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Review

The Banner Saga Review

  • Game release: January 14, 2014
  • Reviewed:
  • PC
Jeremy Jayne on Google+

An axe to grind.

by

A caravan of men and giants crosses the land. These colorfully clothed warriors cut a striking silhouette against the bleak, frozen landscape. Snowflakes waft by and craggy mountains stretch across the horizon. These travelers seem so small, so insignificant, when viewed against the chilled backdrop. The caravan encounters a troop of thieves and must reach a decision: invite the thieves to join the roving party in the hopes they might bolster the defenses, or send them away out of fear, assuming they will steal precious supplies. In The Banner Saga, you face these kinds of decisions all through the game's 10-hour campaign, making choices, and then clenching your jaw and hoping your trust was properly placed. Sometimes it is, and sometimes it isn't. Sometimes, you feel in control of your destiny, and sometimes you feel like your destiny is at the whim of the elements.

Making decisions with unclear consequences is The Banner Saga's main thrust. You spend most of your time watching several expeditions of men and giants cross the frigid Scandinavian landscape and rest in the villages and encampments they encounter. The automated journey is interrupted frequently with events that require your input. A woman has been murdered, and her mother blames another traveler. Do you support the accuser, do you support the accused, or do you dig deeper into the conflict? An obnoxious general questions your leadership and threatens to run off into the wilderness with his own men. Do you argue for him to stay? Do you send him away, thinking that perhaps he might return and grovel for mercy later? You can't presume anything. Kindness can lead to disaster. Harshness can lead to triumph. All you can do is follow your instincts, apply some logical reasoning, and hope for the best.

This is an intriguing approach to strategy and storytelling, and it often works. Each day spent hiking uses up supplies; should you run out, you start losing clansmen, warriors, or giantlike varl to famine. Furthermore, the resource called renown, which you use to purchase more supplies in the towns you visit, is the same you use to promote your heroes, whom you lead into turn-based battle. At one point, I ran out of supplies, and watched in sadness as the game informed me of my losses. My best intentions led me astray, and those mistakes cost lives. It wasn't so much the loss of life that I regretted, however, but my own failures as a commander. Fewer fighters and varl meant potentially harsher battles if I couldn't order those unnamed masses to thin out the hordes of armored enemies known as the dredge before leading my heroes to victory.

Is there nothing more frightful than a one-armed behemoth with horns?

The story takes an impressive number of turns based on your choices, weaving a twisted tapestry of unlikely alliances and disastrous betrayals. Repercussions might manifest immediately, or quite some time later, and it's a treat to watch larger plot points transform after your manipulations. But The Banner Saga never goes out of its way to point out its own intricacies; it allows events to simply occur, and as a result, the decision-making process feels organic, rather than game-ish and contrived. I'm eager to return again (and perhaps even again), to see how many stories I can help tell, and to plumb the depths of the game's complexities. I am often loath to return to choice-driven games, in part because I feel ownership of the narrative. In Mass Effect, I don't just play as Commander Shepard--I play as my Commander Shepard. I could have taken a different route through Heavy Rain, but the one I took was my story; playing again with different decisions would diminish the personal touch my original playthrough offered. On the one hand, The Banner Saga's diverse parade of characters kept me from feeling invested in any given individual's destiny. On the other hand, the lack of emotional connection inspires me to return so that I may pull the marionette strings differently. The Banner Saga cares less about building meaningful connections and more about testing the limits of your leadership.

That said, there are times when I wish there were a more obvious and consistent connection between my decisions and the results. And by the time it had drawn to a close, the story I had co-authored had gone off the rails. A major plot point had been almost entirely buried, and while I was moved by the ending, I was shocked when the credits rolled immediately afterward. This saga is meant to continue at a later time, but even so, the cutoff point for this chapter felt random and rather unfulfilling. A final battle brings some closure, at least, but there's no sense of narrative climax.

Sometimes, you feel in control of your destiny, and sometimes you feel like your destiny is at the whim of the elements.

Power comes with a price.

Battles against the dredge occur on a grid, and if you've ever played a turn-based strategy game, you'll be immediately familiar with the basics. Before combat begins, you must consider which heroes to bring to battle. Choose wisely: different heroes have different special abilities, and if they haven't recovered from the previous battle, they're less effective in this one. In fact, choosing whether to rest in villages prior to travel is an additional consideration, given that rested heroes are more powerful on the battlefield, but resting uses up a day's worth of supplies. Once you reach the battlefield, you must pay attention to armor values as well as health values. Furthermore, you must conserve and spend a resource called willpower wisely, because it affords you extra attack power and movement opportunities. Moment to moment, The Banner Saga's skirmishes are much like those in similar battle systems, but a rock-solid interface and varied abilities that reward clever positioning keep the combat compelling, though it's rarely overtly challenging until you near the game's final hour.

