Before I begin reviewing The Banner Saga, I would like to address an open letter to the game’s developers.
Dear Stoic Studios,
As a content-writer and reviewer for an online gaming site, TheXboxHub, I have been playing and enjoying The Banner Saga. However, recently my enjoyment of the series has decreased dramatically, and this can be attributed to one variable: the save-system.
In an otherwise well designed title, the save system sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. I understand the need for a certain type of save system given the nature of the game and the decisions therein. And such a need could, and quite frankly, should, have given rise to a unique and cleverly-thought out approach to the process of saving and loading. I suppose in its own disastrous right this save system is unique, but by the same token so was hurricane Katarina.
At first I had decided to remove this ‘glitch’ from my conscience when playing your game, lest it adversely affect the verdict of my review. But, I have since changed my mind. On a number of occasions, I have been transported backwards in the game, and my more recent save files had been spontaneously deleted. The flaws in this save system have become somewhat of an affliction, costing me exactly two-hundred and three in game days, and approximately four hours of my life. And I have not yet completed the game. I’m not sure if this issue is confined specifically to the console port, or if it plagues PC gamers too. But the fact that it exists at all is appalling.
Out of respect for your effort and the quality of the rest of The Banner Saga, I will play the game to completion and will review it deservedly. However, I have decided to deduct half a star from my rating of The Banner Saga due to gross loss of time and the adverse effects of forced replay.
Right. Now we’ve got that out of the way, I’d like to say that I actually enjoyed this game. Like, a lot. Even before playing it, I had high expectations for The Banner Saga. I’m fairly learned in the area of turn based combat, and I’m more than partial to anything Viking themed. Even so, The Banner Saga caught me almost entirely by surprise. The game took a fairly generic combat system and twisted it so cleverly that it felt totally new. Similarly, the story explores themes and character types that we’ve seen many times before: the father-daughter relationship, the tenuous inter-species peace treaty and unity under common threat. Still, Stoic delivered the tale exquisitely, with gorgeous artwork and sophisticated writing. See, basically The Banner Saga ticked all the boxes that I expected to be crossing, but it somehow managed to mess up where even bad games succeed. So, I’d like to extend the best and the worst of congratulations to Stoic Studios for the paradox they have created.
When The Banner Saga began, I’ll admit I felt quite daunted. You begin the prologue playing as Ubin, and short of the brief introductory narration, you’re given very little information about the world and its inhabitants. I would like to congratulate the writers on the game’s opening line (“The Gods are dead”), which, while being profound and punchy, introduced a theme that permeated the story. But I digress. Despite initially feeling lost, I quickly got a grip on the world and the sentiments of its constituent races. And I just as quickly became quite attached to the game’s characters, which made it all the more shocking when certain ones spontaneously died.
See, The Banner Saga does a splendid job of emphasising the characters’ mortality. This isn’t a criticism as such; it’s just something that I wish I was made initially aware of. So I’m giving you fair warning. In this game characters die. You could be doing something as simple as, say, issuing a command, and your actions could result in a character dying. And speaking as someone who is categorically tired of games advertising ‘multiple endings’ as ‘comprehensive choice-based gameplay’, I welcomed The Banner Saga’s actual choice system. And I applaud Stoic’s courage in giving in-game decisions actual magnitude.
As I previously said, certain consequences are surprising, particularly early in the game. But the choice system does a fantastic job of spicing up the game’s plot, which isn’t much more than “these stone-giant things are dangerous, we better run away from them”. Really, the characters and their interactions are what makes the story interesting. At certain times the game does seem slow, so the strategy of switching the groups of playable characters is a clever one. It gives the player an understanding of both sides of the strained Human-Varl relationship, and the differing perspectives keep the story fresh. Plus, it makes things all the more interesting when the previously separate groups coincide for the game’s conclusion.
Speaking of conclusions, I couldn’t reach one about the giant serpent thing – the one that springs up out of nowhere about three-quarters through the game. That’s not a spoiler, by the way. The serpent isn’t mentioned at all prior to its appearance and even after, it remains a mystery. Granted, the game is filled with oddities, but these are, eventually, explained through character dialogue. And even the characters seem confused about the snake-thing. Perhaps Stoic were going for a “cliff-hanger” and we’ll get an explanation in the upcoming sequel. But some more information would have caused excitement, rather than confusion. But aside from this anomaly, in terms of writing, the Banner Saga is actually very good; and in terms of combat it’s even better.
The combat system is a rewarding take on that of the typical turn based strategy game. Of course you will die a fair amount of times. But, while mastering the system is difficult, the constant attention it requires is what makes each battle interesting. Not only does one have to carefully plan attacks, but also the movement of characters. And in this sense The Banner Saga is more akin to a game of chess than the usual turn-based combat game. Intense strategising only becomes crucial in the higher difficulty settings, where the player has to plan moves and attacks well in advance. And while this challenge may be too much for the casual player – I found myself yielding to its challenges quite quickly – it’s nice to know that the challenge exists.
For such a complex system, The Banner Saga’s tutorial does a great job of explaining the ins and outs of combat as well as explaining the supply-rationing and morale of your travelling caravan. Still, the system takes a certain amount of playing and experience to properly comprehend. Perhaps the explanation could have been more in depth, but I won’t crucify Stoic for their kindness in overestimating my intelligence.
I think it’s fair to say that we’ve gotten to the part of the review where you’re thinking, “I’m sure that if this game is that good, the save-system can’t affect it that badly”. Well dear reader, I am sure that if I forced you to watch your favourite film multiple times in rapid succession, the enjoyment you receive from that film would significantly mitigate. And you’d probably also learn to dislike me. Well, the same sort of thing goes for this game.
Yes, The Banner Saga is quite fantastic. But its shine dims with rapid re-playing, specifically when that re-playing is forced by way of the faulty save-system. Luckily, though, the game redeems itself, with an impeccable combat system, compelling characters and an emotional ending. And while I am frustrated, I can hardly say that I dislike this game or its developers. In fact, I’m quite impressed with them both.