The Banner Saga

Updated: Nov 25, 2020

Decisions, decisions...

Platform: PlayStation 4

Genre: Tactical RPG

Released: January 14, 2014, January 12, 2016 (PS4)

My initial draw to The Banner Saga was without a doubt the art style. It reminded me of a style that I had not seen since the Disney renaissance period of the 90’s. It sparked delight in me, not unlike what I experienced from the likes of The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, back when I was a child, incessantly asking every weekend could we rent the aforementioned films out on video at weekends (sorry Mom). Combining the lovingly crafted, hand-animated art style, with the popular Viking period setting, it was immediately striking, and very easy on the eyes. The next essential part of the puzzle for me was finding out how it plays. Unlike most games, this is not something I heard about online, but more passively have observed on store shelves, tempting me to buy it every time my eyes even so much as glanced at the beautiful cover.

So I did my research online, watched a few videos and did some reading and as it turned out, the gameplay itself was just as endearing as the art style I mentioned. Turn-based strategy, class-based combat. All the usual nuances were there - A wide variety of classes, movement squares, even parts of the combat reminded me a bit of Dungeons & Dragons. This once again managed to spark my inner delight, reminding me of fond times playing Final Fantasy Tactics and Golden Sun on Gameboy Advance as a child. I was sold. The deal was as close to as done as it could be without me owning the game. I was for the first time in a while, excited to play a video game. As luck would have it, it was also Christmas time and I was clamouring to answer the usual questions of “What do you want for Christmas?” from my family (thanks Mom).

Enough about your childhood, what is it actually like?!

It was January 2020 now, everything had settled down after Christmas, and finally the time was now to play The Banner Saga. In my first sitting with the game, I played for about 3 hours straight without moving. It was really engaging from the beginning, the dialogue options, resource management and the levelling up system were previously pretty much unknown to me before I started to play it. These mechanics were a really nice surprise and added some nice depth to the downtime, the game's progression in between battles. I was surprised to see that characters are not voiced in the game, outside of a few small parts in the beginning - Unless my preconceived notion about characters being voiced made me imagine that. Despite this, I found the characters to be distinctive enough although hard to distinguish at times, unless they were characters of different races. Undeterred, I ploughed ahead with the game, determined to prove my former, uninformed self right, in that I was sure as hell to enjoy this game.

Finally after character and story setup (not too much to be fair), it was time to experience the combat. From the start I found it to be really intuitive, and easy to understand most the systems used in the combat. One system in particular that really stood out to me was Willpower. Willpower points allow you to perform special abilities, move further distances and allow you to do more damage. Not only is this inherently useful, it also creates a strong sense of hope. Each character has their own individual Willpower points, but they are also earned in battle. Every enemy you kill, you fill a yellow star on the Horn. Each of these stars will regenerate the currently selected character’s Willpower points. This is again inherently useful, but also creates a strong sense of hope, even in the most desperate of battles. Willpower gives you a wildcard, a resource to fall back on when you need to turn the tide. It happens regularly, where using Willpower points allowed me to make up for a mistake made earlier in the battle.

Ooh, keep talking...

The differences between the different classes is mostly very noticeable, but not always. I find some of the Varl characters play very similarly and don’t have too wildly different abilities, though this could partly be down to them being a rather large, Strength-orientated race. I quite enjoy using long ranged characters, such as Alette, who is an Eagle Eye - Basically and Archer with a great ability, one of the few that can damage multiple enemies at once, in the first Banner Saga title at the very least. As a result of combat, your party members can become injured. If a party member has their Strength dropped to zero, they will faint and can’t be used again in the battle. Once the battle is over, they will be injured. Injuries can differ in severity, and they are healed by resting at camp. Even in the event of several of your characters being wounded, not all is lost, as you can swap out injured party members for others as you have an effective “bench” of other characters you can put into play as well. Not only does this give you some backup, but also gives you an opportunity to level up perhaps lesser used characters as well, of different classes too. This can actually be quite useful in that it can allow you to devise alternate strategies that you may not have otherwise considered using.

That’s great, but what about the tunes?

One of the biggest selling points for any game to me is the soundtrack. It lends so much to the atmosphere when done right, and as a big music fan (all hail Sabbath), this is a critical piece to me. Fortunately, The Banner Saga is as much an audio delight, as it is a visual one. Composer Austin Wintory does a superb job in setting the tone, regardless of the situation, be it sorrowful dialogue, or an outnumbered battle. The main theme of the game permeates the soundtrack in different places, expressing different emotions, and creating a signature theme that becomes recognisable to the player and is recalled in key moments in different parts of the game. There are some wonderful vocals on the soundtrack as well, heavily contributing to the “authentic” sound of the game - It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to think of broken, beaten warriors drowning their sorrows in a mead hall, with this music playing in the background.

I would be remiss to not mention the story in a game like this. It is setup great, with a strong introduction, highlighting important world events, such as the uneasy alliance between the Varl, a race of giant, horned humanoids, and humans, facing off against the Dredge, a race of creatures who appear to be made from stone. The different character relationships are what hooked me into the game’s story. It’s not too dissimilar to Game of Thrones, in that there are many different characters, and many different relationships to be explored. There are genuine, fruitful relationships and more tense relationships to be found throughout. One great aspect of the story and characters is that you follow different groups and characters continue to get steadily introduced, allowing you to see a wide variety of different alliances and reluctant team ups occur.

Alright, alright, I’ll try it I’ll try it...

Did I mention I’m not even finished with this game? I’m on Chapter 5, I think. Hey, the name casual is in the name, alright? Just trying to keep in with the theme here. I admittedly don’t spend a lot of time gaming these days, it can be hard to find the time to do so as life progresses and responsibilities mount. So as you can imagine I need to be selective in what games I choose to spend my time with, and The Banner Saga so far is proving to be absolutely worth it. I fully intend on completing it (soon… maybe?) and the trilogy as a whole, it would be a massive shame not to see the conclusion of this story. As I sit here writing this, listening to the soundtrack, I know that my next move is to fire up the PS4 and continue the story. If writing this has accomplished anything, it’s made me want to go and play some more of The Banner Saga.

Play this game if…

  • You like tactical, turn-based RPG/Strategy gameplay

  • You like an “authentic feel” atmosphere and soundtrack

  • You like a distinctive visual style

  • You don’t mind a lot of text and dialogue

  • If you like 90’s Disney films

All images taken from The Banner Saga presskit here

The Banner Saga trailer here

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