The Banner Saga Review: Tour de Norse

All the chaos leads inevitably to combat, and The Banner Saga uses a turn-based, tactical system that is both intuitive and deep. The developers claim inspiration from Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force, but though fans of those titles will feel at home, new players will have little trouble. Battles take place on a grid that resembles a chessboard, augmented by Jorgensen’s beautiful art — the arenas a joy to look at.

Each encounter involves a bit of preparation — players select from their roster of combatants, establish a turn order, and then place them in available spots on the grid (cleverly, these spots change depending on the circumstances of the fight). Once battle is joined, players move characters, order attacks, and deploy special abilities according to relatively strict parameters. Each combatant has two main statistics: armor and strength; the latter acts as both a life meter and a measure of attack power. The key tactical decision, therefore, is deciding whether to wear down a target’s armor in the hopes of landing a killing blow later on, or sapping its strength immediately, which decreases the risk of a devastating counter-attack.

It gets more complicated, of course. A renewable resource, Willpower, can add power to attacks or fund special abilities, which are powerful but carefully balanced. A cleave attack with a Varl’s massive sword can damage nearby enemies, for example, but risks hitting nearby allies. The mix of humans, Varl, and Dredge on the battlefield adds a welcome variety. Humans are quick and versatile, but very squishy. Varl are ponderous but devastating if their strength can brought to bear. Dredge are intimidating but vulnerable in groups — the right kind of attack can set off a chain reaction, damaging all adjacent enemies.

The team at Stoic does a serviceable job keeping things fresh, introducing new characters with new abilities, even if the stock group of enemies remains relatively unchanged. Attractive, fluid animations make the proceedings fun to watch. Most importantly, the combat supports the plot; like in XCOM, you always feel a little bit overwhelmed, and the clever, ruthless AI can and will exploit a rash mistake. Players will hoard Willpower and keep a close eye on which hulking Dredge colossus is due to take the next turn. Choosing the right mix of combatants and upgrading them carefully using a basic RPG system is crucial. The right deployment, the right turn order, and careful attention to positioning are also important to success. That said, battles have no fail state — losing doesn’t mean game over, although it can have dire consequences for your group.

Combat isn’t perfect: the game does a poor job of instructing players in the use of a few key mechanics, like the Dredge chain reaction mentioned earlier. In some cases, the user interface could be a little more informative about how and where special abilities work. And some players claim that the turn-based system can be exploited, giving a reduced number of heroes free hits against a constrastingly large number of villains. Still, these are minor complaints.

The Banner Saga’s other major gameplay element centers around travel. Viewed in a huge wide shot, caravans move through the unforgettable, Earle-inspired landscapes, trailing the game’s titular banners, which flap defiantly in the frigid breeze. Apprised of the number of Clansmen, Fighters, and Varl that accompany each caravan, players must acquire supplies to boost morale and keep their followers fed, stopping to camp when necessary to heal combatants injured in the previous bout of tactical combat. Camping also offers the opportunity to upgrade heroes and try out new tactics in a training arena.

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