Published on May 27th, 2018 | by Lee Davies
Review: Banner Saga (Switch eShop)
Format reviewed: Switch eShop
Other formats available: PS4, XBox, Steam, iOS, Google Play
Publisher: Versus Evil
Website: Official Website
Live through an epic role-playing Viking saga where your strategic choices directly affect your personal journey. Make allies as you travel with your caravan across this stunning yet harsh landscape. Carefully choose those who will help fight a new threat that jeopardizes an entire civilization. Every decision you make in travel, conversation and combat has a meaningful effect on the outcome as your story unfolds. Not everyone will survive, but they will be remembered.
The Banner Saga is epic. It evokes a Game of Thrones lore, with untold histories briefly mentioned, and death becoming a permanent fixture if an unwise action is taken. It certainly retains a feeling of the cold barren Scandinavian environment with its 90s style of animation. At limited times the dialogue is acted in a Scandinavian accent and is really rather enjoyable, for the most part a lot of reading will take up your time. A stylistic choice of minimalist movement in dialogue scenes, but with breath-taking scenery that exhibits its sense of scale and place perfectly. Not only do the visuals build this sense of ancient lineages struggling to survive against an onslaught of epic proportions, but the music is also well-placed throughout. Alternating at the right times between primal drums, lutes, harps, and full orchestral doom, it increases the scale of the whole map that you’ll be traversing. And, boy will your followers have a lot of traversing to do.
The story is the standard fantasy fare of a blighted landscape, with long past wars for the survival of Humanity and Varl, a race of giants with huge horns, rearing their ugly head yet again. Murdered Kings’ followers are headed by reluctant heroes who must overcome the impending annihilation of their races, and forget past differences to come together, or perish alone. It’s a bleak telling of a story, that pulls no punches rending death to those that choose unwisely. Fire breaks out in the food supply camp, your instincts draw you to the screams of a boy, and you’ll be crowned a hero for saving him, but that may have been the altruistically correct choice, however, 4 days of marching later and hundreds of people perishing on the cold forbidden roads, starving, just go to prove that every decision has consequence. And, it’s decisions like these that litter the story text based portion of the game and give a true feeling of consequence. So, many times doing the right thing, ends in death, and unforeseen effects are always abound. At others, it sometimes feels as if your decision wasn’t all that important, and the main story was always going to progress this path, just with a different cast. Covering 25 playable characters from the two different races, Human and Varl, your epic journey encompasses characters from seven different classes, each with unique abilities and upgrade options to fit your play style.
The Banner Saga is split between a tactical turn-based RPG and a text-based decision making management simulation. The majority of your play time will be in the latter rather than the former. The landscapes are huge, just a quick glance at the map shows the scale that is offered. It’s traipsing through these sections with your following survivors that the game feels like a walking simulator. However, the journey is as important as battle. In your role you’ll have to build and manage your caravan as you travel the vast frozen landscape. This becomes an arduous task where you are constantly weighing how you get food, who you keep in the clan and who fends for themselves. Constant resource management balances the need to become a better warrior with the supplies of the caravan following you. Will 10 days of food be enough? What if we engage 100s of more soldiers along the way? What if the next town is decimated? Will they have a market to replenish stocks? Actual walking cutscenes, especially when approaching a town, are arduously long, and cannot be hastened. This occurs every time you approach a city wall, town, etc., the entire march through the outskirts, and plodding on into the actual town takes place. It evokes that feeling of scale, but when you just want to get on with it, there’s no shortcut.
Morale can be increased by making camp at any time during your march, but by doing so you’ll waste time and increase your likelihood to incur food shortages in the future. But, by maintaining morale it will have a positive impact during a war, resulting in fewer casualties and extra willpower. Entering a town is another way to make Camp, and offers more choices like the inclusion of a market, or other characters to recruit. The Heroes Tent is where all your renown will be spent on upgrades, and the Training Tent does exactly what it’s meant too.
