A New Twist On Tactical RPGs –
Ported from its PC origins, The Banner Saga on Xbox One is a unique tactical RPG, a term not easily associated with TRPGs, as it carries its one-of-a-kind combat system, a heavy focus on player controlled narrative, and a visual style not usually seen in games.
Check out my stream of The Banner Saga right here:
While the actual gameplay of the Banner Saga is geared around a flat grid not far removed from, say, Fire Emblem, the meat of this downloadable experience comes from its special take on narrative. If you mixed the drama of Game of Thrones, the freedom of a choose-your-own-adventure novel, the traveling/supplies mechanic of Oregon Trail, and grid based TRPG combat, you’ll have a better understanding of what The Banner Saga is all about. The end result is actually quite gripping and I wound up enjoying this journey between the humans, varl (large, Viking-like giants with horns sticking out of their heads), and the dread (stone, shadow creatures) much more than I thought I would.
Unlike Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together, in which success or failure on the battlefield determines major plot points, The Banner Saga is a little more like Mass Effect as the story changes to what the player selects during the numerous dialog trees. What makes the plot and narrative structure a key selling point is the creative writing behind it all. By the time the credits roll, the player is forced to make dozens of difficult decisions, often with no clear right or wrong option and without seeing the consequence, whether there is an immediate response or something not seen until hours later. Like Game of Thrones, the player constantly wonders what is coming next but it is how everything is presented that makes the experience engaging from beginning to end. In one example, I helped a lost group of men I randomly came across only to have them steal my precious supplies when I wasn’t looking. I thought these guys would join my team since I decided to help them but actually wound up punishing me. It is scenarios like this that keep the story and gameplay entertaining.
Besides having a player selected narrative, combat is also its own. Instead of grinding through baddie after baddie to earn XP to increase levels and abilities, the entire combat system is based around the Will system. Will determines the strength of attacks, how far you can walk, and even when you can use special abilities. Further, health directly correlates to how strong an attack is. Also, in order to actually deal damage to an enemy’s health, you must first break through their armor. In some cases, it is best to break through enemy armor to land one crushing blow rather just grind several low damaging health hits. Also, it can even be beneficial to leave weak enemies on the battle field as the player constantly rotates turns with the enemy. Eliminating the weak enemies first actually makes the tanks attack more often which could easily be life or death on the battlefield. Adding limited Will points to attacks makes strategy even more engaging and thoughtful. All in all, the combat system isn’t filled with this super deeply complicated interface but makes every single move critically important. It is also worth mentioning that healing is not an option during combat either which only adds to the tension.
Thankfully, death is not permanent as The Banner Saga can be pretty difficult at times, especially during the final boss encounter. Instead, it might take two days for a clan member to fully recover. However, burning a few days to rest will eat up more supplies. But in order to buy supplies, you have to spend Renown points. Renown points are earned on the battlefield and randomly during dialog trees. However, you also need Renown points to level up characters after they killed a certain number of bad guys during combat. So, do you spend points to buy supplies so your moral stays high and your precious troops don’t starve, or do you spend your points to buy that stat-altering accessory or to level up a trooper? Using Renown points as currency to do anything and everything are challenging decisions to say the least and are constantly presented to the player.
Visually, The Banner Saga is something to see. With hand drawn cartoon cels that look like something out of a Disney movie or Dragon’s Lair, the visual style is definitely a stand-out. But as great as these drawings are, they are begging to be fully animated. Limited to hair blowing in the wind, not having animation for drawings this good is a sin. Characters battle animations, especially their dying animations, are great so it just sucks that the cut scenes are limited to simple screen transitions. Besides the detailed character drawings, this journey through this cold and desolate land also provides a tremendous sense of scale. Each character model is basically a dot on the screen when standing next to one of the Godstones or sprawling environments; it is something to see and not normally seen in games today. The lack of voice acting is also a disappointment. With a cast and crew of dozens of memorable characters, reading their dialog instead of hearing their voices loses something in translation. The grunts, groans and screams during battle, however, add a sense of weight and realism to the cartoony combat scenes.
My only other complaint with this dozen hour quest are the frequent and long load times. Simply going to the menu to organize your team requires a load at the start and a load when you close. While some loading takes longer than others, waiting for ten to twenty seconds to do something simple is rather annoying. I actually found myself purposely not looking at my team’s stats just because I didn’t want to sit through the empty black load screen again. Also, the grid based combat screen can become cluttered at times, especially when units are grouped close together making it difficult to see who is attacking who. On several occasions I actually attacked the wrong target simply because it can be difficult to see the cursor and small font text. It is also worth pointing out there is no new game+ option. While disappointing, it is understandable considering how each play through can be different with so many dialog choices to consider.
Tactical RPG fans should totally eat up The Banner Saga. This is not Final Fantasy Tactics. This is not Vandal Hearts. This is not Advance Wars. The elements presented in this game by Stoic is uniquely their own from both a story and gameplay stand point. Sure, it might take a few battles to fully understand The Banner Saga because it is so unique but that is what makes it special. TRPG fan or not, be sure to check out this Xbox One version if you missed its original PC release about a year ago. It is rather engrossing, maintains an aggressively addicting pacing, and will keep you entertained from beginning to end.
By: Zachary Gasiorowski, Editor in Chief myGamer.com