"Wow this game is really gorgeous", and "I’ve made a huge mistake". Those are the two thoughts that come first to mind when I think of The Banner Saga. The Banner Saga is a turn based strategy game set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by Norse mythology. The game is undeniably beautiful, the quality of both the art and animation can not be overstated. The Banner Saga feels like you’re playing a Sleeping Beauty era Disney movie. And even better than that it is really fun to play.
The game-play is broken up into three parts; turn based battles, a resource management travel sim (think Oregon Trail), and a text based story section. The most interesting aspect of the for me was the story section where the game forces players to make decisions that have consequences. As part of the story players are occasionally asked to make decisions for their character. All of the decisions you make as a player have consequences. Sometimes those consequences will be imediate such as when you cross path with some bandits who try to hold you up. If you choose to refuse to give them supplies you will need to fight them. Other times your decisions will have consequences farther along in the story, often times these delayed consequences will be much harsher than the more immediate ones. Here’s what that system looks like in-game:
This is one of the simpler decisions in the game where the worst outcome is probably just starting a battle at a disadvantage, but there are other decisions to make in the game, which I won’t spoil, that have much bigger consequences. But I will say that it was this aspect of the game that had me saying “I’ve made a huge mistake” more than once throughout my play-through.
At its core though The Banner Saga is a turn based strategy game. The battle system is simple in terms of the number of concepts is requires the player to understand while creating a satisfying depth through the interplay of those concepts. Characters have three core stats that govern their combat effectiveness and understanding the interplay between those three stats is the key to both damaging your opponents and protecting your own soldiers. Combat skews toward the harder end of the spectrum so I’d recommend playing on easy on the first time through unless you’re an expert at strategy games.
The art in this game is truly amazing. The hand-drawn look and vibrant color pallet of The Banner Saga recalls a style of art we don’t get to see often in games. It really is a refreshing treat for the eye. I mean just look at this stuff:
These screen-shots showcase the amazing art but fail to show them in motion which only improves the effect as the animation in The Banner Saga is virtually flawless as is the score. The presentation in this game is just amazing.
Now that I’ve gushed about the stuff I like about the game let us discuss the stuff I found less than pleasant. The game seems designed for multiple play-throughs which causes a couple problems. First thee actual story is kind of short which in itself isn’t bad but it causes the learning curve of the game to be too short on the first play-through. The game does warn players about the unforgiving nature of the combat which is nice but I felt that adding another chapter or two to the story would have smoothed out the learning curve a bit, while still encouraging multiple play-throughs. The other problem that the length of the game causes has to do with variety in the battle system. There’s really only one boss battle in the game and the strategy for beating the boss somewhat different from every other battle in the game. I spent the game developing habits in combat that, when I reached the biggest challenge in the game, became a hindrance to my finishing the game. If the game were a bit longer there would be more opportunities to prepare players for these special situation. Finally the game would have benefited from more liberal use of voice acting. The game does such a great job in the rest of the presentation of the story that the fact that only two or three of the characters ever speak kind of stands out as lacking. Overall, though, all this criticism boils down to me wanting more of what The Banner Saga offers which isn’t really all that bad at all.
The Banner Saga is ultimately one of the best strategy games I’ve played in a long time, and it is hands down one of the prettiest games I’ve ever played. It’s out on PC now and it goes on sale on Steam sometimes if you’re broke, or just cheap.