Let’s take a detailed look at The Banner Saga.
This isn’t the review I had planned for next week, but one that I decided to get out today. That means three reviews for the month. Yes, I can say that because I finished the third one yesterday. So, enjoy you spoiled readers. Also, this review is too long for Steam’s review system, again. It was intentionally supposed to be short!
A Paladin’s Steam Review: The Banner Saga. Great Visuals Crippled By A Poor Combat System.
- Genre: Tactical RPG Turn Based Grid Combat & Survival Game.
- Developed & Published by: Stoic & Versus Evil
- Platform: Windows, Mac and Linux.
- Business Model: Single Purchase
- Copy Purchased by Myself
These are my thoughts of The Banner Saga after four hours of play. If that amount of time is unacceptable to you, I suggest that you quit reading this review. So, why am I doing the Banner Saga after such a short amount of play? Well, I’ve had a lot of time to think on it. To analyze why this game failed to pull me with its story, mechanics and overall presentation. It’s pretty rare that I’ll keep thinking about a game I quit early on for as long as I have. So when that happens, I write a review. So, let’s dig into The Banner Saga and talk about the issues I had with it.
Overall Gameplay Thoughts
The Banner Saga is a combination of turn-based grid combat and Oregon Trail mechanics tied into a narratively driven campaign. This campaign follows the journey of two clans as they struggle against an unrelenting foe called the Dredge. The player is tasked with keeping these clans alive as best they can, manage their limited resources and survive. The game is split into three phases: conversing, traveling and combat. Conversations happen when the caravan has stopped at a town or some other special event happens. The player reads the lines and decides what to do next. The conversation system is ok. You do get up to four options to how you respond to decisions or particular situations and sometimes that fourth option isn’t always being silent. When traveling, your caravan in the center of the screen travels slowly to their destination consuming the supplies it has. There’s also a morale indicator to show whether everyone is in high spirits or not. This is affected by your decisions and how you fare in battle. Though I never found out if having low morale was bad but I’m assuming it is. The combat has two phases. The war phase that’s only triggered when fighting large amounts of Dredge and let’s you decide whether to be aggressive, retreat or something in-between. It’s very simple and is pretty much decided by numbers and how you fare in the turn based area. Otherwise, it’s the turn based combat that you’ll spend most of your time. It’s held on large grids where your heroes battle it out against often outnumbering foes. There’s a bunch of stats that affect each hero and how they’ll perform but explaining them seems a little pointless when the game tells you straight out. I have a lot of issues with how the combat system in this game works so let’s examine it for a bit.
Turn-Based Combat Examination
There’s a lot about the combat system that I do not understand from a design point. I don’t understand why there’s both a health and armor system for all characters. I don’t get why health is tied to power. Why are most of the enemies ranged while most of your heroes are melee? Why do they get so many turns to hit you while you get very few yourself? Why do those same archers have armor as well? Why on earth do AOE attacks also hurt your own guys if they’re in range? I had a lot of these questions while I was playing TBS and I’m pretty sure I forgot some of them. This game seems to be encouraging you to level all of your heroes but then it limits them with both a point system that you have to spend between all of them and requiring each hero to land a certain amount of killing blows. So even if they got the required amount of kills they need to level up, they still might not be able to level up because you had to spend all the points on another more important hero. So, some characters are forever doomed to stay low level and be utterly useless for the rest of the game.
It doesn’t help that heroes will come in and out of the story (or get killed) leaving you without their capabilities. Additionally, there’s an obvious lack of synergy between the heroes. So, they become extremely interchangeable and uninteresting as a result. I found that the longer I played, the more the game just mostly devolves into giant (geddit?) attrition grinds where I watch my heroes get shot again and again and again by so many archers while they slowly move across the grid. With me hoping and praying they’ll survive just a little bit longer. Up until they don’t and the whole battle is completely over because they knocked out your two most powerful heroes. That’s pretty much the entire reason I quit.