The tactical RPG side of things is solid, albeit a clunky affair. It’s classified as strategic combat with consequences in victory or defeat. The permanent loss of a character depends on which characters you choose to take into battle and what decisions you make afterwards. The loss of a character never actually takes place by falling in battle, but during the text-driven portion of the game. The view is an isometric top-down. It’s not possible to rotate the field of play, but you can zoom in and out extensively. However, when enemies and allies are clustered together it becomes a little difficult to discern the squares that they are standing on, and a little confusing choosing the right person to attack. When zoomed in all the way the game also loses that beautiful clarity of design, and the visuals take on a rather muddied aspect. Each character takes their turn to have their move, intermittently with the enemies. Careful consideration of who’s next in your roster is important as it’s all too easy to trap a character in the corner as most can’t move through on-screen representations, foe or friend. Each character has a shield and strength bar. You can choose to attack either, but with less shield an enemy will take more damage to their strength. Your strength is your health and your attack power. If this hits zero, fall you shall. The clunkiness is all too evident when selecting movement and attack type with the Left Analogue, then choosing an enemy to attack with the D-Pad. Everything requires a cycling though options, which becomes rather arduous at times, especially when you have to back out all the way to restart the whole procedure.
Only when a particular character fells an enemy will a single point of Renown be granted. Get enough of these to allow a character’s promotion to the next level. Renown is used for everything purchasable in the game. From supplies and ability tools, to ranking up statistics and promoting characters. Characters can upgrade everything from shield and strength, to Willpower and specials. Most of these when fully upgraded offer sub-choices that can be further upgraded with skill/promotion points. This aforementioned Willpower plays an important role during battle. It allows a character to travel a little further, or attack a little harder. Each character has a set amount, and more can be added by felling enemies during a phase of play.
Lining up enemies is an essential skill to master when the heat really starts to burn. Knowing every one of your character’s special attacks and their attack patterns are important for this to happen. One special may decimate a whole area, so lure the enemy in, and clear your allies out. Another may be a charging shield bash, a long range attack in a straight line across the play field, etc. And, this is where another aspect of the tactical game’s clunkiness rears its head. It’s impossible to see these special attacks without cycling through to that player, only really applicable during that player’s turn, and after their movement. Move wrong and you’re put at a distinct disadvantage. The whole process of being able to select the right option to see a character’s special, then back out, to try another character to see if they fit the situation better, is a little unbearable.
If you are finding the actual battling frustrating, it is possible to change the difficulty at any time of your choosing and have absolutely no effect on the story-line or incur any penalty. It can be a godsend at times because the game pulls no punches and can be brutal to the point of exhaustion.
Off TV play is vibrantly beautiful, and offers the player the choice of using the touchscreen for selection of all menus and even during the fighting. However, the screen renders the choices a little too small, so zooming in is a necessity, to make sure the right unit is chosen from the huddle on screen.
After playing for some considerable time the auto-save still remains a mystery. Upon entering a town, there is a save set-up, you can see by going to the pause menu and looking for the load sub-menu. However, when that save took place is ambiguous. There’s no onscreen icon to warn you when that save is going to take place. And, there were many instances during a series of RPG battles, that no save had occurred between each. At times 40 minutes can pass, and the game hasn’t saved. Lost play-time becomes a challenge, and this lead to playing the game when time constraints were not placed upon play-time. This is not the type of game to get in a quick 30 minutes, or 15 minutes, because it’s doubtful a save will have enacted during that time. Frustrating.
The Banner Saga is the first part of a planned trilogy. If you complete this game, your unique progress and story-line will carry over to the next part of the story, which will become available shortly on the Nintendo Switch eShop. And the third title in the series is planned for later this year. It is a thoughtful and daunting prospect. It excels in some areas, like the storytelling, choice-based gameplay, visuals, and sound score, but appears just mediocre and frustrating in others, namely the tactical RPG combat and save states. It becomes incredibly rewarding once invested in its story, but only if you have the time to sit down for extended periods to play through this wilderness survival simulation.
The Banner Saga (Switch eShop)
Summary: Great visuals and storytelling, let down by frustratingly clunky tactical RPG elements. But what it does right is so good.