The Banner Saga had so much potential. I mean, tactical, turn-based combat mixed with random events that can kill off playable characters? That sounds like a dream for a turn-based strategy fan like myself. In practice, however, this game manages to fail in so many ways that I came to hate it, and if a fan of the genre like me can come to resent this game, there’s no way it’s the kind of thing that can be recommended to others.
The game is mostly about walking
The first thing you’ll notice upon starting the game is that you have to watch a group of people trudge slowly across the screen. This isn’t an isolated instance of boring walking—you’ll spend a huge portion of the game just watching your people walk from one place to another. While it’s not that bad early on, you’ll be sick of having to sit around twiddling your thumbs once you reach chapter 5 or 6 because of how monotonous it ends up being, and your only relief is that you’ll occasionally have to deal with events that pop up while you’re walking.
The events suck
While having to deal with random obstacles along the road (like someone’s drunkenness, a fire, or spoiled supplies) is a good idea in theory, you never really feel the brunt of any of the negative things that happen because of how arbitrary the numbers seem to be. I mean, the repercussions of whatever loss you’re faced with are rarely clear, so why worry? If I lose a bunch of fighters, do my fights become harder? If they do, it’s certainly subtle enough that I never noticed. Losing supplies has a slightly more meaningful impact because it’s clear that it means that you can then travel for fewer days (it’s possible to travel without food, though a bunch of your people will die every day), but given that you rarely know how many days it’ll be to your next location, the impact is, again, virtually zero. This is really the story of the entire game: attempts at bleakness and difficulty that are continually offset by the meaninglessness of the characters and mechanics.
The characters are worthless
You play as at least three different main characters in this game, and at one point you switch to another character within the same group, making it incredibly confusing to try and figure out which character you’re responding as. Beyond that, you’re immediately bombarded with a ton of dialogue that’s peppered with locations and names that you’re not familiar with, and it’s almost like the game expects you to either magically divine all of this stuff or figure things out based solely on context. By the end of the game, I still only knew the names of a few key characters, and no one ever received enough characterization for me to care when they die off. Those who died were usually meaningless side characters, and the worst thing that happened was that I had to adapt my combat tactics slightly to compensate for the absence of one or two characters. Again, there was no real impact. The characters weren’t even likable, so I couldn’t bring myself to care when one or two of them got killed.
Combat is okay, but simplistic
Apart from the graphics, the closest thing The Banner Saga has to a redeeming aspect is its combat. That isn’t saying much, though, because the combat has a whole host of its own issues and annoyances and is merely passable. The whole system is as simple as armor and health; armor is basically what it sounds like, reducing the damage that can be done to that unit and needing to be whittled down before any real damage can be done, and health is also self-explanatory, though the strength of a unit (meaning how much damage it can do) is also tied to their health. If a character with low health, then, tries to attack an enemy with a ton of armor, they’ll most likely just have their attack deflected altogether. If a character with lots of health attacks an enemy with no armor, however, they’ll manage to do massive damage. The whole point of combat, then, is to divide your team into two halves, with one half being devoted to doing armor damage and the other half devoted to attacking armor-damaged enemies. While I usually hate having health and damage tied together, the game actually manages to make it work.
There are a few other aspects of combat to take into account like willpower (an expendable resource that lets you move farther and hit harder) and special moves (which usually do a little more damage and often have unique effects like knocking an enemy back), but those are used to tie into the aforementioned strategy rather than allowing flexibility in approaching the game in different ways. The system is streamlined to the point where there’s only ever one strategy, and this is, in my mind, a major flaw; Fire Emblem games allow for a whole host of approaches, while The Banner Saga forces you to approach each enemy identically.
One thing that should be mentioned is that there are no “player phases” and “enemy phases” like you’d expect in this kind of game; until there’s only a single enemy left on the screen, combat alternates between your move and the enemy’s move one character at a time like in chess. Before each fight, you decide your character order, and if this sounds backward, it’s because it is—how are you supposed to devise a clever character order without even knowing how many enemies you’re facing, or the general area in which you’ll be positioned relative to them? This makes absolutely no sense and reeks of poor planning, as does your inability to cancel a character’s movement if you accidentally click the wrong square. Combat could have been legitimately enjoyable, but little irritations like that make it much more of a chore than it should be.
When you kill enemies and do noteworthy things, you gain “renown.” This is used as the game’s currency (though I can’t recall ever being told that in-game), being used both to purchase supplies/items and upgrade your units once they’ve killed enough enemies to warrant the upgrade. You gain a few points when you upgrade to put into a number of different categories, from the amount of damage that character can do directly to an enemy’s armor to their strength/health, and even the amount of willpower they have at the start of combat.
Renown is a poor system
Having renown be used both to purchase supplies and level up characters is hilariously stupid, though; because you never know whether or not you have enough supplies for your voyage (more on that in a second), leveling up one of your characters can mean being poor and ending up having a bunch of your people die from starvation. I fought as many enemies as I could, opting to resolve problems with violence at every opportunity, and yet I rarely had enough renown to buy food, much less items in shops. By the end of the game, I only had three or four characters at level 4, and had gone without food at several points in the game (not that it seemed to matter any in the grand scheme of things). The way everything revolves around renown is just annoying, honestly.
I went to buy supplies early in the game and quickly realized that I had no idea how many supplies I actually needed. How far away is the next town? You rarely know this ahead of time, so you never know whether to buy a ton of supplies or level up your characters instead. Making supplies feel like a guessing game is ridiculous, and it again feels more like poor planning than anything intentional.
There are no manual saves
The first thing I do in every game is look to see what the quicksave button is, but this game doesn’t have a quicksave button. In fact, this game doesn’t have a save button of any kind. Much like Assassin’s Creed (though less forgiving), The Banner Saga saves your data automatically as you go along, which means you have to suffer the consequences of your decisions no matter what. That was supposedly the point, at least, though on several occasions I was able to reload the autosave and try something else. Given how sloppy the rest of the game is, it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if they didn’t implement manual saves because they didn’t actually know how to. At any rate, the lack of explanation regarding a number of elements (like the amount of supplies you need each time you set out) makes the absence of a manual save completely unforgivable.
The game isn’t complete
If you’re looking for a complete story, then you’re going to need to look elsewhere because this game suddenly ends with the heroes fleeing before anything is resolved. In fact, a number of huge plot elements are left completely unexplained by the time the credits roll around. It’s kind of ridiculous that the developers would put out such a flawed game with such forgettable characters and try to milk it as though it’s actually a multi-part epic deserving of such treatment.
But hey, it’s pretty
The Banner Saga looks kind of like a Disney movie, honestly. The animations can occasionally be a bit creepy (especially when it comes to certain characters’ eyes), but the art design is probably this game’s biggest virtue. The art design isn’t great enough to offset this game’s many, many flaws, however.
I turned the music off
I’ve played many games with the music on, including Lufia & the Fortress of Doom (and just read what I have to say about that game’s music), but I ended up turning off The Banner Saga’s music. There’s just something uniquely repetitive, grating, and empty about it, and at a certain point I couldn’t stand it anymore.
Here’s what you should do: