The Banner Saga – PlayStation 4
Platform: PlayStation 4
Publisher: Versus Evil
Release Date (NA): January 12th, 2016
Nerd Rating: 7.5 out of 10
Stoic’s The Banner Saga 2 released just recently this year on April 19, 2016. But wait, where’s Nerd Bacon’s review for the first game, The Banner Saga? After all, what is a sequel without its predecessor? Well, it’s this reviewer’s pleasure to present the game that started the mind-blowing Banner Saga franchise.
The Banner Saga is a fantasy RPG game with strategy elements taking place in a fantastical, Medieval-style world with heavy influences from Norse culture and mythology. Alternating control over a handful of characters, similar to the storytelling style of the Game of Thrones series, the player experiences and simultaneously influences the unfolding of events in a beautiful land during the genesis of a great war.
The first thing that stood out to me about The Banner Saga during the first few minutes of gameplay was how atmospheric it is. Role-playing as a giant, the player is first thrust into the game’s world through a combat situation in the middle of a great hall. The characters are well drawn in a very Disney-esque fashion, the audio is ambient and immersive, character animations are satisfying, and the dialogue that occurs afterward features cool little animated avatars that are framed against each other in creative ways. RPG-meets-animation-meets-novel in this wonderfully inviting project by developer Stoic. Time to sit back, relax, and crack open a cask of the finest ale to enjoy this game.
The combat featured in The Banner Saga is strikingly fresh, yet not altogether unfamiliar. In a typical battle, the player controls between two and six characters, who make up their party. A grid map is laid out for the various characters to move around and use their unique stats and attributes to dish out damage to each other, each side taking turns to move individual units. A lot of tweaking and fine tuning went into this part to make the combat unique and multifaceted, reminding me of Fire Emblem: Awakening. It’s pretty involved, with a lot of possible interactions between characters that make for interestingly evolving combat scenarios. It’s a little confusing at first, sure, but once you get the hang of it there’s a surprising amount of depth.
There are a few issues I do have with the combat, mostly regarding mechanics. For one, it’s very easy to tell that this game was initially designed to be played on a computer. Playing this thing on a PlayStation 4 can sometimes feel like skating down the street on a surfboard, pulling teeth to get the characters to move where you want them to move and attack who you want them to attack. Also, it’s extremely easy to make mistakes, and I’m not entirely sure this is the fault of it being a ported game. For example, as soon as you finish moving a character during their phase, that’s it. Even though this is a turn-based game with no real-time elements, the developers decided to forgo the option of allowing the player to reposition their characters if they change their mind mid-turn, and this is made doubly annoying by the more wonky controls of the PS4 version. While these issues can be grating at times, they’re not hard to overlook, since this game gets so many other things right.
Aside from combat, the other central gameplay element is the story, which is mainly told through readable dialogue and novel-esque narrations. Almost every new event or plot development is revealed in this way, with the player right smack in the center so that they always feel like they are experiencing and involved in the events, rather than having things told or shown to them. The quality of the writing is extremely good, far above average for the majority of games out there. There are very few standard cut scenes or orally spoken dialogue, instead trusting the player to bring their own imagination to the table a majority of the time. And it works. I don’t remember the last time I felt so personally involved in a story, and this is accomplished in no small part by the more literary and subdued nature of the story’s delivery.
Throughout the course of The Banner Saga, the player will take control of a few different characters, alternating between their arcs when it suits the overall story. Each individual character has a very distinct personality, and their stories are varied so as to give the player a better understanding of the bigger picture of what’s going on in the game’s world. The player is frequently making cost-benefit decisions that affect the story’s progression in ways both big and small, with a real sense of ambiguity and uncertainty over what the other outcomes might have been. Taking care of a caravan of people over a long journey across snowy lands would be a stressful experience for anyone, and The Banner Saga captures that in a very authentic way. The quality of the writing and the immersive nature of the individual narratives achieve the closest feeling to playing in a Medieval-fantasy world I’ve ever experienced. It makes me wonder how it is that Game of Thrones hasn’t tapped the developers at Stoic for a game yet. Seriously, in just their first iteration, these guys have already nailed the format for a good story-based RPG.
Now, the gameplay and story are all well and good, but perhaps the most characteristic element of The Banner Saga is its art design. Each important character has been finely crafted using a hand-drawn art style extremely reminiscent of those Disney movies from the 90’s. Think Pocahontas or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The environments surrounding the characters are just as impressive, with neat layers of landscape and objects that will travel across the screen at different speeds to simulate perspective.
