THE BANNER SAGA Review
If OREGON TRAIL and FIRE EMBLEM got together and had a kid who really liked BAMBI, it would probably look a lot like THE BANNER SAGA. Crafted by Stoic, a trio of Bioware alum, THE BANNER SAGA borrows heavily from the aforementioned games while sporting a striking art style that recalls the golden age of Disney. Originally launching on PC in 2014, the game is now available on consoles in preparation for the sequel’s launch later this year.
THE BANNER SAGA spins its tale in a Norse fantasy realm where the two dominant races, the viking-like Men and the giant, horned Varl, live in a tentative truce. When their mutual foes, the stoneskinned Dredge, return after centuries to invade their lands, Man and Varl must unite to stave them off. The campaign jumps between two main heroes: Hakon, a mighty Varl warlord whose army must reinforce his distant capital, and Rook, a simple peasant who finds himself leading a band of refugees to safety after the Dredge raze their village.
Sounds grim, but hey, at least the view is good!
The actual game is split between two modes. In the overworld, you manage your caravan as it automatically wheels towards its destination. Days pass quickly during this time and your followers will need to consume food to survive; run out and people will start to die off. Additionally, forcing your retinue to march for too long without rest will cause them to become tired and demoralized, lowering their effectiveness in battle, yet days spent encamped also expend resources just as if they were on the road. You will also be forced to make decisions for the entire group, such as how to deal with strangers or which fork to take in the road. The consequences to these choices tend to be as harsh as they are unexpected. Party members who disagree with your leadership might permanently abandon you or even turn on your group. Helping your friend might only get them killed. Some scenarios are almost comically dire, but the unforgiving choice system is fitting given the bleak world that our heroes are trying to survive in.
Combat makes up the other half of THE BANNER SAGA. Up to six heroes, Man and Varl, face the Dredge and other bad guys on the field of battle. Fighting is turn-based, though you can select the order in which you want your team members to go. Each enemy killed yields you a point of renown, which can either be spent to level up individual heroes or used as currency outside of battle.
Characters have two main stats that are tracked in combat: strength and armor. Strength governs both health and physical power, while armor negates damage against strength. With stronger opponents, it can be difficult to decide which stat to target. Reducing their armor makes them more vulnerable to your allies while leaving you open to counterattack, while targeting strength right off the bat will take longer but can neuter powerful enemies. While most of THE BANNER SAGA’s mechanics are lifted directly from other titles, it’s the management of key attributes that stands as its most unique function, and its most rewarding.
Clever tactics are appreciated, but “smash the little guy” is also acceptable
The game plays fine, but the main selling point here is the beautiful hand drawn art style. Every asset in THE BANNER SAGA, be it on the trail or in battle, is animated in traditional 2D format. The color palette wisely knows when to be either vibrant or muted, creating a contrast between character and environment that truly pops. The most impressive aspect demonstrated here, however, is the use of animation layers. Gnarled trees, ancient ruins, and arrow-riddled bodies of the fallen will obscure your convoy, building an atmosphere of uncertainty that brilliantly complements the do-or-die decision-making system. Hills will dramatically part to unveil grand cities and majestic shrines. The acute sense of discovery created by these reveals acts as a light at the end of the tunnel for the player who is happy for the opportunity to rest and restock on supplies.
It’s a devious note of irony then that, despite the gorgeous art direction, THE BANNER SAGA’s biggest missteps are in presentation. Because everything is hand-drawn, there is no way to rotate the isometric camera during combat. The majority of characters are melee fighters, meaning that multiple units will often be bunched together. The bigger Varl and Dredge will easily eclipse the smaller humans and sometimes even each other, making it almost impossible at times to identify where exactly certain characters are or even who you have selected. It doesn’t help that there is next to no variety in character portraits or models, making it especially hard to identify your guys in human vs. human battles.
And despite the epic narrative and gorgeous visuals, the delivery of the plot is especially dry and spartan. Voice acting is non-existent outside of a select few moments and major plot points are often delivered via text boxes while on the trail. A trusted companion can suddenly die via a two-line blurb that appears during your trek because of a seemingly innocuous decision you make, with nary a visual or audio cue to accompany it. Exiting the notification, your wagon line continues without breaking stride, minus said character. The effect is jarring to put it lightly.
“Oh, yeah, almost forgot to mention that your wife died this morning. Just FYI.”
I would be comfortable recommending THE BANNER SAGA if only just to look at it, but it’s good that there is also a solid game lying beneath the glitzy exterior. There are shortcomings with the way its epic yarn is told, but with a team of only three weaving it it’s a wonder that they managed to create what is here. I can only imagine what Stoic will accomplish with part two of their series now that they’ve proven themselves, and I’m more than happy to revisit their first game in the meantime.
Reviewed on PlayStation 4, also available on Xbox One and PC.