In The Banner Saga – an artistically brilliant, epic role-playing strategy game – the world is at relative peace. Horned-giants (known as Varl) and man live in unison, and life continues on despite the gods having died many years prior. However, for an unknown reason, the sun has stopped working. This is the premise for the game.
You begin as part of a caravan doing their annual tax run through the land. Though you’ll begin in control of members of the caravan – and one Varl in particular – you’ll quickly (roughly an hour into the game) switch between main-characters (eventually switching back), offering a varied perspective on the game’s world and story.
As the initial crew, you’ll quickly run into trouble, and will be thrown almost immediately into battle. The game’s combat-system is grid and turned-based. Players can move up to four tiles per turn, with each character having the option of attacking an enemy within their range (which is dependent on the character), using their special (which ranges from defensive abilities to powerful offensive attacks), or resting if they make no move at all, which increases their willpower. Willpower is an important feature of combat that can be used in several ways; for example, players can move up to two addition squares in addition to their limit of four by using willpower, and they can also use the willpower to increase the impact of their attacks. Although you’ll face human combatants, your primary opponent will be Dredge, an enemy species to human and Varl.
Each character, friend and foe, has a strength level and an armor level. A character’s strength level accounts for their attack power, as well as their health. As strength decreases, a character’s attacks do less damage; once strength decreases to zero, the player dies. If a character’s armor is higher than an attackers strength, there will be a considerable chance of the character deflecting the attack (represented by a percentage point), making it sometimes necessary to chip away at armor before attacking an enemy’s strength.
If a character defeats enough enemies, he’ll have the option of being “promoted”, which increases their stats and armor at the cost of renown; renown is earned through taking down enemies and achieving victory in battle, and acts as both the currency in the game, and the means of leveling up your character.
The combat system is accessible, relatively deep and most importantly, fun. As you get towards the end of game the battles lose some of their enjoyment and grow a bit repetitive (especially considering the game has a fairly small amount of enemy types), but never to the point of it ruining the overall experience.
Outside of combat, the game – although there is the occasional voiced-over scene – relies heavily, if not almost exclusively, on text. You’ll read a lot of dialogue between characters, and are often given the option to respond a certain way or ask certain questions by choosing between a few options. Actions and descriptions that occur are handled through italicized text to separate it from the dialogue. In conversation the view often switches between characters, though their positioning stays the same (in most instances their position remains unchanged throughout the game). There’s no real movement made by the characters, other than an occasional gust of wind slightly shifting their hair or clothing, or their eyes/lips sometimes moving. The art-style of the characters is great, however, and the character-models detailed.
The game really shines when it has you making tough decisions, which happens fairly often; do you allow a group of people who claim their village burnt down join your caravan? Do you banish the drunkard who’s causing trouble among your group? These choices are fun to make, often tense and can at times have a significant impact on the game.
When traveling between locations, your group will occasionally setup camp. Here you can train, which allows you to battle without consequence, look over your group members (equip any purchased or found gear, level up and establish a battle lineup are the primary options), and rest, which takes up supplies (which you have to keep stocked or members of your caravan will begin to die of starvation) but will help any injured character heal. On occasion, you’ll also be given the option to converse with some of your group members. Once done, you can simply leave the camp and continue on.
The game, which is primarily hand-drawn, is artistically impressive throughout, particularly the backgrounds as you’re traversing. The game’s music is top-notch and atmospherically fitting. The story is good, bordering on great, though it never quite reaches its potential.
In the end, The Banner Saga – which took me roughly 10 hours to complete – is a game that entertains. It’s fun to play, has a fascinating story and gives you a bevy of difficult and fun-to-make choices. The game stands strong as one of the better RPGs released this year.