Let me start this review off by noting that I am late to this party. The Banner Saga, produced by Stoic Games and published by Versus Evil, was originally released in January of 2014 after a successful Kickstarter campaign. However, it was not until earlier this week that I picked up this interesting find when it was featured as part of a Steam sale. I had heard a little about the game, and it had been recommended to me, but I really didn’t know much about it, other than it was a turn-based strategy RPG with a lot of old-school roots.
My first impressions of this game were that it was just gorgeous to look at. The animation quality in the first screens blew me away. The art is a throwback to animated classics of the laser-disc era, updated into high-resolution. That may sound weird, but trust me, it’s pretty to look at. What struck me most about the art, however, was how darn good it looks between cutscenes. In-game, you are greeted with close-ups of characters as you converse, and during combat a familiar-looking tactical grid overlays the same beautiful art. This game is stunningly gorgeous, to say the least.
The gameplay itself is easy to pick up, but there is a lot of depth involved in strategy. Characters are different sizes (and you start out playing giants!), and have different defensive and offensive abilities, and you must always decide whether to spend extra stamina to deal extra damage, or to forego your turn altogether to build up more. There is a clear Dungeons and Dragons influence here as well, as I often felt as though I were playing a simpler version of the tabletop game’s combat.
Outside of combat, you build relationships between characters that affect how those characters interact moving forward. In this way, this game seems quite modern, akin to Mass Effect, but with perhaps more of a sharp impact on the story. The story itself is oppressive, with very little mirth. The game starts by saying the gods are dead and the sun has stopped, and that is just the beginning of how downright dreary it can seem. While this story holds a lot of promise, a lot of rather bland dialogue waters down interactions, and the repercussions of not reading and understanding what impact your choices might have is drastic.
Really, drastic is a good adjective for this game. The difficulty spikes up quickly, and the simple combat mechanics become increasingly difficult to master. While I found this disconcerting, it forces the player to learn the nuances of the game rapidly. In this way, this game harkens back to the roots upon which it is founded, though perhaps a bit too strongly.
The setting and art of this game are fantastic, and the ideas behind it are solid, but at times the dialogue and story seem rather bland and monotonous. Despite this, the sheer charm of this game makes it a must-try, especially if you’ve been playing RPG and tactical games for years. The game is flawed, certainly, but it is still astounding at times and a great joy to pick up.