Finally! It’s here! We’ve only been waiting about 2 years…
Anyhow, the Banner Saga finally made it’s triumphant debut on consoles earlier this month, and it couldn’t have picked a better time to arrive. It’s just after Christmas, the release schedule is fairly desolate, and looking up at my vast library of games, I concluded I had nothing to play.
And then this came along. I wasn’t even aware the Banner Saga was releasing this month, the promotion for it had been so scarce. And honestly, I’d be willing to let you off the hook if you admitted you’d never heard of it before (but after this, you have no excuse not to play it).
Diving straight into the game, the plot really doesn’t waste any time holding your hand and guiding you through this new, mystical world. Instead, it chooses to introduce you to two different groups of people, both with different problems and a whole lot of unexplained history behind them.
Oh, and it’s the end of the world. I didn’t mention that? It’s okay, neither does the actual game, not until you’re between a rock and a hard place at least.
So, you’ve got two different groups of people, both trying to lead their respective tribes to safety and out of the reach of the villainous Dredge. What could possibly go wrong? A whole lot, and as it turns out, what goes wrong may be entirely dependant on you.
You see, the Banner Saga forces you to make a whole lot of choices, all of which could have infinite consequences for any number of people at any given point in time. These range from should you let a group of strangers join your tribe, to which direction your caravan procession should take in trying to flee from danger.
And the game doesn’t force these choices upon you in a Telltale Games-like manner; sometimes the choices you make are even flat out ignored by others in your tribe, giving you a true feeling of helplessness at times, the likes of which I don’t think I’ve seen in a game for years.
The choices that are laid out before you are very rarely ‘black and white’, or ‘good and evil.’ As mentioned earlier, these choices you make can come back to bite you at any given time. I’ve been offered a few allegiances over the course of the Banner Saga, some of which I’ve declined, and some of which I’ve accepted based on a snapshot judgment of the offering party. What makes it different is when they occasionally come back with a bloodthirsty vengeance a few hours later.
If there’s one detriment to all of this, it’s that there are a fair few characters that the Banner Saga either never gives a personality to, or actively makes you detest, therefore making some character deaths slightly less impactful, even if they were brought about as a result of your actions.
Great story aside, the combat ain’t bad either. It’s turn based combat, but it’s turn based combat that’s actually done well. At the start of each battle, you select which characters you wish to deploy in battle alongside you, each having different abilities and fighting styles. Want someone who can take a lot of damage for your team? There’s the Warhawk for that. Want someone who can stand back and provide support? There’s the Bowmaster for that.
And so you command each character to move, attack or do both when their turn comes around, with the end goal of defeating all the Dredge warriors (or any other enemies) on the playing field. Everyone also has both a ‘defence’ and a ‘health’ meter, either of which can be attacked by the opposing side. This creates a nice dilemma: do you go for the defence meter with the hope of later being able to go for their health, or do you go for their health, hoping that their defence doesn’t get in the way and negate your attacks.
However outside of this, there’s actually very little else to be found when it comes to combat in the Banner Saga. Instead of evolving the combat or changing it up at all throughout the game, the developers merely present you with a new enemy every now and then, never actually changing any of the fundamentals in the combat system for the player.
However outside of combat, there’s many a challenge that your caravan procession must face up against while on the cold, harsh road. There’s the combination of the morale and food supply levels to be constantly keeping an eye on while leading your group through the wasteland, and both these factors work quite nicely to compliment one another throughout the entire game.
The longer you keep your caravan marching for, the faster your morale will deteriorate, this obviously having an impact on future events and situations the game will present you with down the road. You could always call a halt to your forced march and rest for a few days to improve the morale of your group, but for each day spent resting you’ll burn through precious food resources. Run out of food, and members of your group will start to perish to starvation.
The Banner Saga juggles these variables with impeccable skill through the roughly six hours that the game goes on for, using your morale and food levels to constantly keep you on your toes at all times, and looking forward to future problems. In lesser hands this would’ve possibly been a way to break the game if the two levels were unbalanced, however Stoic games does a tremendous job in putting the two seamlessly by one another.
Still, minor gripes with a few character and the combat system aside, this truly really is a great game at the core. The moral areas within the choices are undoubtedly grey at times, and you can feel the weight of the world bearing down on you as you attempt to lead your party to safety, all the while playing an intricate balancing game within your caravan.