The audio is really good as well. The soundtrack consists of a nice amount of atmospheric Medieval or Baroque style songs, at times somber and ambient, and at others sprightly and lighthearted. Every now and then, a narrator will chime in, giving a little bit more backstory or perspective on a certain event. This occurs pretty infrequently, allowing blocks of text to do the majority of storytelling and exposition. I think it’s a good thing that the narrator is used so rarely, giving the things he says a little bit more pomp and gravitas.
The art direction, sound mixing, and story all come together to create one hell of an atmosphere, and this is where The Banner Saga truly reaches a state of RPG gaming bliss. The developers at Stoic really put a lot of time and attention into every aspect of the game, making sure each one worked with the others perfectly. The art design is superb and charming, with little ambient animations, such as the blowing of a character’s hair or clothing in the wind. During the majority of the game, the events are framed using a Filmic widescreen, accentuating the open vastness of the landscapes or the tight and claustrophobic natures of tense conversations. People, objects, and parts of the landscape are designed to pass in front of the camera at various times to give a real sense of existing in this foreign land. The music and audio work excellently alongside the art direction, adding ambient noises that simulate a snowy mountainside or somber music to suggest the weight of a dire situation. Sparingly used aural narration helps move the story forward while giving a legendary or epic tone to the game. Simply put, the world of The Banner Saga is a world that the player can’t help but want to be in.
Another key component to the atmosphere of The Banner Saga is its pacing. An unfortunate trend in today’s media is the increasing emphasis on fast-paced action with a very thin plot; as if directors–of film, TV, and video games alike–don’t trust the audience to stay interested in anything for more than a few seconds. The Banner Saga, however, pulls back from this philosophy; slowing things down to let the player stop and smell the roses every once in a while. This is most exemplified by the ambient traveling sections. During the majority of the game, the player is trying to shepherd their group from one side of the map to the other. In between important events the caravan will simply trudge along expanses of the landscape, sometimes even at a snail’s pace. These more experimental sections give the player room to breathe after a chunk of combat or story while cementing the physicality of the world in The Banner Saga. Very few developers would take a risk on slowing down their game so dramatically, but Stoic uses this to great effect.
Further adding to the atmosphere is the fact that The Banner Saga doesn’t let its difficulty get in the way of its playability. For example, the majority of RPG games (and games in general) use a “game over” system, where the game simply ends when the player dies or fails a certain objective, requiring them to try again until they get it right. This mechanic has seen a little bit of over-reliance over the years, mostly because it’s notoriously difficult to develop any other system that is also believable (ahem, Prince of Persia).
Instead of some cheap deus ex machina that undoes any sort of failure, the development team at Stoic opted for a more free-form system that allows the player to fail and make mistakes. This is incorporated into the gameplay and story in interesting ways. This means that any defeat or failure, while not immediately catastrophic or game-ending, will instead alter the course of events. These outcomes will have an impact on future encounters, making them more difficult to handle or altogether changing the outcome of a situation. This allows the game to keep moving forward with no extra chances to try again for a different conclusion. In effect, this seemingly counterproductive strategy makes The Banner Saga one of the most unforgiving games out there. What it lacks in immediate punishment it makes up for in mental anguish over decisions not made or situations not bested, further driving home the feeling of desperation during times of war.
The Banner Saga is a game that opens its doors to invite the player into a world like none other. The atmosphere is meticulously crafted down to the smallest detail, immersing the player through its flawless pacing, sound design, and extremely impressive art style. The story and plot are highly detailed, integrating themselves with the other mechanics in ways that few games are able to accomplish, thus allowing the player to really dig their heels into the soil. Being an RPG title, this game also sports a distinguished and rather impressive combat system, though it is a little rife with issues on the PlayStation 4. At the end of the day, The Banner Saga‘s greatest success is crafting a magical world that I find myself wanting to return to time and time again.
I was extremely impressed with this game and am excited to see what The Banner Saga 2 has in store. The Banner Saga may have deserved a slightly better rating here, but the flawed controls of the PS4 just can’t be overlooked.
If you find yourself interested in this game I would recommend the PC version. That being said, I would never say this game isn’t worth the money, whether you play on a console or not.
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