Review: Banner Saga08 Oct 2014 0
Review: Banner Saga
Released 02 Oct 2014
When people invariably stop in the street and ask me for my most cherished video game, I smile earnestly and tell these affable inquisitors that it is Cryo Interactive's Dune. The 1992 adventure-strategy hybrid was something else entirely, and while Westwood's Dune 2 might loom longer and larger in the collective consciousness, it was Dune that taught me that even strategy games can have a heart. Twenty-odd years one, that same heartfelt mix of tactics and characterisation is echoed in The Banner Saga.
Set within a frigid, fjord-ridden fantasy Scandinavia, The Banner Saga tells the tale of an ancient evil returned, a world in stasis and luxurious beards. It's a thankfully low-fantasy affair, with the most outlandish propositions being unyeilding mechanical goliaths known as the Dredge and the horn-sprouting Varl giants, the latter of which share an uneasy and relatively fresh peace with humankind.
Much like Dune, The Banner Saga plays out primarily a fat-free adventure game, interspersed with tactical turn-based battles. Everything outside of combat plays like a gorgeous Bakshi-inspired visual novel. While cut-scenes are fully animated, most of the narrative is conveyed via layered slides. The accelerometer within iDevices makes this a real treat, with tilt-triggered panning ushering subtle depth to what would otherwise be a static image. With carefully curated blurs, The Banner Saga's conversations go from subtitled torpidity to rich vignettes.
The game does pride itself in much the same way Telltale Games' zombo-ventures do, in that player decisions often have mortal and catastrophic outcomes. The results of encounters and scenarios through The Banner Saga, both in combat and in the story sections, will mean certain characters won't make it. In the parlance of our times, it's more than a bit Thronesian. While the divergence isn't particularly huge – and, perhaps irksomely, railroaded in places – being the helmsman and shouldering the subsequent burden of choice is amplified by the impeccable audio-visuals.
It feels disingenuous to touch so lightly on the story, but The Banner Saga sits up there with 80 Days and other fine text-heavy games on the moment – titles whose fictive innards require self-discovery. Perhaps not as robust or sophisticated as Meg Jayanth's work on Inkle's masterpiece, but still a roaring melancholic romp of defeat, death and the glimmer of hope. In the vein of King of Dragon Pass or indeed Dune, The Banner Saga does offer a tale slightly richer than the usual parboiled fare we're used to in gaming. However, as strong as the narrative elements are, the strategic draw is slightly less impressive.
Granted, The Banner Saga does put on a Valhallan feast when it comes to the core mechanics of the turn-based combat. The fundamentals of troop placement, armour and health being discrete and independent targets, as well health being crucial to damage output; The Banner Saga does build its tactical combat on a fine foundation. Damage can be boosted via willpower, which forms a nice thematically-cohesive currency, one that can also augment movement and special abilities. Humans and Varl make for interesting comrades, as real estate on the grid is often limited and the giants do take up a two-by-two square. In tight quarters, this has obvious benefits and deficits. No great surprises or blindsides to the weathered SRPG veterans, and anyone who has played an XCOM will find the combat system agreeable and comfortably familiar.
But the most egregious element that threatens to undo the clean, defined combat is the way The Banner Saga handles turns in the tactical mode. The early phase has often a relatively evenly matched face-off between the player's party and opponents. Instead of running through an entire party before making the hand-over, the game lets you delegate orders to a single unit before switching back to the enemy. This I-Go-You-Go system seriously damages the later stages of an encounter. Surviving enemy units are able to cycle attacks at a higher rate than those with a larger force remaining in combat, leading to some seriously bizarre situations where the mop-up is far more damaging to the victors than it should be. Given that The Banner Saga does have permadeath, players can find their magnificently-bearded and similarly-levelled slayer de jour trounced and bagged by some squire with a bow. But I know that I know nothin', Jon Snoh'.
In spite of the combat being a touch undone by a slightly wonky design choice, satisfaction still abounds. A conservative triumph over a cohort of Dredge is worth a pint, and when each battle is set within story beats, nothing is left feeling arbitrary or the product of padding. The Banner Saga proffers what I continue to love about Dune; within, a story serviced by mechanics, rather than the reverse. An epic, in the non-E3 jargon sense. While the spice still calls ever so strongly, so too does the mead.