After previously being available separately on console and PC, the Banner Saga games are now being re-released as a bundle with some brand-new DLC. However, is their combined epic journey one worth taking?
The Banner Saga
Originally released in 2014, The Banner Saga is a tactical RPG set in an alternate version of Viking mythology. The story follows two groups of travellers, both of whom crisscross the bleak Nordic landscape, attempting to stay alive in a world ravaged by the deadly dredge, a seemingly endless army of black-armoured warriors that are wrecking everything in their path.
The Banner Saga's aesthetics are wonderfully realised. The visuals are attractive and painterly, and they're supported by an atmospheric soundtrack that does a great job of setting the scene without being overbearing. As a fan of both tactical RPGs and Norse mythos, all of this got me very excited to play the game. However, I'm disappointed to say that I didn't have a good time with it for a few reasons.
The first issue I came across is that the story is pretty confusing. The narrative switches points of view between the two different groups from the start, leaving you confused as to who's who, who is going where, and why. Things get a little clearer as the story progresses but you are often still at a loss as to where your party is headed next or why.
This doesn't just make the story hard to follow; it also causes problems with the gameplay, too. As your party marches across the world, you often either pull in at towns or make camp. There, you'll have to stock up on supplies for the next leg of your journey or choose to rest which consumes supplies but improves your party's morale. However, the fact that you often don't know where you're heading next or how long it will take to get there makes this process a guessing game. Get it wrong and you can end up losing men to hunger.
The next issue is how much dialogue and inaction there is between battles. A lot of the dialogue and description feels extraneous and serves to do little more than drag things out. On the plus side, you get to choose a lot of dialogue options. These influence the story to varying degrees such as improving or lowering party morale as well as determining the outcomes of certain characters' fates.
While this degree of interaction is welcome, it's not without problems of its own. They usually ask you to make important judgement calls on things without giving you a lot of information to go on. For example, at one point, you're made to choose whether to break through enemy lines or retreat. Making the "wrong" decision will cost you the lives of some of your men. As the only thing you're given to base your decision on is a short text description, it's hard to know what the best course of action will be. This happens a lot throughout which leads to you losing men, supplies and morale through no fault of your own.
Furthermore, a lot of the "gameplay" involves simply watching your caravan slowly move across the landscape. Although The Banner Saga is a very pretty game to look at, that doesn't stop these sections from being incredibly dull to wait through.
Once you finally get through all the waffle and walking, it's time to fight. However, The Banner Saga's battles are little more engaging than the rest of the game. There are a lot of stats onscreen, making things look intricate and complicated but essentially, most of the encounters play out very similarly. You'll either be fighting other humans or the dredge. When up against the dredge, you have to repeatedly do enough damage to break their armour down to a certain level then try to finish them off by using strength attacks to deplete their health. This gets very samey quickly and stays that way throughout the whole game. Additionally, the battles are pretty easy to win and it makes them almost as boring as watching your caravan slowly trudge over the hills.
The ability to level up your characters and swap them out with others that you meet along your journey adds a little variety but overall it can't stop the whole experience being very repetitive and tiresome.
The Banner Saga 2
The Banner Saga 2 picks up shortly after the first game. The story hasn't changed much. You're on the run from the dredge again, having to fight them at every turn while making many more life-or-death decisions regarding the fate of your caravan. Lots of the same faces are back with a few new additions and you're able to import your save from the first game in order to keep levelling up your characters. Other than that, it does hardly anything different from the first installment and has the same pros and cons as mentioned above. The graphics, combat systems and gameplay are all practically identical. If you liked the first game, you'll probably enjoy the continuation of the story. If not, you won't find any changes here to convince you otherwise.
The Banner Saga 2: Survival Mode
One addition to the second game is the new survival mode. This DLC tasks you with completing forty sequential battles against yet more armies of dredge. You start by picking six warriors from both games' roster of characters. You can level these characters up as you go as well as get items for them by slaying enemies but you only have three lives to use before being forced to start over. Your moves are time-limited but other than that, it bears no difference to the battles in the main games. Again, if you like the base combat, you might enjoy this. Otherwise, it's just more of the same.
The Banner Saga games look and sound great and there has clearly been a lot of effort put into their design and lore but their repetitive battles and profuse, prattling dialogue make their journeys ones of drawn-out tedium rather than exhilarating adventure.
- + Nice graphical style
- + Pleasant soundtrack
- + Dialogue options make you feel more involved in the story
- - Repetitive, unchallenging battles
- - Lots of extraneous dialogue
- - Long, boring sections watching your army trudge over the landscape