While I was playing, I had this constant sense of “is this all that this combat system is? Am I really not missing anything?”. I figured out after four hours that I wasn’t missing anything. It’s just a poor combat system with an uninteresting traveling system. But what about the story? Well, that’s where my personal preference is going to take over for a bit.
The game starts the player out joining a group of Varl, a race of giants, at the end of their journey collecting taxes or gifts for some king. However, the place they’re arrived at is under siege by some enemy force. Who you quickly kill and then move on. Then there’s another plot with a Human father and daughter that discover that an evil force is invading their lands on the other side of the continent. This evil force of “Dredge” is now invading the country in full force. Who I’m supposed to be worried about, I think, except that I keep destroying them into the ground every time I meet up with them. Of course, a lot of their fear is implied through the story but they’re given very little build up so I found myself unable to care about them as a threat. Really, I thought this game would be fine just surviving the wilderness. Adding what appear to be magical zombies isn’t that interesting. So, these two parties flee from the Dredge in a desperate bid to find shelter further inland and the player must use their wits to help them survive.
The pacing of this title is all over the place. You’re introduced to new characters with very little fanfare or explanation about them. And just as soon as I got even a little bit attached to them, they’d get killed off. Or we’d switch gears to the other group of people on the other side of the world. The story would move at an uneven pace trying to cover topics and then quickly brush them aside in favor of the next thing. It was hard enough just keeping their names straight but then they’d add in places and other topics of conversation. The game talks about choices being consequential, but a lot of the deaths I experienced just felt cheap and gamey.
I’m not going to deny that personal preference may have ruined the story experience for me and that it’s fine. But I had already sat through four hours and it felt like it wasn’t getting anywhere. Additionally, I don’t like how most of the lore is shown through a giant map like a sort of encyclopedia. It feels like a lazy way of world building. I mean, I don’t hate it but considering you’re not going to be able to visit even half of those places in this title (though it’s a trilogy of games so maybe that’ll change), it feels like a lot of pointless reading. But, maybe I’d like that if I actually liked the narrative. None of the characters really pique my interest because they all feel done before with no one standing out. With actions or reactions that reinforce their personality. The Dredge are a done-before unstoppable threat that will probably be solved if we all stand together. That’s my guess of the plot and I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s how the events play out. Outside of its Nordic inspiration, there’s not much that really grabbed me.
The only option you get is fullscreen on/off. Everything else isn’t configurable, including the keybindings. Though you don’t need any so….I guess I’ll let it go. Fullscreen on is actually borderless windowed. I will mention that the framerate may not seem consistent because many of the animations are running at 24FPS. But the game itself runs at 60FPS. I didn’t experience any technical problems while I played it. It also worked pretty well with the Steam Controller.
Visually, TBS has an impressive animation style that’s really memorable. Though I did find some of the animations in conversations to be rather distracting for how odd they looked. A soundtrack of orchestral tones and stark Nordic sounds with solo vocal performances make for an almost depressing atmosphere. It was crafted by a combination of artists if I’m right including Malukah and Austin Wintory who have worked on other big name indie titles. The soundtrack is technically proficient and well done, but I didn’t find myself enjoying it that much.
The Banner Saga feels like a game that doesn’t push it’s mechanics far enough or tries to be something different when it really should have stuck with established norms. It’s a game that was clearly created with a universe and visuals in mind but the rest of it feels incomplete or rushed. Both the combat and the traveling are shallow experiences desperately trying to tie themselves together but almost at odds with each other. The combat is perhaps the biggest sticking point for me. There’s conflicting design which leads to an overall really boring and tiring experience. The artistry of the animated graphics is certainly top notch. It invokes the classic animated style of yesteryear exceptionally well while remaining modern. But that’s clearly where all the effort went. The rest of this game feels like a giant step backwards for its genre. Add on a universe and cast of characters that I didn’t really respond with and I find myself unable to recommend The Banner Saga.
Thanks for reading as always. If this review was worth sharing, well, it’d help me out. Otherwise, check out the other reviews I have on this site!