Even more compelling is The Banner Saga's atmosphere. The colorful hand-drawn characters and cel-shaded villages would have been at home in a high-budget animated film. And the sight of your caravan stretching across the screen, with the yellow banner flying from an oxcart and the horned varl trudging wearily onward, reinforces the viciousness of the elements. An excellent soundtrack echoes the story's touchstones of personal sacrifice and stubbornness with discordant trumpets that sound out troubled fanfares, signaling heroism under duress. The Banner Saga is a beautiful game, filled with interesting ideas and enjoyable battles. It's too bad the story gets entangled within its own winding web, but this chilly journey does a fine job of reminding you that being a respectable leader is about more than just giving rousing speeches and schmoozing with the high and mighty.

The Good
Gorgeous art and music portray a harsh, frigid wilderness
Individual decisions and their far-reaching consequences keep you interested in the plot
Fun turn-based battles
Effectively conveys the thanklessness of leadership in a troubled time
The Bad
Convoluted narrative web leads to a messy conclusion
The disparity between decisions and their consequences isn't always rewarding
7
Good
About GameSpot's Reviews

About the Author

/ Staff

Kevin VanOrd enjoys leading giant armies to victory almost as much as he likes making difficult choices. He spent about 12 hours with The Banner Saga, finishing the campaign and tinkering with various decisions and their repercussions.

Discussion

125 comments
venoexnihilo
venoexnihilo

Thanks for the review, Kevin of Ord. I will be getting this soon.

Miglaja
Miglaja

+ Unique art style !

+ Interesting story with many strong heroes


- too short :/


All in all, I'm in love with this game. Who like Game Of Thrones will like this

chili666
chili666

Great game.

What i loved the most, is how my leadership style changed during the game experience.

In the beginning, i tried to be the good Jedi - help everyone, assisting to everyone who asks no mattter how and in what occasion.

But, with some progress, i realized that much hursh action and resoluion need to be made. The desicion needed from leader are much diffrent from what i tried to be in the beginning.

Impressive one Stoic! Thanks.

GregoryBastards
GregoryBastards

wow i love the art style here...kinda wish this art style was incorporated into a mindless hack slash rpg....

i dont really think i have the brains required to play turn based strategy game...i'll try this one though...

mariocerame
mariocerame

I've played this game a lot.  I disagree with Mr. VanOrd on, "though it's rarely overtly challenging until you near the game's final hour."  That is true on Normal or Easy.  On Hard, the game is brutally difficult.  There are more and stronger enemies. Injuries can be debilitating, lasting six days on varl who are brought to unconsciousness (or -6 on stats).  Renown is precious. 

I also thought the story was more cogent and compelling, and I grew more attached to characters than I think Mr. VanOrd did.  I very much liked the three protagonists, and I certainly had my favorite side-characters ("No, I love this sword").  At one particularly nefarious incident towards the end of the game, I actually gasped when I learned what happened to certain characters.  I was surprised at how upset I felt due to this incident, and boy was I looking forward to the battle after it.

Also, the game is half the price of a AAA title, and offers substantial value.  Steam suggests I've played the game more than twice times as much as I've played Rome2, which Gamespot awarded an 8.  I certainly enjoyed pursuing the achievements in The Banner Saga much more than anything in that other title.


I would probably give the game a 7.5, or an 8.  This game is certainly a superior title to R2.

CatPuncher
CatPuncher

I thought the ending could've used a little more depth - just a little... However, I don't think it's the end quite yet - so much of the world is left unexplored; I anticipate DLC expansions continuing the story & therefore explaining the plot seeds that Mr Ord describes as convoluted. Also, some elements of plot are self-explanatory if you're familiar with Norse lore, though obscure and mysterious if not.

kcypre
kcypre

Very nice review. I am probably going to play this after I finish Ni No Kuni on my PS3.

mariocerame
mariocerame

Thank you for your reviews.  They are consistently helpful and well written.

