Published on December 1st, 2014 | by Matthew Byrd1
The Banner Saga Review
The Banner Saga is a game built upon influences.
Look at The Banner Saga’s visuals and you’ll instantly reminisce on the classic animated films of Ralph Bakshi, with just a hint of several Disney classics. It is an absolutely striking style that immediately places The Banner Saga among the most beautiful games ever made. Every inch of this game’s aesthetical elements look to have been crafted by masters of the art over a period of months, then expertly combined into some kind of modern day mural. They are, in every respect, a true achievement.
The game’s score and sound effects draw from a similar well, and are equally dynamic. The best way to describe it is haunting. There’s a certain melancholy about the game’s audio that affects even the most joyous or action packed moments.
That’s due largely to the game’s downtrodden world and plot line, which again takes cues from works such as Game of Thrones and other medieval fantasy works with a dark twist. It follows a nomadic tribe and a band of exiles who both find themselves conflicting with both fellow survivalists and an army of non-humans that are serving as the catalyst for rapid change in this world. Whispers of ancient magic and saviors occasionally fill the ears of those still left alive, but mostly talk turns to finding food, shelter and the last battle.
That battle system is the result of another series of influences. Most notably Final Fantasy Tactics. It’s a grid based, tactical combat system that asks you to put a little more thought into your ax smashes and shield slams than usual. It’s largely based around proper party management, skill assessment and troop positioning.
But without a doubt, the game’s oddest, yet most important, influence is The Oregon Trail. Much like that game you’ll constantly find yourself having to manage resources and make decisions which will inevitably affect the future of yourself and your party, all while on a journey. Unlike The Oregon Trail, your decisions are of a much more morally ambiguous nature. There are no easy choices here, and the fallout of your choices are never quite clear from the outset. It’s a game that will make you truly call into question your own judgment and moral compass.
It’s actually a lot like the staff favorite, and highly underrated, Android RPG Tales of Illyria in that regard. In both cases, what you get is an adventure that feels like a true journey. One shaped in equal measure by your own input, and the well-crafted presets of the developers.
What’s truly amazing about this entire set-up is that, despite The Banner Saga being built on so many influences, the game still feels remarkably fresh. You can really feel the passion that went into it, and the journey it presents is certainly worth sticking it out through. The plot and characters develop at that kind of finely balanced pace you rarely see in gaming. You are never left wanting for something to happen, but at the same time never feel things are being rushed. Every turn brings about an interesting occurrence, and your favorite moments or characters emerge out of the seemingly quietest of events.
If The Banner Saga’s goal was to present an experience and story that feels like a genuine piece of cultural mythology, then it is a complete triumph.
Unfortunately The Banner Saga is more than just a story, however, and as a game it has some flaws.
This is most evident in the combat system, which again takes cues from great games of that design mold, but unfortunately fails to emulate their attention to detail, and potential depth. Despite your best efforts, combat in this game almost always boils down to your party and your foes grouping together in a small area to see who is the last standing. Things like the positioning of your party and properly utilizing skills certainly do matter, but every battle feels more like a war of attrition than a strategic confrontation. Even worse, some of the later battles are almost entirely dependent on your leveling up the right character with the right skills along the way.
Also, as great as the story and its plot devices are, it suffers from a lack of permadeath. Unlike say the Fire Emblem series where any character can be permanently lost at any time, here your wins, losses and deaths are governed more strictly. What’s odd about this is that the morbid tone of the game and the general set-up of certain moments seem to be set-up for a system wherein your decisions and losses in battle have more serious repercussions. In comparison to some of the games of recent years with a choice system, The Banner Saga doesn’t really make you feel the weight of your decisions to the full degree.
As far as the Android transition goes, this is as good as can be expected. These types of games always lend themselves to touch controls, while the graphic and sound quality is as good as can be on the mobile platform. Of course, as with any PC to mobile game, the usual warnings apply. That includes a hefty download size, some sturdy system requirements and a strong difference in quality between the tablet and phone version. In fact, I would caution against a download for anyone not using a tablet or larger model new phone (such as the Note, S5 or similar phablet), as you will not be getting the full, intended experience.
But if you do have an optimal set-up, I can’t recommend The Banner Saga enough. Sure it falls somewhat short of its full potential, but it’s the type of gaming experience you never forget.
Is it Hardcore?
Summary: A true masterpiece of gaming storytelling and world-building, The Banner Saga overcomes its gameplay shortcomings to become a can’t miss experience.