The Banner Saga PC Review
If you’ve ever thought that Oregon Trail would be a much better game if it was filled with Vikings and grid-based strategic battles, then The Banner Saga is for you. Independent game developer Stoic, made up of three ex-Bioware employees, has released the first crowd funded game in what they intend to be a trilogy, and they have done their Kickstarter backers proud.
The Banner Saga revolves around several main characters and their treks across vast lands. The surprisingly rich tactical combat is only half of the appeal, as Stoic has created an incredibly rich world for the player to explore. I spent hours just looking at the map early on and reading the blurbs about each location. Old abandoned forts, violent port towns, and murky bogs are all painstakingly crafted and you get not only a sense of the modern state of the world, but also its history. The player is tasked with keeping various caravans safe as they attempt to discover why the evil Dredge have reappeared after been driven out in previous wars. You have to balance supplies, choose your tactics, and build the most powerful party of fighters you can muster for more intimate battles.
Not only will the members of your party vacillate, but so will the player’s perspective. While the mechanical behemoth Dredge are the clear enemy of everyone, one of the brilliant things about The Banner Saga’s story is that depending on whether you are playing from the perspective of the giant Varl or the resourceful humans, your attitude about the other race will shift as well. In a party of mostly Varl warriors, the whiney human is an annoyance that often presents his face for a sound pummeling. Yet when the perspective shifts to the humans on the run, the few Varl seem like uncompromising brutes. It’s a delicate balance that Stoic has mastered on their first outing.
Likewise, the dialog, while sadly not voice acted, is snappy and fun, and the choices you make during these conversations have a significant impact on the course of the story. Do you risk sending a scouting party ahead to alert you to danger, or do you decide not to risk it and take the safer path? These sorts of events happen constantly and they are varied and interesting. Your play through will feel unique and tailored to you.
When battle does inevitably break out, the player will use a party of up to six complementary fighters to engage in turn-based grid combat. The strategy of a good mix of long-range and melee fighters, turn order, and the balance of offense and defense is deeper than the seemingly simple pertinent stats of armor and health would suggest. Much like a boxing match, it is important to whittle the enemies armor down with defensive players before having the heavy hitters step in for the kill.
All of the battles are a joy to watch and very well animated. The hand painted backgrounds and characters are outstanding. While the animation in cut scenes is limited, the beautiful world is awesome to traverse and the battle animations are old-school brilliant. If there is a complaint to be levied at the graphics, it is the lack of diversity in character models and some stiff animations during close-ups. It’s nothing too distracting, but the animation reminds me of the 1977 The Hobbit animated film, which is not intended as a compliment. One of the benefits of the graphical styling’s, however, are the ridiculously low system requirements. I was able to play the entire game on a $350 atom-based Windows 8 tablet. This makes it one of the best mobile games available.
The lack of voice acting is a bit disappointing, but doesn’t detract from Austin Wintory’s tone-setting score and the ambient sounds of battle. The aural effect of Shieldbangers clanging mace to shield with distant screams and Dredge pillaging set to the Norse themed orchestral music really fleshes out the world. Perhaps given a larger budget voice acting could have been added, but given the circumstances it is easy to forgive the lack thereof.
If The Banner Saga is an example of what supremely talented people can accomplish with a relatively shoestring budget thanks to crowd funding, traditional game publishers should be concerned. This is a game built with a lot of passion, and it shows in every meticulous detail. From the art, to the world-building, to the branching storyline; everything smacks of a big budget affair. Stoic is a developer to watch, and assuming King will get the hell out-of-the-way, there are great things to come from these guys.
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