I love tactical role-playing games. Always have. I’ve played through Final Fantasy Tactics multiple times on multiple systems. X-COM and I get along famously. It was preordained then that when The Banner Saga made its way to Xbox One and PlayStation 4 I’d put it through its paces. What I found was immensely promising, but the longer I played the more cracks appeared.
It’s odd to be in a position to criticize a turn-based game’s controls since, ya know, there’s no pressure to act/react in real time. And yet, The Banner Saga is lacking too many fundamental (and crucial) options that should be included in any game of this ilk.
Perhaps the most egregious is the inability to rotate the battlefield, instead allowing you to simply zoom in and out. With much of the game centered on hand-to-hand combat featuring two oversized races that frequently obscure grid squares it’s a real problem — one that manifests itself when you accidentally move your character to a point where there’s unseen space between them and the enemy, forcing you to impotently end your turn.
This could’ve been assuaged by letting you undo your movement, but the game doesn’t allow that, either. The Banner Saga even doubles down on this issue by not even having you confirm your move — something you’ll be asked to do with pretty much every other action in the game (attack, level up, select war tactics, etc.). It’s a frustrating combination.
Assuming you can place your fighters where you want them, combat has a few options. You can do a basic attack against an enemy’s health or their armor (damaging the latter makes your attacks on the former deadlier) or use a special ability (defensive buff, set a trap, area strike, etc.). Special moves cost willpower, and you’ll also be able to augment general strikes with it to make them more effective. You can also “rest” to recover some willpower.
Easily the most endearing aspect of The Banner Saga is its visual styling. Whether marching with your caravan or engaging in actual combat, the game has a very rich and colorful look with the long flowing banner and collection of spears and shields. The cut scenes, such as they are, tend to be pretty repetitive and don’t really feature any animation of note.
Voice acting is limited, and what’s present is unremarkable. Sound effects don’t move the needle, either. Thankfully, though, the game’s musical score stands as one of its highlights; that’s important since it’s the auditory element that’ll accompany you most of the time it.
At its core, The Banner Saga‘s story boils down to this: humans and Varl (Viking-esque giants) have a tenuous peace and are sworn enemies of the Dredge, a stoke-skinned race that would like to wipe both of them off the map. The realm’s history is told in small snippets, and the story’s real selling point is the frequent decisions you’ll be asked to make as leader of your caravan.
Some are seemingly mundane (loot some corpses or leave them undisturbed, throw out X number of supplies to ensure no one gets sick or just toss clearly tainted ones and hope it ends there), while others have far more significant ramifications (important characters can and will die during these text-based segments). Think through your decisions before making them.
Gameplay is primarily broken up into two areas: skirmishes and battles. The former encompasses the turn-based combat where you’ll select a team of six from a healthy sized roster of heroes to take on a group of enemies. The latter occurs when encountering large groups, where you’ll get to test the might of your caravan in full-scale combat. Skirmishes are often contained with the battles, depending on what tactics you employ, but they’re part of a larger whole.
While these encounters start off interestingly enough, they start to lose their luster as you progress and fights blend together. There just isn’t a ton of variety from one to the next, and genre staples — such as advantageous positioning or what direction a unit is facing — seem to have no bearing on how much damage you give or receive.
Most damning, however, is The Banner Saga‘s bizarre decision to reward the losing side by utilizing a strict “one side goes, then the other” approach throughout. Most battles start out relatively even in terms of numbers, but even if you whittle the enemy down to a 6-on-2 disadvantage, the game still gives your opponent every-other turn.
In other words, if you cut down lesser foes early on, the more powerful ones will be getting multiple turns before any of yours get a second. It almost always leads to cheap deaths for your troops because, unless your entire team is bunched up, odds are you won’t be to stop the enemy from teaming up on guys. The game abandons it when the enemy is down to one fighter, but it’s too little, too late.
It’s a shame, too, because The Banner Saga works in some interesting ideas, such as the morale of your caravan, managing supplies to keep them fed and so on. Defeated units don’t die but instead are wounded and must be rested or deployed in limited effectiveness. Renown, earned by winning battles, is the game’s all-in-one currency, used to purchase supplies, booster items and level up fighters.
There are some significant negatives about The Banner Saga, though some may have an easier time overlooking them than I did. You can feel the potential pulsing in this game, and I wanted it to live up to it, but it doesn’t. It’s still a worthwhile tactical RPG, but I’m hoping the sequel tightens things up in a few key areas to make Banner Saga the powerhouse it could be.