Evil_Saluki
Evil_Saluki

I rather not say anything negative about the game, it's nothing game breaking but I must admit, one thing that does nag at me having played it quite deep is how it's constantly throwing "AH YOUR SUPPLIES ARE STOLEN!" Then bugging it's tongue out and blowing a raspberry at you because you didn't have the power of hindsight. It is very annoying actually. Heads up when you play this game, level up only a few characters, give only 1 or 2 backup reserves who you put to level 2. Spend the rest on supplies and NEVER buy equipment. The more logical your decision to conserve supplies, the more the game cheap shots you into taking it away. It does annoy me more so as it forces you into playing one particular way.

Evil_Saluki
Evil_Saluki

I been playing this, I do like it. I find it's got a hauntingly beautiful atmosphere about it. You feel under pressure and the weight of all the clansmen on your shoulders, plus the father daughter relationship in the mist of the journey and battlefield is a nice touch.

hitomo
hitomo

this game is lovely ... its like reading an interactive book with a very good story, combat animations are lifelike and look like an animated movie from the 80`s ... reloading is not an option, you will have to learn to live with your decisions or repeat entire play sessions

CaptainNimoy
CaptainNimoy

Played it just recently, the review is spot-on! Though I always feel uneasy when reviewers compare games in similar aspects even when the budget of competing dev teams is clearly incomparable.

Naktul
Naktul

Does it spend a lot of time throwing viking/nordic myths at you? And would you say it's easily accessible for the partially sighted?
Also, should I have bacon now or bacon later.

RogerioFM
RogerioFM

My only big complaint is the lack of a journal, it's hard to keep track of the story and after a while I was lost on where I was going and from where.

LoG-Sacrament
LoG-Sacrament

Alright, I'll bite. What is the best type of cheese?


Also, I heard before that Stoic was attempting to encourage players to deal with whatever failures they may run into. Is that how your play through went or did you end up reloading a file if something bad happened?

alnors
alnors

@Kevin-V  @Kevin-V I have an exam tomorrow, wish me luck. Is this game look any thing like might and magic? thanks. 

uglypinkmoose
uglypinkmoose

This looks pretty good.... definitely something I'm ganna keep an eye on 

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

Hey all--Kevin here! From now (11AM 1/15) until noon (12PM 1/15), I'll be answering your questions about cheese. Also, you can also ask me about my experience with The Banner Saga and the review, when you aren't insulting my mother! Who, by the way, is a classy lady.

DigitalDame
DigitalDame moderator moderatorstaff

Hi there community, just wanted to give a heads up that GameSpot editor Kevin VanOrd  will be in the comments here at 11:00am PST to take your questions about The Banner Saga. 


If you have a question or just want to get their attention, make sure you use "@Kevin-V" so he can see your questions / comments. 

slefo29
slefo29

I've been on the fence about trying this, and for someone that chooses gameplay over story, this game doesn't seem deep enough. 

My impressions from watching gameplay and reading reviews is combat isn't all that. Fire Emblem (going back to GC days), Tactics, XCOM all seem to have more intricate battle mechanics than this game. 

The review was interesting, but unless this goes on some steam sale, I don't see it as a Day 1 buy. Which sucks, because I REALLY need something to play until Bravely Default comes out.

slefo29
slefo29

It got a 27 out of 10 on Game Magazine. 

vaibhavp
vaibhavp

reads like a 9. why such discrepency? is it difficult to get into? even better. ...

hitomo
hitomo

I am often loath to return to choice-driven games, in part because I feel ownership of the narrative. In Mass Effect, I don't just play as Commander Shepard--I play as my Commander Shepard. I could have taken a different route through Heavy Rain, but the one I took was my story; playing again with different decisions would diminish the personal touch my original playthrough offered


no K. its because those games are really bad games and offer no choices aside the one everyone takes


but what you describe after my quote about the actual game shows you are on the right track to uncover

the key that is needed to judge about the real quality, the inner strenght of a 'game' ...

Richardthe3rd
Richardthe3rd

Only played about 30 minutes so far but I'm enjoying the art and the dialog.   Really looking forward to sinking my teeth into the combat to really see how it feels.  


The scenery and art is pretty incredible.  Reminds me of late 60-early 70s Disney art.


Very high production quality for an indie.  A very adult game that requires attention and interest.

DAOWAce
DAOWAce

I was looking forward to this a lot more than the multiplayer version released almost a year ago.


Though, I'm already swamped with games and fell out of the game quite a long time ago.  I suppose I'm waiting for a sale before I even start thinking about finally playing it.

hippiesanta
hippiesanta

eww .... strategy games ..... PC ...... goodbye world

jecomans
jecomans

@mariocerame I couldn't finish it on hard. I love the game, and got pretty attached to the characters. I think I know which part you are talking about because I felt the same at one particular bit too. 

