The Banner Saga is as perfectly executed as a game can get and the only serious flaw is that it will only devour a few days of your life instead of the weeks and months you'd willingly sacrifice. It's sublime. A gorgeous, accessible artistic vision played out across gripping consequence-based storytelling and a balanced combat system.
The only barrier for enjoying The Banner Saga is whether or not you enjoy turn-based combat. If you do, buy it. If you don't, consider it. There is a lot more to The Banner Saga than great turn-based combat so it makes a nice entry point for gamers who haven't been able to click with a turn-based game yet. I couldn't stand turn-based combat until I played XCOM two years ago, now I'm hooked. All it takes is one great game, and The Banner Saga delivers on just about every level so it's hard to dismiss.
Here's the trailer:
The Banner Saga Trailer
The first thing you'll notice is the art style. It's perfect for the story and the atmosphere Stoic wants to create in The Banner Saga, but it has the advantage of not demanding a lot from your computer. There are so many "gorgeous" games that require gobs of hardware, it's nice to play a game that is both beautiful and simple. The "look" of The Banner Saga is consistent throughout and this helps elevate everything to a richer, more immersive level. You feel like you're in control of an animated feature film, not just playing a game.
As a game, The Banner Saga succeeds on a few levels. There are three major elements to gameplay: turn-based combat, resource management and decision making. You control a few different caravans of warriors and survivors trekking across the frozen wastes as they flee The Dredge (a.k.a. evil). The amount of supplies in the caravan is reduced daily and morale depends on balancing food and rest. Think Oregon Trail. The Banner Saga uses Renown, a combination of gold and XP, for purchasing supplies, upgrading characters and acquiring magical items. Throughout your journey you will constantly wrestle with how to spend/use your Renown.
Promoting all your hero units seems good, until the long march takes its toll on morale and fighters begin abandoning you. Not to mention the unrest and infighting that occurs among hundreds of now-starving refugees. Ignore your heroes, though, and you'll find yourself being defeated time and again. Maybe a magical item can help tip the scales?
Because Renown is hard to come by, the decision-making gets intense. The Banner Saga does not always reward the "right" decisions. You encounter a lot of strangers on the road. Help some and they might reward you with food or items. Others might be bandits who run off in the night with half your supplies and a hero's blood on their hands. The Banner Saga, for all of it's vibrant, colorful visuals, plays out almost exclusively in grey areas.
Combat is more straightforward and, at times, feels like a break from all of the heavy thinking you end up doing. There's a certain amount of satisfaction in thinking with the sword and The Banner Saga has a turn-based combat system that is finely tuned. The basics are familiar to most, make a move then perform an attack. Archers are as close as you'll get to a support class so you can't depend on healers or medicines to correct your mistakes. There are only two stats in combat: Armor and Strength. Strength plays the dual role of being your health and your damage output. Lowering armor, though, helps do larger health damage. Again, the Banner saga finds a nice balance between the two and both are equally important.
And this is where we run into the fatal flaw of The Banner Saga. There's simply not enough of it. Because as soon as you feel like you've got an understanding of the combat and the resources and who does what, the game is over. Depending on your playstyle it takes anywhere from 8-15 hours. It's only $25 so you don't necessarily feel cheated from a value standpoint, and it's certainly worth multiple playthroughs. But The Banner Saga is ultimately an oxymoron: a short epic.
The good news is that there is already a lot of love for this game, which was the brainchild of some former BioWare employees and funded (in part) on Kickstarter. The team at Stoic has laid a monumental foundation so let's hope they continue to build and build and build some more.
Because once you finish The Banner Saga you're ready to buy and buy and buy some more.