It's been two years since The Banner Saga was released on PC and mobile, and somehow I managed to avoid this Kickstarter success story, despite the decent amount of praise it received from other reviewers and players. Fast forward two years, and the title is finally hitting next-gen consoles, namely the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One. Does this game live up to the expectations that the last two years set for me?
The Banner Saga touts that the decisions you make will have an impact on what happens in the story, but the game starts out with a fantastic bit of lore to work with. The game takes place in a wintry world, where humans live alongside Viking-inspired giants known as Varl. The sun has stopped moving through the sky, perpetually hanging overhead and bathing everything in daylight, and a dark race of monsters known as the Dredge have returned and are slaughtering folks left and right. It's a very inventive premise, and the writers have done a great job expanding on it and creating what feels like a complete world.
There are two major components to the gameplay: there's combat, and there's the caravan. The caravan consists of all the soldiers and civilians you've acquired along the way, minus the ones that fell due to your story choices. In a mechanic oddly reminiscent of The Oregon Trail, your caravan travels along the road over the course of several days, slowly consuming supplies as you go. You'll occasionally make it to towns or other encampments, where you can rest to heal injuries, or purchase more supplies to keep the caravan going. You'll also need to make decisions about where to go, or what to do about incoming dredge, and such like that.
It seems like a small thing at first, but having some control of your journey in between battles is something I appreciated a lot. Watching you wander through the tundra, supplies slowly disappearing and morale occasionally dropping, helps reinforce how hopeless the situation seems, and makes you feel more for the characters you have. I felt myself getting anxious as the caravan trudged on farther than I had expected, my supplies dwindling close to zero. It's a pretty good mechanic, though you don't have a lot of input.
Speaking of input, I mentioned earlier that the choices you make have an impact on how the story goes, and while this is often a half-true bullet point for the back of the game box, it really did feel like I was the one making the major decisions. I would have to choose who fought in battle, if battles happened at all, whether or not strangers could be trusted, and more. At one particularly noteworthy part of the story, I felt myself being directly responsible for the death of one of my newest recruits - a decision that I'm sure would give me trouble later as I went into battle with one less warrior.
So the caravan part of the game is solid - but what about the combat? The Banner Saga's combat system is a turn-based strategy system, much like Fire Emblem or Disgaea, but with a bit of a twist. In addition to the standard hit points (which are now considered your strength), each player and enemy also has shield points; if your opponent has more shield points than you have health/strength, there is a chance that the attack will miss entirely. So in order to take down the most powerful foes, you need to attack their shield specifically, until they're at a point where strong hits are guaranteed to land. It's a simple bit of strategy, but it's enough to keep your battles from being "hit with your strongest attacks all the time".
Another element of the combat is willpower. If you need to give one of your soldiers an extra boost, you can expend a willpower to increase their movement range slightly, or add some strength to their attack, you can spend one of their limited willpower points to do so. This proved useful at several points, though I rarely found myself hitting the limit. I did find certain troops were frequently ganged up on and taken out, but unlike Fire Emblem, they're not permanently killed; they just become "injured" and have to rest for a bit, which takes up more of your vital supplies. The permanent death is saved for the story moments, and it will very likely happen to you, many times.
There are still some issues with the combat, though, that really make battles more difficult than they need to be, especially when titles like Fire Emblem have mastered the genre. The most annoying thing is how often I'll move my character to see if they can hit an enemy, realize they can't, and then discover I can't move my character back. If there is a way to try out moves like that, I never found it, and it led to a lot of unnecessary pain for my troops. It would also be very useful to see if enemies could hit me while I was planning a move, information that I take for granted during a Fire Emblem game.
Lastly, I find there's way too much visual clutter on the screen sometimes, and I'll often move my character to the wrong spot or even attack the wrong enemy; the inability to rotate the camera and get a decent view of the action is infuriating. A couple of simple changes would have alleviated a lot of my combat issues, and I wouldn't have made so many mistakes just trying to attack foes.
As you can expect, the visual design of this game is beautiful. The animation style is very reminiscent of animated films such as The Last Unicorn (a comparison I only just realized while editing this review), with great character designs and lovely environments. The animations (as in the actual motions) look great in battle as well, though they come off as rather subpar during the animated cutscenes. The audio work is great; when you hear voices, they're well done, and the music is excellent and pleasant to listen to. There are some audio mixing issues during some cutscenes, however, with music overpowering the voices carrying the plot.
Naturally, a game where your choices change the outcome of the story lends itself to plenty of replayability. Like Dark Souls, this game doesn't allow you to manually save, and it autosaves very frequently; when you make a decision, you're stuck with it. The combat can get a bit repetitive, since it's not particularly deep, but the other elements of the game encourage you to see it through to the end. I'm not sure how many times I personally would replay it, but the option is there.
I'm always happy to see more success stories coming out of Kickstarter, and while The Banner Saga doesn't reach the lofty heights of perfection that Shovel Knight managed to achieve, it manages to serve as an engrossing and different experience that lots of people will enjoy. Some of the combat flaws can be extremely annoying at times, and can lead to battles taking a different route than you would expect, but they are things that I can ultimately overlook for the sake of the experience as a whole. A great story, a great world, and good combat combine to give an experience that RPG fans, and game enthusiasts in general, should definitely give this game a closer look.
Final score: 8 out of 10