There aren’t many games like The Banner Saga on PS4. In fact, you can probably count the number of turn-based strategy games available for the platform on your fleshy digits; and if we’re talking about the truly decent ones, then that already meagre number plummets even further. To the rescue then is The Banner Saga from ex-Bioware developers Stoic. Is it provides a grand chunk of turn-based strategy RPG shenanigans set in a cartoon-styled Nordic fantasy world stuffed with vikings, bigger vikings, and a whole bunch of iron golems with a fetish for destruction and murder. In short, this is The Good Stuff.
Originally starting life as a crowdfunded PC and mobile project (though you shouldn’t hold that against it), The Banner Saga is envisaged as the start of an epic trilogy that weaves a narrative of war and conflict between humans, giant Vikings called Varl, and a frankly terrifying race of overly-armoured bruisers called the Dredge, who basically want to smash and stab everything in sight.
At the centre of all this sword clanging and epic facial growth is the turn-based strategy system that The Banner Saga holds at its core. To begin with, players assemble a party of heroes and then decide what spots on the isometric perspective map they want them to begin on. When the player is satisfied with their placement and battle commences, these heroes are then moved about the map on a turn-by-turn basis and go about chipping away at their foes in earnest.
Armour and Strength stats are the two primary metrics that you need to worry about here, since the latter dictates both how hard you hit in addition to how much health you have left while the former decreases the amount of damage your enemies and your units can absorb with each attack made. As one might reasonably expect then, working out which stat to prioritize becomes crucial to your success as you come across foes with strong armour and less health, less armour and more health, and even foes which have shedloads of both, forcing you to whittle down their armour and strength bit by bit as you attempt to forge an effective strategy against them.
Layered on top of these rudimentary considerations are the various hero types, the concept of willpower, and a range of trinkets that can be used to increase your chances in battle. In the case of the hero types, the towering Varl make for great damage dealing tanks while their smaller human counterparts often fill supporting roles such as axeman, spearman, and archers, the latter of which prove especially useful as they harass foes at range without immediate reprisal.
Willpower on the other hand is another vital part of The Banner Saga’s turn-based warmongering dynamic. In each battle, players have a set amount of willpower points which are spent on either moving further than they otherwise could, deal more damage than would normally be possible, or use them to trigger special abilities unique to their class that might knock an enemy back or taunt them into attacking a particular unit, distracting them from more frail combatants, for example.
Neatly supplementing all of this is a well-realised progression system where kills provide Renown, which can then be used to promote these heroes, allowing the player to increase a variety of stats and use items that would have been previously inaccessible. An added wrinkle to this is that Renown is a terribly finite resource, and so players must prioritise and plan on which characters are most deserving of being upgraded in order to best further the progress of the group. It’s all highly compelling fare and the relative simplicity of the turn-based system, combined with scalable difficulty levels and well-thought out console interface makes it all easily graspable, even by folks who don’t usually do the whole strategy thing.
The somewhat unfortunate downside to all this accessibility, however, is that the strategies required to take down your foes are rarely anything approaching complex, and the variety of different map types and terrain are slim to say the least. As such, well-seasoned armchair generals will find little within The Banner Saga that will properly tax their tactical mettle.
Away from the entertaining turn-based shenanigans of its thunderous scraps, The Banner Saga makes further good use of its RPG promises by not only setting up a cracking, world-spanning bleak narrative involving war, tragedy and love that would make George R R Martin blush, but also by allowing players a good degree of choice as to how it all plays out.
More so than perhaps any other game on console, The Banner Saga doesn’t just make you feel like a loner tagging along on some sort of epic journey, it makes you into a commander and a leader with often hundreds upon hundreds of dependants to worry about. This fact brings with it a startling revelation; every decision you make doesn’t just affect you, or your closest buddies, it screws with the fates of the women, children, the elderly as well as everybody else you happen to have with you in your entourage. It makes you feel like a part of something bigger; an active component of the destinies of hundreds of others. In this sense, very few games actually achieve it in the way that The Banner Saga manages to.
A rowdy veteran clansmen, for example, might be endangering his fellows by behaving drunkenly and while a harsh, authoritarian approach might resolve the situation, it could also drive a stake in your ranks, sectioning off certain individuals and threatening to create a group sundering mutiny in process. By thrusting players into such a position of responsibility, other concerns must be addressed too. Keeping morale high to ensure your fighting force remains motivated to get down and dirty when they need to is just one thing to consider. Another is maintaining a decent amount of supplies, because travelling with hundreds of folk and a bunch of giants takes both food and water in order to be sustained, lest everybody dies from empty bellies and parched throats.
In addition to making such decisions, The Banner Saga also packs in a multi-branching dialogue system, which not only directly affects the fashion in which the plot drives forward but also provides a fair whack of incentive for repeat play in the process. Where it becomes to get a little unstuck is where the ambitions of the developer start to outpace the relatively modest budget that The Banner Saga was created on.
Chiefly, this disparity between bank account and imagination rears its head in how the results of your decisions are depicted. While the game’s predominately text-based dialogue and descriptors do a decent enough job of describing minor events, more emotionally poignant happenings, such as when a long-time party member is killed due to one of your decisions, simply aren’t given the tangible fanfare that fully animated scenes would provide. This definitely detracts from the emotional heft that such events would normally have.
If the protagonists and the antagonists of The Banner Saga are key characters in the cast of the game, then so too is the very undertaking of the journey itself. The in-between combat segments where you and your caravan are traversing the wilderness, hiking from one settlement to the next, really help to sell you on both the length and the spectacle of the odyssey at hand while detailed descriptors of local histories and cultures all add up to create a world that feels properly lived in and absolutely steeped in lore.
Such immersion is largely made possible by the stunning audiovisual presentation that The Banner Saga bleeds from every pixelated pore. Adopting a cartoon style aesthetic clearly inspired by 80’s animation auteur Ralph Bakshi (his 1983 fantasy yarn Fire & Ice in particular springs to mind), The Banner Saga looks unlike any other PS4 title, strategy RPG, or otherwise available on the market today.
Aside from assuming a visual style providing some gorgeously drawn character models, butter-smooth animations, and stunningly detailed environments, the leveraging of other artistic inspirations also aid the developer’s endeavour to reinforce the sheer dramatic scale of your journey. Specifically, the long, lingering panning shots of your caravan slowly moving across the frigid, yet beautiful landscape evokes the sort of scenic poetry that was so prevalent in 70mm shot films such as Baraka, or more recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.
Complimenting these substantial treats to the retinas, The Banner Saga also delights the senses audibly with the highly talented Austin Wintory scoring the affair with inputs from genre solo artists such as Malukuh, Peter Hollins, and backed by the evocative serenades of the Dallas Wind Symphony. The soundtrack is severe, and it forebodes and boasts the sort of grandeur that one might expect to be synonymous with an epic tale such as this, the bombast of The Banner Saga’s score aptly matches the caliber of its eye-searing veneer.
Beyond the obvious and considerable swoop and spectacle of The Banner Saga’s inspired presentation, it’s the sheer breadth of its offering that arguably defines it; an almost breathlessly ambitious strategy RPG effort that while not perfect, stands in a class of its own on PS4 and sets a tantalizing roadmap for where the rest of the trilogy will go next.