I’ve been waiting to play The Banner Saga for a long old time now. Since gracing Kickstarter with its original crowdfunding campaign, Stoic has gone on to create one of gaming’s most recognised independent franchises. Over time, the more it has grown – with a tabletop game and sequel on the horizon – the more I’ve wanted to immerse myself in The Banner Saga universe.
Truth be told, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to do so, having access to a decent gaming computer as well as an iPad Mini. At the same time, however, I always had this hunch that one day The Banner Saga would make the brave leap from PC to console. Now, coming up to the game’s second anniversary, it has finally arrived on current gen platforms.
Despite the transition, everything The Banner Saga has to offer on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One seems to mirror the original. To that effect, this latest version is more of straight-up port than one of your so-called ‘enhanced editions’. That’s hardly a worry though, considering the breadth and quality of content the game has on show, especially when you factor in how well the mechanics and controls have been adapted. Sure, with a gamepad in-hand, it can feel a tad cumbersome at times yet this fails to diminish what is one of the stronger titles the strategy genre has to offer.
The real selling point is The Banner Saga’s harsh and mystical setting. Clearly influenced by Norse mythology, it depicts a frozen realm in which man and giant enjoy a burgeoning yet fragile alliance. As you switch between two groups of primary characters, you’ll pick up on the tension between these two factions. Where humans have continued to push north and build settlements, the giants, known as Varl, are an ancient race far better suited to brutal climate – just as the monstrous Dregde are. These stone-clad creatures roam the snowy mountains with seemingly no other purpose but to kill those in their path. However, as of late their numbers have swelled and it isn’t long before man and his newly-appointed ally begin to suspect something much darker looms on the horizon.
Whether in control of Hakon and his Varl war-band, or Rook and his dwindling troupe of survivors, the game flow is identical. Players will perhaps spend an equal amount of time either engaged in the narrative or in combat. The former part will have you conversing with The Banner Saga’s various characters who, despite some weak dialogue in places, are a robust bunch to say the least. While on the road, visiting numerous settlements and strongholds, you’ll be called upon to make all kinds of decisions. Where some are fairly superficial, others have severe consequences that can break alliances or even signal the death of an ally.
One thing many have liked about this is that there is no black and white moral system at play here. A grey fog encircles every decision make with no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ decisions of which to speak. This really helps to anchor the mature setting Stoic has been going for in which whimsical fantasy tropes have either been subverted or stomped out completely. That said, although I enjoyed the characters and setting, the story lacked pacing. At times, I’d be traveling between cities without any real sense of purpose, the only bits of narrative being the occasional chunk of background lore.
Combat is where The Banner Saga really picks up, however, and is no doubt why many will flock to this indie title. Drawing inspiration from the likes of Fire Emblem and XCOM, everything here is strictly turn-based and viewed from a top-down perspective. However, where this could have been a cookie-cutter strategy game, Stoic has worked in plenty of nuances to differentiate The Banner Saga from its contemporaries.
For example, the way it plays around with traditional health bars is very interesting. You see, the red Strength gauge isn’t just an indicator of a character’s remaining life points, it also shows their outgoing damage. To me that makes perfect sense – the better condition you’re in, the more efficiently you can handle yourself in combat. However, there is a blue Armour gauge that also needs to be factored in. It may seem complex at first, but damage basically equates to a character’s current Strength, minus the Armour score of their target. This clever approach to number crunching makes each battle a true test of strategy, especially when combined with The Banner Saga’s augmented turn-taking system.
From battle you’ll earn Renown, which isn’t quite the same as experience points. Apart from being used to upgrade fighters, it is the only way to buy supplies for your caravan. Again, this is another example of where The Banner Saga imposes tough choices on the player. While equipping your characters may seem like a priority, forcing your people to starve can also have dire consequences.
It makes one or two minor stumbles along the way, but The Banner Saga continues to stand tall two years after its original release. Empowered a truly jaw-dropping art direction and the masterful audio work of composer Austin Wintory, Stoic’s plans to expand the franchise are certainly justifiable.
Version tested: PS4