I remember reading about The Banner Saga when it first released two years ago on PC and thinking that it was a very interesting game — too bad it was on PC only. Flash forward two years later and I’m able to review Stoic Studio’s tactical RPG for the Xbox One. When my Xbox One finally completed the download and install I began my journey; what I was first greeted with sent a huge wave of nostalgia down my spine. I’m an older gamer, and the title screen paired with the opening music completely reminded me of the animated Lord of the Rings movies from the 80’s. The style of art is a definite homage and throwback to that style of artwork, and the music that beautifully compliments the art wafts to your ears just to make you smile. Most people say that first impressions are everything–well, the title screen of The Banner Saga knocked it out of the park.
Once the awe inspiring title screen has been vanquished by pushing the start button, the game lets you know what has been going on in the world. The Gods are dead, and man and giant have a tenuous alliance after defeating the hoards of the Dredge. In the first chapter you play as a Varl tax collector making his yearly rounds for the king. These Varl are huge giants that really pack a wallup in battle, so you’ll want a few on your side when the fighting begins. During this chapter you also encounter men who fight on your side, but they are far weaker than thee. Eventually as you travel you will have to fight the Dredge, which are evil beasts that look like black suits of armor–so they’re Kylo Ren wannabes, and they’re beaten just as easily. The game is basically a huge fight between good and evil, and you must overcome the evil or the kingdom is lost.
A majority of people know that I hate turn-based games and strategy games; I just don’t have the patience for them. I remember reading that this game involved heavy strategy during battles, and I let the game drop off of my radar. This before I conquered all of the Souls games, which taught me great patience. When I was first thrown into battle, a lengthy tutorial greeted me and showed me all the nuances of the fighting and how to best your opponent. You can survey the battlefield by using the right stick, and use RT and LT to zoom in and out. This is very helpful when there are multiple opponents on the field. After you survey the battlefield, you can move your characters in the order that shows on the bottom of the screen; it goes your party, enemy, your party, and so on. You can move you character only as far as the blue tiles allow them to. If you go onto a gold tile you use willpower, and if you run out of willpower you cannot tread on anything but a blue tile.
Willpower also allows you to boost your attacks by hitting the right bumper; these make your attacks stronger if you are up against a tougher enemy. Your best bet to beat an enemy is to get as close as you can and begin to wail on them. Once you decide who to attack, you have to decide whether or not to damage their armor or their health. If you damage their armor you can do more damage once you start to attack their health, so it is best to switch between the two to take them out quicker. Once you fell an enemy you gain Renown, which allows you to level up your characters and helps you buy items once you’re in towns. When all of the enemies but one still remains you enter “pillage” mode, which means that attacks are now out of order and you can easily take down that final boss. This may seem overwhelming at first, but once you get the hang of it and realize that you shouldn’t attack your teammate, you’ll do just fine.
After playing for awhile, it came to me that I was playing a table-top RPG merged with The Oregon Trail, which actually is a match made in heaven. Traveling is very easy and a big part of the game, since you are trying to get certain characters to certain place in different chapters. If I tell you who’s going where I may spoil some plot points, so I will leave it at that. When you are in a town, you can move a cursor around to highlight certain areas. Places that are plot driven, characters you can speak to, and stores can all be highlighted and experienced. This is also the case when you make camp, where you can upgrade and level up your characters in the “heroes tent” and equip them with gear you have purchased. You can also highlight “rest,” which will allow characters to heal, but it uses up precious supplies. See where I’m going with this? You may not die of dysentery on this trip, but starvation with take you in a matter of days. On the road you pass the landscape while the hud shows you how many days have passed and how many days of supplies you have left. You encounter battles on the road and little towns where you can resupply and rest. The world map shows you where you are in the world, and when you highlight certain sections of the map, you can learn of that area and some of the history surrounding it. It’s very nice to have all this lore in the game, much like all of the novels in Skyrim that you can read and enjoy.
The graphics, sound, and voice overs are done very well. Like I said earlier, the visuals remind me of those older Lord of the Rings animated movies, which makes them beautiful to behold. There isn’t very much animation in some of the scenes, but what little there is makes the tale all the much better. An eye shift or a simple hand gesture really convey much more than a fully animated scene. The voice overs, when there actually are some, are great as well. The actors really pushed their parts and nothing is phoned in here. Sadly, voice overs aren’t a constant during the game. A majority of the time you are reading what the characters are saying to each other, which doesn’t destroy the game but makes some of the scenes drag out. The music fits the game perfectly as well, but it isn’t used as much as it should be. During certain scenes, the music piped in adds to the dramatic effect. And when the music is missing during a long reading scene, it adds to the boring effect. Several minutes can go by as you read text in complete silence; that is very weird for a current gen game and can get irritating at times for those of us who like audio interactions, as well.
The Banner Saga is a delight to play. Once I remembered it was a heavy turn based strategy game I was a little worried that I wouldn’t like it; I’m thrilled that I was wrong. I’ve enjoyed every aspect of this game: the story, the visuals, the battles, everything. There are very few games that I’ve played that, when I leave my house for work, I’m still thinking about the game and really want to keep playing. I also cannot wait to replay the game and change up some of my decisions so that I can see the different branching story-arcs. The Banner Saga is for everyone, even people who have some trepidation about turn based strategy games. I was one of the those people, and now I’m huge proponent for this game and gush about it whenever I have the chance. If you missed this title on PC and have access to a PS4 or Xbox One, go out and download a copy. You will not have wasted your time or money.
An Xbox One Copy of The Banner Saga was provided by Versus Evil for the purpose of this review