Vikings and Giants roam the land in a world where the sun never sets in a genre that refuses to sleep
Strategy RPGs have been a mainstay in the videogaming landscape for a very long time. While Final Fantasy Tactics may have popularized the genre on consoles in 1997, more have been around for much longer with a veritable explosion of them in the sixth hardware generation. Many of these games have the same hallmarks; a grid, whether by square or by hex, shows how player characters can move, attack and defend, often with a roster of attacks, spells and special abilities.
With so many of these games on the market, especially with the PS2 superglut of tactics-style titles, how can an SRPG create its own identity so late in the game while remaining familiar to dedicated players in the genre? The answer lies within Stoic’s The Banner Saga.
The Banner Saga is a Viking-inspired epic following a group of heroes as they set forth from their ravaged hometowns from a new threat into a hostile world where the sun never sets. Along the way, new allies will join and fight alongside you as you make your way to your ultimate objective.
Being that Stoic is made up of former BioWare members, it comes as no surprise that all of your decisions have consequences; The Banner Saga features conversation trees and story branches much like many of BioWare’s games such as Jade Empire or, even more so, the Mass Effect series. The story The Banner Saga tells can change wildly depending on how you make your way through the many intricate conversations that are had throughout the game. Alliances between humans and horned giants known as the Varl make for a really dynamic and unique-feeling storytelling style, complete with some seriously good hand-drawn visuals and animation.
The main draw is the great combination of tactical battles and long-game strategy that mix it up in pretty good ways. Your group of allies will travel along a more or less linear path with interspersed segments whereby players can interact with a roster of characters and NPCs both in the traveling party and in towns and encampments along the way. Players can also set up camp to recover from particularly close or harsh battles, to boost company morale, train, chat and so forth. Items can also be purchased at certain points as well. Maintaining a happy, powerful crew can definitely be challenging, yet very rewarding as a result. Many decisions on how to proceed will also happen at many of the junctures that will pop up as well, which, again, can send the plot on many interesting tangents as well. In short, it’s very replayable.
Despite so much to do in these segments, a game like that alone could make for a pretty boring game. So naturally, the battles break up this potential monotony with some really innovative and engaging features. In essence, The Banner Saga’s battle scenes are very by the book, so fans of tactical RPGs are going to feel very at-home with the mechanics at play here. Moving a character is pretty simple; just select a square within their defined range and select it. Moving alongside or within range of enemies allows players to launch an attack, but here’s where things get a bit twisty; players and enemies alike have both a life value in red and an armor value in blue. Going up against an enemy with a high armor value that your attack strength more or less gets you nowhere in life and usually results in getting smacked around more than you’d like.
The key to success is knowing how to chip away at a foe’s armor to land more powerful hits. Using armor-damaging attacks and boosting them with stars for enhanced attack value is critical, and while the battles may seem longer at first because of this, as players get used to the mechanics, they will become naturally speedier as a result. There are all kinds of ways to go about murdering your opposition, thanks to the two races that offer a wide range of attacks, defense and abilities almost directly out of the gate. Pairing archers with giants, for example, can lead to early and speed armor damage while the giants go in to turn their enemies into a fine paste. This ends up being really engaging, cerebral and – most importantly – fun in the end. As always, with more kills comes more experience, which leads to unit promotions and, if you feel it’s too hard or easy, the difficulty can be changed in the options menu without changing the story. You can even forgo time-consuming heal phases on Easy to keep your whole crew battle ready in every fight, regardless of falling in battle.
Combined with the fantastic presentation you’ll find throughout the game in the form of fantastically sharp, detailed and imaginative watercolor backgrounds, great character and enemy design, slick animation and some excellent sound direction, The Banner Saga not only has great mechanics that separate it from many, if not all of the similar Tactical SRPGs out there to date but also its own starkly unique identity in the way it depicts the world and its inhabitants.
With the good comes some bad though; there are going to be times where you’ll strain to make sense of some characters’ speech, thanks to some pretty heavy accents mixed with an ever-so-slight lack of clear annunciation. Meanwhile, in battle, you’d better make sure you know exactly where you want to go, because if you screw up your placement, there’s no taking it back to better position yourself… something that has been a mainstay in the genre since times immemorial. On a much lesser note, getting a hang of the controls and all of the functions in The Banner Saga can also take a bit longer to get used to than some players may expect; there’s a slight lack of uniformity thanks to all of the new mechanics and features, but it’s nothing that can’t be adapted to very quickly.
In the end, if it’s a Tactics-Strategy RPG you’re looking for on your PS4, The Banner Saga could easily fill any gaps you may have between tactics giants like Disgaea with its fantastic world and interesting features. If you’re into the genre, it’s absolutely worth a look at the very least.
Final Verdict: 4 / 5
Available on: PlayStation 4 (Reviewed) Xbox One, PC; Publisher: Versus Evil; Developer: Stoic; Players: 1; Released: January 12, 2016; Genre: Strategy RPG; MSRP: $19.99
Full disclosure: This review was written based on review code supplied by the game’s publisher, Versus Evil.