The Banner Saga made a splash on the PC in 2014, and was well received by gamers and critics alike. Now, two years later, the Viking themed tactical RPG from the three man team at Stoic Studio arrives on the PS4, giving console owners a chance to make decisions guiding caravans across a frigid landscape as they’re being pursued by the demonic Dredge. The game has the look of a Don Bluth animated feature, even though most cut scenes are generally static. The bright art style provides a nice contrast to a bleak story that will see your caravan hounded, hunted, betrayed, and devastated by loss. It’s a game that has you make choices without any clue as to what the outcome will be, and on a first playthrough you’ll often choose with heart in throat, hoping that you’ve chosen wisely. Of course, that doesn’t always happen, and a choice that seems to be a good one can often prove to have unfortunate consequences, anything from losing supplies to losing lives of those in your caravan. It becomes a balancing act, trying to both do the right thing and be pragmatic in keeping your people alive. You try to keep morale high in the face of adversity, which seems to constantly be rearing its ugly head on your journey. The fact that your choices carry such weight is a testament to the game’s terrific writing, and it adds replayability as you vow to do better next time.
There is little in the way of voice acting in The Banner Saga, with the game’s conversations being displayed in text blocks. For me this worked to the game’s advantage, as that way characters weren’t marred by a poor performance. And the game delivers a rich cast, made up of human and varl, a race of horned giants. Each character feels well defined, from Rook who becomes a reluctant leader to Ivar, a varl with a mysterious past, to the mender Juno, who possesses incredible powers. how you interact with characters is entirely up to you, though you do have to beware of getting stabbed in the back. The game keeps you on your toes nicely, and the frequent auto save feature means you’ll have to live with your choices short of replaying a bigger chunk of the game. The story does drag you from bad situations to worse, often without any respite in between. And yet it manages to remain involving, engaging you with characters who still have hope despite the trials they’ve gone through. In this way, the game give players that sliver of hope to hold onto, with the possibility of that hope guiding you to make good choices along your journey.
But The Banner Saga is not just making choices in the narrative, like in an adventure game. There are also times that you will have to fight, and the game sets up its tactical combat system nicely. Combat gets played out on a grid, familiar to anyone who has played a tactical RPG before, like Disgaea. You’ll get a chance before combat starts to set up your party and arrange their starting positions. Once combat starts things are turn based, with each side making a move. choices are kept fairly simple, with players having the option to end their turn, attack, or use a special attack/ability. Items, of which you can only assign one per character, provide buffs such as extra strength or armor. Scoring victories over opponents in the way of kills can enable you to promote your characters, increasing their stats and enabling them to carry higher level items. Promotions are enabled by acquiring Renown, which can be gained in combat or making favorable choices. Renown is also used to purchase items and supplies, adding a strategic depth on how you use your Renown. Do you promote everyone you can, using it all up, or save some for supplies to keep the caravan alive? Or do you save it to purchase items that will provide nice buffs in combat? As in the story these choices are all up to the players, and there is no right or wrong way to approach the game. Combat does spike in difficulty towards the latter chapters, so again your choices carry weight, affecting to how successful you will be and which ending you may receive.
In all, The Banner Saga proved to be an engaging tactical RPG that had me on edge every time I made a decision, hoping that I didn’t screw up and then figuring out how to make the best of a bad situation. My first playthrough took me around 11 hours, though it can be longer depending on what path you choose to take through the game and how much you investigate the lore of the game world. The characters are all nicely defined, and give you a nice range of personalities from both human and varl. The story is well told, though a cheerful game this is not, as it gives Game of Thrones a run for its money in terms of dire straits affecting likeable characters. Things often go from bad to worse as your caravan is beset by harsh weather, low supplies, thieves, brigands, and the ever present dredge. The occasional bright spots just feel so much better, and there is plenty of satisfaction to be gained when your choice splay out nicely. The game has replayability built in, as two players can have different experiences depending on the choices you make. This does help in getting your twenty bucks worth easily from the game, as it offers a nice value for your money. It won’t be game for everyone, as some will be put off by having to read a lot of text, the slightly animated cut scenes, and the bleak nature of the narrative. But if you’re brave enough and willing to live with the consequences of your choices, Stoic has crafted an epic tactical RPG for you to dive into. Well worth your time to check this one out.
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