (the horned Giants of the land), after the two races settled their difference years ago to fight a dark mysterious force of stone creatures known as the Dredge. But something is amiss in the lands. This prompts many villages and regions to scavenge for resources, make alliances, and pray that the gods still exist somewhere, because the Dredge are coming once more, which can only mean war.
To save from info-overload, I will try to limit my use of names, both for cities and characters, as there are a lot to come to play. Additionally, I’d rather not spoil any outcomes for those of you that have yet to play, as the story is paced and told so well that it’d be a sin for me to do that. I will, however, breakdown a few of the heavy hitters for you. For the majority of the game, you will assume the role of Rook, who is the leader of his clan and father to Alette. Both are skilled archers, as well as key players in the events that soon unravel. You also assume control of Hakon, a well-known and respected Varl who is hundreds of miles away, and dealing with the oncoming threat in his own ways. With each assumption of character comes relationships to make and break, decisions that define the outcomes for a whole clan, and important fights that can lead to pointless death or new clansman and resources. Knowing when to hold your tongue and pick your fights is a major benefit, but regardless of that even the seemingly best actions can result in dire outcomes. The risk/reward system stands out, much like the games engaging combat.
Combat is turned based, and takes place across a grid made of many tiles. As with most games of this nature, you have the option of creating a varied team, with Varl, archers, Menders (mage-like humans) and more being present. Each character has their own stats and special abilities, so how you manage your team of six is crucial. Now, I played the entirety of the game on easy, and found the combat to be fun but towards the end was ready for more challenging experiences. I plan to play the second entry in the series on normal for sure after warming up with the first and taking in the story and its characters. But anyways, the combat is smart, engaging and fun. Prior to starting each battle, you can choose your fighters and the order in which they appear. When you get to the battlefield, you can make one more adjustment as to where they are positioned (under some restrictions) on the field. After this, the fighting begins.
Your team and the enemies take turns dishing out the action, fighter by fighter. That means after each blow you deal, you better be ready for retaliation. Whether you are fighting Dredge, Varl, or human, patience and planning are key to a well-executed battle. Pairing special abilities with your planning is also key. Take Rook for instance, whose special ability allows all those within range to attack the enemy he targets, which can lead to some major damage. So peek down the line and plan around enemy attacks, potentially lining up two teammates with high attack near the desired target prior to Rook’s turn, and presto, the special ability lands. Planning also needs to be set around defense and attack. A character can only do so much damage, and it depends on how much they have already taken. If an enemy’s health is higher than yours, you can only do so much damage, but if you break their shield, this opens them up to a lot more punishment. Its better explained by the game, but it all makes sense when you are actually playing and invested. Character options make experimenting fun (which there is a practice arena to do so in.) Varl serve as tanks, Spear Experts can attack from angles and multiple spaces away, archers can keep their distance, and so on. There are multiple ways to play, and the option of having varied difficulties embraces that.
Aesthetically pleasing, Banner Saga impresses. Its unique, early Disney fairytale inspired look is one of the aspects that stuck with me prior to playing. Banner Saga looks so damn good, with clean visuals and animations that make its story and lore feel that much more fitting. While some of the dialogue sections feel awkward due to lack of voice-over work, the rest of the sounds work in the games favor. Some melodic tunes here and there keep the adventure inspired, while the grunts and clashes of weapons on the battlefield all play their part. There is occasional voice over work, usually while entering or exiting any of the games seven chapters. It’s done well, but I longed for more if I am being honest. In all fairness though, with the variety of outcomes and characters, it would be hard to organize that much voice-over work without budgets similar to that of the Mass Effect or Skyrim series.
One complaint I had with my time is most likely Switch-specific, which only furthers my need to mention it. Sometimes, after decent stretches in sleep mode, the game never quite recovers when you come back to it. I had several crashes occur over my time with the game due to letting it rest, which were minor inconveniences while playing on easy, but I can see others who were knee deep in a testing battle not be as forgiving of the issues as I am. Sometimes it also caused the audio to totally fail during a fight, and then the game would get stuck on a load screen when the battle was over. Again, an inconvenience, but not a game breaking one.
Banner Saga is a killer game, and as I near wrapping up this review I grow more and more excited to dive into its sequel. I anticipate that it will not disappoint, leading me to feel just as excited to play the third and (final?) entry in the sage when it releases next month. I am now a dedicated bearer of the banner. My outcomes, my actions, my destiny. It all matters in this game, and like the aforementioned Mass Effect series, your actions are carried over from sequel to sequel. I cannot wait to see what lies ahead. As a fan of Game of Thrones, this game sat well with me and my growing desire to play turn based tactical RPG’s. It should resonate with fans of both respective genres, with lore and memorable characters heavily impacting the story. With a great narrative arch, fun combat, and a killer art style, Banner Saga has me excited for more.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purposes of the review
Final Score: 8.5/10
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