I only wish you were able to rest before the final battle. I had only trained up a few more warriors than the 6 you can have on the field because reknown was so precious, and I got screwed over in a few fights just before hand so basically my entire roster was down 2-3 days at least. So yeah, had to drop the difficulty which made it far less rewarding, but I'm certain I had put myself in a position were it was actually impossible to do it.

The only things I think that I wasn't so happy with were the character models in conversations not changing even though one of them had just been stabbed, and being robbed whilst I was talking to a brigand, even though my caravan had been starving to death for 10 days. Other times I felt that if I had hundreds of soldiers and varl at least a few of them should be watching the supplies closely enough that a bandit couldn't just steal several days worth of food? 

mariocerame
mariocerame

Also, the shifting storylines that merge at the end is implemented in an innovative, interesting way, and I really liked that.  It worked for me.

jecomans
jecomans

@CatPuncher I believe it was always intended to be a trilogy. It's kinda weird though that Stoic weren't sure it would be popular enough to give them the money to make the next two games, but went with an unfinished episode anyway. 

Evil_Saluki
Evil_Saluki

(although part of the games appeal is the struggle)

nl_skipper
nl_skipper

@Naktul I would say that the colours and shapes are bold enough to stand out for someone partially sighted.  Also there's no fast paced actions required so you can take your time to see things clearly in combat and in the overworld.  I've put 4 hours into the game so far and there doesn't seem to be too much Nordic mythology, but the actual mythology of the game world is rich and detailed and requires some thought to keep names and locations and such straight as they are tossed out in conversation.


The only thing that could be bad for someone of poor sight is the fact there is a lot of written dialogue as opposed to voice overs, so you may need a larger screen to read clearly, but again you're given as much time as you need to read things.

woodyfr
woodyfr

@Naktul Bacon later, with a banana. Take a shower before, and don't forget the sock under your bed.


Anyway, good review, thanks !

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@LoG-Sacrament Swiss. Clearly!


I did reload files several times, but usually only in two circumstances. If I lost a hero in battle, I would sometimes reload because I didn't wish to have him needing rest should I want him on the battlefield again. The other circumstance was when the game crashed, which happened to me twice. 


I did return to the game and play some more taking different tactics, and was impressed by how differently events played out. There is no manual saving, so you can go back only so far before you are forced to deal with certain consequences. In any case, I dealt with every narrative circumstance on my first playthrough without resorting to reloads. And I think that's the right way to do it. 

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@alnors @Kevin-V Hi there! It shares some of the same DNA, but the overworld and art style are very different. The turn-based combat will be familiar to Might & Magic players, but traveling the world is more like playing Oregon Trail. 

yossimitsu
yossimitsu

@Kevin-V Seems like a beautiful game. I was wondering how is soundtrack or ambient music like. Also how much micromanagement is there in the game?

Stebsis
Stebsis

@slefo29Go and play Banner Saga Factions also on Steam, it's free to play version of this that contains only the multiplayer so if you choose gameplay over story, I'd say try Factions.

ShimmeringSword
ShimmeringSword

@vaibhavp This looks like a very narrative driven game, but he says the results of choices you make don't always make sense, and that it has a bad finish. So you've got a story game that lacks a perfect story. 7/10 is still, as it says, "good".

focuspuller
focuspuller

@hippiesanta You're going to end your life because of strategy games and PCs? First world problems huh?

Kevin-V
Kevin-V moderator staff

@yossimitsu @Kevin-V I love the soundtrack, which was written by Austin Wintory, who also wrote the music in Journey and Monaco. It does a great job of communicating bleakness; I was often reminded of Jean Sibelius, a famous Finnish composer who musically depicted the frigidness of his homeland. 


There is some her management off the battlefield. You can equip heroes with one piece of equipment, which you either receive when making certain decisions, or purchase from markets. You also promote--that is, level up--your heroes, spending points on several different stats to improve your effectiveness in battle. On the battlefield, of course, you control every unit's turn yourself. 

The Banner Saga More Info

First Release on Jan 14, 2014
  • Macintosh
  • PC
Live through an epic role-playing Viking saga where your strategic choices directly affect your personal journey. Make allies as you travel with your caravan across this stunning yet harsh landscape. Carefully choose those who will help fight a new threat that jeopardizes an entire civilization.
7.9
Average User RatingOut of 86 User Ratings
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Developed by:
Stoic
Published by:
Versus Evil
Genres:
Role-Playing