The chill of winter’s bite digs deep into your bones. The snow is thick and covered in blood. The drums of battle sound in a rhythmic pace. Looking from side to side you see your brothers in arms breathing heavily, their breath visible in the cold northern air. Enemies surround you, yet you can tell they are nervous; more so than you. With a battle cry you and your brothers rush in, shield bearers slamming into the opposition, large axes smashing bones and swords cutting into enemy flesh. This is The Banner Saga, and its one hell of a game.
The Banner Saga is a Tactical RPG with a Viking setting created by a small studio called Stoic. The neat thing about Stoic is that they were former Bioware developers, so they know how to make story driven games. The Banner Saga shows off all the great things we love from Bioware games, but with their own spin obviously. It’s definitely a darker and more adult world they’ve created in The Banner Saga where your choices matter a lot. The game is more than just a Tactical RPG, it’s an experience in a world filled with vikings, horned giants, and blood thirsty enemies. There will be many times where you are just watching your army move across the snowy peaks or frosty forests. It very much reminds me of Oregon Trail. Even though you are taking a spectator’s role during these moments, you still feel like you are there because the game has this way of making you feel part of the world. It’s even better if you let it get chilly in your house.
When you are not traveling across the frozen tundra you are either in camp, experiencing part of the story, or battling it out with Dredge. The story portions of the game are filled with choices. It feels more like a text adventure at this point and that’s okay as the writing is good and keeps you in the world. There are a few silly options but they make sense. The choices you make can be simple responses to conversation, tactical advice for upcoming battles, and situations that take place in the world that need immediate attention. Bioware fans will enjoy that most of these choices can have a huge impact on the player. I’ve made plenty of choices that turned out far worse than I had hoped. Favorite characters dying or coming up missing can happen a lot if you aren’t careful. I know as it’s happened to me. I believe you can reload earlier saves to try other things, but I personally didn’t try it. I just dealt with the consequences because that’s how the game is intended. Even after losing characters I wasn’t angry with the game more so with myself which furthered the interactivity on an emotional level.
One of my favorite options.
The actual battles are done in typical Tactical RPG style, think Final Fantasy Tactics and other similar games. The battles allow you to use six of your characters to battle your enemies. Each character is a specific type of class ranging from your typical tank type characters, damage dealers, to support characters. There are no experience points, instead characters get credit for making the killing blow against an enemy which rewards you with Renown. The characters can be promoted (leveled up) after killing a certain number of enemies. What’s neat is that characters have Armor points along with their HP. What this means is when attacking you have a choice to damage directly to an enemy’s health or try and break their armor. If you break their armor, you will do more damage to them physically. Many characters have abilities that can damage both as well as knock back and add bleeding effects. One drawback is that characters typically only have one ability, but it levels up as you promote them. With six characters on the field you will have to make sure your characters are varied enough to get the job done. The battles are very challenging but nothing unfair. After finishing a battle you are often offered the chance to keep fighting more enemies to earn more Renown. The catch is that you do not get a chance to rest your characters and anyone who is KOed stays that way. Sometimes this can be risky but worth it if you need extra Renown. Occasionally during battle it is difficult to see which tile you are targeting for some abilities due to where enemies and your characters are standing. If only you were able to rotate the battlefield, but for the most part it’s only a minor hindrance.
All characters have Willpower. Willpower allows characters to move extra distances, deal more damage, or activate abilities. Depending on your stats you can use more than one Willpower per turn which can be integral to defeating enemies before they can damage you. During battle you can earn extra Willpower by killing enemies or having a character with the Rally ability to restore a few willpower points. Using Willpower wisely is definitely something to watch for on the battle field.
Luckily your characters can’t die in combat, they just get KOed and become injured. The only permadeath seems to happen during the story bits where you make decisions. An injured character needs rest. You can use them again but they will get a penalty to their HP and Armor until they are rested for the proper amount of time. Resting takes place in camps or towns. Camps and towns also allow you to buy provisions for your armor which is important to keeping moral good for the troops. Along with provisions you can buy items that can be equipped by your characters to enhance certain stats or abilities. All of these transactions require Renown, which you get in battle as well as making smart decisions in the story. Renown is also used in promoting your warriors. Promotion increases stats and abilities as well as gives you points to place in different stats making your characters more powerful and useful. Here you can increase your HP, Armor, how much willpower you start with, how much willpower you can spend in a turn, how much damage you can do to armor, and such. While there isn’t a ton of customization, it still feels rewarding to promote your characters and making them better. Which in turn makes it that much difficult when you lose one of them.
Aesthetically the game is absolutely gorgeous. The landscapes pop even though the palette is filled with whites, grays, and other wintry colors. The characters are all drawn beautifully. It reminds me of classic Disney like Sword in the Stone or even that animated Hobbit movie. The music fits perfectly for the world ofThe Banner Saga and the few instances of Voice Acting sound good. The animations in battle are fluid and drawn just as beautifully. It looks like you’re playing a cartoon. The biggest fault with the game that I could find is the loading times. They happen fairly frequently especially when resting heroes and going into battles. They seem to last quite some time, but honestly it’s worth the wait so its really just a minor annoyance.
I know it’s only January, but last January one of my GotY picks was released. The Banner Saga is a fantastic challenging Tactical RPG with plenty of rich dark story and decisions that matter. Every night before bed I HAVE to play The Banner Saga. I absolutely love the game in every way. Seriously, this game is twenty five bucks on Steam. If you can’t afford it, keep an eye for a Steam sale and pick it up when you can. You will certainly be pleased.