The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 Review (PC)
Much like the war for the crown in 'Game of Thrones', The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 requires you to make the hard decisions of a wartime strategist and reiterates the notion that battle can be rough and relentless as it makes you play intricate and elaborate matches of chess. Every decision you end up doing, whether its choosing your plan of attack for a massive battle or giving supplies to a war-ravaged town you're passing by, has some form of ramification that will come back to affect you and your forces in the long run. While it's difficulty certainly is not for everyone, its breathtaking, hand-drawn animation; relentless, in-depth combat system; gripping story and otherworldly soundtrack result in The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 breathing a massive, cold gust of fresh air into the tactical role-playing genre.
Considering that the team behind The Banner Saga, Stoic, is comprised of three former members of BioWare, we went into this tactical RPG expecting a distinct level of quality and intricacy. The Banner Saga builds on fundamentals of the genre (grid-based combat, decision making, talking with townsfolk and party members) while trying to grow into something outside of our expectations and staying true to Stoic's inspirations. So instead of vikings, dwarves or elves, we have the massive Varl. The Dredge replace orcs and represent the global threat, so the humans must still rally together with their unlikely allies in the Varl to help save the world. So let's see if this frigid band of Varl and humans can rise to the occasion.
The obvious, standout attribute of The Banner Saga is its stunning graphics. Everything in this game looks hand-drawn, including its cutscenes, world map, town sequences and battles. A whole lot of love went into drawing these characters and backgrounds, and it shows throughout our experiences with this title from start to finish. This art style is reminiscent of Don Bluth of Dragon's Lair fame mixed with the rotoscope techniques and cel drawings Ralph Bakshi used in his animated version of 'The Lord of the Rings' in 1978. The result is absolutely fantastic and unlike anything else on the market. Sure, other RPGs have used anime-inspired, hand-drawn art styles, but we have never seen an RPG purposely go back to a 1970s style of animation.
By taking this retro style of animation and combining it with modern technology, we get the Bluth approach on a more widespread scale. Whether it's your army camping across mountainous plains or a small skirmish with your main team, the graphics of The Banner Saga captivate. The aesthetics of this title can be interpreted as Stoic staying true to their inspirations while trying to expand and evolve into something greater.
Fortunately, the sound quality of The Banner Saga is just as impressive as its graphics. This title's orchestral score was done by Austin Wintory. Gamers might remember this name for being the stellar composer behind the music of the indie, smash hit, Journey. Famous Internet cover artists Taylor Davis (known for her violin renditions of famous video game songs) and Malukah (known for her acoustic video game covers) each get to shine in Banner Saga with a few beautiful solo sequences that standout from its overall stellar score. The inclusion of these two talented women shows that Stoic acknowledges the Internet gaming community and values their opinions. With Wintory and the Dallas Wind Symphony orchestra covering the rest of the soundtrack, Banner Saga's pleases the auditory senses just as its visuals uniquely do.
Working for BioWare, it seems that the trio at Stoic have learned from the company's history of utilizing top-of-the-line voice actors with extreme solid script work. Sigbjorn, the massive, drunken giant, slurs his speech while maintaining the gruff vastness of the Varl. The hunting family of Rook and Alette sound perfectly believable as a father and daughter who live their lives hunting. The voice of Mogr reflects decades of service and battle and the expected charisma of a Varl that all the other giants admire and respect. Throughout our journeys with the two playable armies in The Banner Saga, we did not notice any voice that seemed out of place or poorly done, which greatly lives up to our expectations of this project.
The story of Banner helps tie together its visual and auditory delights. Much like the historical use of the word "saga", Banner Saga takes the Scandinavian and Germanic tales of old and helps contextualize them in the video game format. Instead of the traditions of vikings, we are presented with the giant Varl race. The Loom-mother, a god of the land, created humans to inhabit the world and prosper. Another god created the Varl, joining both the quality of man and animal, to spite the Loom-mother. The Varl are massive, enjoy warfare and feel that they are far superior to mankind. Of course, the Varl and humanity have ended up fighting numerous times, until the Dredge, armored colossi and ancestral enemies of the Varl, appeared en masse and went to war against both the Varl and humanity. Of course, an unlikely pairing had to happen. The premise of Banner Saga might seem like a 'Tolkien' story, but the intricacy of the characters, writing and script help add much depth to the story.
The grid-based, RPG mechanics of The Banner Saga's combat, battalion management and its overarching decision system are the aspects of this game that players will enjoy or hate. As previously stated, be weary of 'Games of Thrones'-esque deaths, which can happen out of nowhere based on your decisions with your caravan. These scenarios are brought to you in a manner of delivery similar to Oregon Trail. As your caravan roams the land to its destination, you will encounter a variety of scenarios. Some predicaments are simple in their premise, such as sparing supplies to those less fortunate. Another scenario had a wagon of supplies falling off a ledge while a major Varl character went to save it. You have the option of telling the Varl to let it go or to send other forces and help him save the wagon. Due to the importance of supplies, we chose in this predicament to try save the wagon, which resulted in the Varl and the other characters we sent all falling off the ledge, resulting in them all permanently dying.
Fortunately, perma-death in combat is nowhere as big as a problem as it was for the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics or Fire Emblem. It seems that the outer world can be worse than the battlefield. Your caravan's management revolves around morale and supplies. You obviously need supplies to feed your forces, otherwise they die. High morale is needed for your army, otherwise people might quit your army or even start fighting other members, resulting in even more deaths. No food will lead to diminishing morale, and of course, death. These factors also affect your fights. High morale will result in your forces having a buff to their willpower at the beginning of battle. Every gut needs to be full, so expect to prioritize supplies over everything else.
The grid-based combat of Banner Saga is based upon the individual stats of every character on the field. Armor blocks damage. Strength is both health and the damage you can do. Decreasing an enemy's strength (health) is calculated by taking your strength and subtracting the enemy's armor. If a unit's strength hits zero, they fall unconscious. Unconscious characters don't permanently die but are out of commission for a number of battles after. Willpower is spent to move your unit and for actions. Break is the amount of damage you can do to an enemy's armor with each hit. Once you throw these concepts all together, the fighting of Banner Saga becomes quite intricate. You simply cannot rush your strongest guy into the heart of the field and hope the rest can support him. Instead, your actions must be methodical and calculated. The resulting effect is that you must take your time in order to effectively manage your units. This might turn off players who are neither patient nor strategically gifted. Luckily, there is an easy difficulty mode for those who prefer easy sailing.
As long as you can maintain the mindset that you can't finish a war without casualties then The Banner Saga: Chapter 1 is for you. The gameplay itself is one-dimensional; there isn't much to this game besides worrying about numbers on a screen and playing a very mean game of chess. The decision-making aspect of managing your caravan comes with plenty of shocks and surprises, while reminding you that even the simplest of choices can result in dire ramifications. The in-depth, statistics-based nature of its combat means that people who rush their battles are doomed to lose. Even when we took our time in trying to win our battles, we still found our forces taking a beating regularly. On that note, the difficulty of Banner Saga results in an adverse effect. Those who are fine with Dark Souls' punishment of the player will find themselves right at home.
Ultimately, the steep learning curve and focus on statistics management which could be considered a hindrance is vastly outshined by The Banner Saga's absolutely memorizing production value. The artwork, music, voices, decision-making and nail-biting combat kept us thoroughly engaged with The Banner Saga: Chapter 1. Sure, its difficulty frustrated and the varying results of the decision choices left us frustrated quite a few times, but by the time the smoke settled, we were left eagerly awaiting The Banner Saga: Chapter 2.
This review was completed using a purchased retail copy of The Banner Saga for the PC.