The Banner Saga and its sequel have been well-documented and praised for a while now. And no wonder; development team Stoic Games, founded by several ex-BioWare employees, raised the first Banner Saga to immense success on Kickstarter in 2012. Boasting gorgeous illustration with animation straight out of top-notch TV cartoon work, coupled with a core RPG system that can please Dragon Age and Fire Emblem fans alike, The Banner Saga 1 and 2 have, and have had, plenty going for them. But when released on Playstation 4 and Xbox One last month, the games came in a dual pack, with a new survival mode. Does this new port job make or break the experience for console players? Well, nothing’s broken, but there are some rusty wheels on this cart, and the carpentry job could have been better.
What is it that’s so cool about Norse mythology? I ask because I’m totally into it. Give me your classic medieval knight-princess-dragon story and I tend to drift away, but toss me some vikings in the bitter cold, fighting by axe and shield for glory and survival, and I’ll be there all weekend. The Banner Saga takes a viking-based setting and gives it a Game of Thrones-ish twist, where instead of a winter lasting years, it may last forever, because the sun has suddenly stopped. In this eternal winter day, armies of bloodthirsty creatures emerge, hungering for human and giant flesh alike. The Banner Saga games are essentially stories of travel and survival, kicking off not too long after everything’s gone wrong.
The Banner Saga games split their narratives between multiple factions of people and giants, spread across completely different corners of the map. They’re heading in different directions, but are all united by the goal of seeking safe haven from the Dredge and saving their lives from being snuffed out. With these twin journeys in stride, about half of both Banner Saga games consists of dialogue between travelers, and decisions made about whether to allow eager travelers into the caravan. Showing the studio’s BioWare roots, the games emphasize just how important story choice can be. This can happen in any number of ways, from characters using your words from prior conversations against you to trust conflicts based on whether you took someones’ life for the sake of justice.
This happens in battle too, which is great, because the other half of The Banner Saga‘s gameplay is some intensely streamlined tactical RPG combat. Characters get a health bar and an armor bar, and although the necessity of the latter isn’t obvious at first, it becomes an integral and easy-to-adapt-to part of the game shortly thereafter. Basically, the lower a character’s level and combat strength, the harder it will be for them to damage an opponent with high armor. Better, then, to chip away at the armor and create an opening. There are close-ranged characters, and archers; regular humans, and giants that take up four spaces apiece. Every character gets a special ability that can become the key to victory at any moment; one can attack with a strike that will lead other characters around the enemy to strike as well, another might have a special strike with huge knockback, and yet a third can flail random value attacks to armor and health. Each character has their own variables, and none feel too out-of-place or overpowered. The one oversight is the inability to cancel unit movement during a turn, at all. The Banner Saga is not a game with margin for error.
The Banner Saga 2 half of the package comes with a brand new mode, too. The recently-released Survival Mode pits players against a gauntlet of 40 rounds against increasingly bloodthirsty foes, with the entire cast of both games combined at their disposal. It’s a really neat idea for a mode. Personally I found the endless tirades of battle a bit monotonous after a while, without the engagement of story choice and survival spacing things out, but I can see the structure of a mode that could give more combat-frenzied players a whole new reason to sink some hours into The Banner Saga 2.
But I digress, we started to talk about the role of story in combat. Here’s a particular example from early in the first game; one of the caravans arrives at a great walled city, only to find out that the man in charge has taken the guards and locked them in with him, but not before pushing the rest of town out to fend for themselves. There are a few ways to deal with the obstacle and get inside the city, but some will affect certain characters in battle. I chose a route that involved sabotaging a supply cart as it emerged through the vast city door. One of my party (and my best archer) protested at the idea, but I went through with it anyway, not thinking too much about her words. In the ensuing battle, though, she protested as she moved around and launched arrow strikes. She actually dealt less damage through her own reluctance. The Banner Saga makes no empty threats when it comes to the impact of player choice.
With all that gushing out of the way, we do have to interject with some “too bads.” This isn’t just a review of The Banner Saga games, after all, but of the port job. And man, that port job…I want to say it could have been better, but I also feel that in some ways it does the best it could. One issue is loading times, on my system often lasting a solid 30 seconds for a completely 2D game. But more importantly, the control scheme is slightly a mess, and more than slightly confusing.
A pretty standard option in most grid-based tactics games is to use the D-pad to navigate, but not here. Only the left stick can be used for any kind of movement. In fact, of the three sets of directional inputs on the controller, two are delegated to accessing and utilizing menus in different ways that aren’t very intuitive and were almost bizarrely difficult to remember. The UI of the whole thing really speaks to its nature as a PC game that, maybe, should still be played on PC. It’s a situation where a million things could have originally been done with the click of a mouse, but now each demands its own place. Why the hell can’t I choose an ability from a menu with the same directional I used to move my unit? These are the questions to which we may never get answers, lost in the snow as they are.
Luckily, the one other factor fueling this thing with charm is some of the best art direction ever to come out of a smaller studio. Backgrounds are like period-relevant paintings, character designs are distinct and unique while also fitting the setting, and the animation, between unit movements and the occasional full cutscene, is nothing short of astounding. The animation style reminded me of the work of Don Bluth, the man behind the classic Dragon’s Lair. That in itself should be high praise.
On their own in the mountains of the end times, both entries in The Banner Saga are killer RPGs. Amazing production value, a metronomic balance between elements of gameplay, and a story full of engaging characters pull through, and survive the winter just fine. Hell, they deserve a higher score than I’m about to give this version, because the drawback is in where you’re playing it. Ports are never a bad idea from an acceptability standpoint, but with a control scheme denser than the muscle mass of a Dredge-slaughtering giant, the console version of these games aren’t the most advisable versions to play.