Review: The Banner Saga
Following a largely successful crowdfunding campaign back in 2014, the first installment of The Banner Saga finally makes its debut on the Nintendo Switch, after numerous releases on PC, followed by Xbox One and PlayStation 4 later on. While I already briefly played the game on PC, this port on the Nintendo console was a chance for me to finally review this tactical RPG has to offer players of the merry hybrid console.
The story of The Banner Saga has two parallel tales. We basically follow the misadventures of two different “tribes” which are intimately linked. The weather has become weird, and former stone warriors, the Dredges, have decided to return in force to eradicate the men and Varls that populate the lands of the game. This imminent arrival of the war pushes the two tribes to begin a massive exodus in hope for survival.
The Varls, a species of horned giants that can live for hundreds of years, have already repelled the Dredges attacks a long time ago. They will be of great help to Humans, considered young and carefree, but also brave warriors. They will have to fight side by side and finally forget their differences to repel the Dredge invasion, and you’ll be doing that with Rook and his daughter Alette, as well as thanks to Ludin who is accompanied by a squad of Varls.
The game begins with a beautiful introduction that set up the mood of the game, while simply introducing the gameplay phases which we will follow tirelessly during the adventure. In the dialogue parts, you will thus enter the heart of the story and personalities of the characters. It will also be necessary to make choices during these stages of exchanges between the various protagonists, which will increase our leadership skills or not. When moving the caravans, we will be asked to make strategic choices such as sending scouts forward, keep the troops together and more.
During stops, you will benefit from resting in camps take care of our small troupe of fighters. We will be able to manage their wounds, to give them stat points, health or equip objects increasing their capacities in combat. Finally, the last phase is the combat phases, which are turn-based battles during which it will best manage all our protagonists. Each part of the game is linked in a cycle, at quite a slow pace, even during combat sequences, which could end up boring to those not used to the genre.
Soon enough you’ll realize that the Banner Saga is all about making hard choices. For example, you will meet a group of strangers and will be asked to accept them or not in our caravan. While they could add up to your combattant roster, this also means extra mouths to feed and eventually turn against you. Or a group of merchants could just as well offer us food once saved, as well as bring disease to our troops? You never really know if your decisions will be the right one or not, but there’s a constant and deep involvement at every moment, changing eventually the script according to our choices.
You will, therefore, need to manage the food available to feed all your troops and ensure their morale is at the highest. This is impacted by the decisions you make when traveling, the victories on the battlefield but also the time you take resting in the camps. Too much rest, however, consumes food so the important thing is to find the right balance. The currency of the game is the glory that one earns during fights or by making positive decisions for the group, which will be used to buy food but also to decorate your fighters with stat improvement points.
The Banner Saga’s turn-based combat system seems classic at first but also offers an interesting depth. Each faction will fight with up to 6 fighters on the set, and the order of attack is determined before the start of combat. Each protagonist has two separate gauges, which are HP and armor. We can choose to attack the armor first to assail more quickly mortal attacks later on or rush on the defensive damage even if you have to hit longer. The rest is a typical paper, rock, scissor style of weaknesses and strength with various classes, which you need to build your strategy and formation based on that.
Finally, the Banner Saga is aesthetic worthy of a pre-3D animated Disney film. Animations are fluid during the combat sequences, even if the attacks are not necessarily aligned with the enemies. Conversely, the dialogue phases are a little less flamboyant, closer to the likes of graphic novels, with only sketches of the protagonists with slight animated detail. On the Nintendo Switch, there’s no much difference with the PC version I previously played on my own, but it does feel more natural to play it in handheld mode especially since it supports touch-based controls. The soundtrack, on the other hand, is composed with a very talented Austin Wintory – worked previously on The Journey – and while it is a bit silent, knows how to be very discreet during the conversations, and hyped when combats kick off.
The Banner Saga was reviewed using a Nintendo Switch digital download code of the game provided by Stoic. The game is also available on PC, Xbox One and PlayStation 4 via digital store releases. We don’t discuss review scores with publishers or developers prior to the review being published (click here for more information about our review policy).
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• Beautiful artistic direction
• A story with genuine script changing choices
• Strategic turn-based battles
• The game can be a bit slow paced in some ways
• The conversation cutscenes are not on par graphically with the rest of the game
An accomplished, award-winning gaming professional with more than 12 years of experience in the videogame industry, Nazih Fares has worked in public relations, marketing, eSports and localization for over 14 different publishers and more than 90 global brands. Fares is currently MENA Communications Manager at Blizzard Entertainment, based in The Hague. His views on this site are his own, and not those of his employer.
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