Finally setting foot on consoles after a long and probably cold wait is The Banner Saga – an addictive, intricate role-playing experience that's set in a world with a dead sun. Hulking giants known as varl exist alongside humans, and old, almost demonic foes are threatening the peace that both races have worked hard to establish. It's fantasy that has many of its roots planted in European mythology, and with a distinctive art style that's married to an exquisite soundtrack composed by Journey's Austin Wintory, it's easy to see why this game garnered so much praise when it released on various platforms back in early 2014.
As hinted, the title's plot isn't anything particularly special or unique – but like many of the best RPGs out there, it's not the overarching storyline that makes the game memorable. Instead, you'll be paying particular attention to the numerous personalities that inhabit this frozen land, whether they're enemies, allies, or even playable characters. The whole thing's nicely written, and although there's a distinct lack of voice acting, that doesn't take away from the writing's impact.
Sometimes, it's difficult to forge a lengthy tale without losing a player's interest along the way, but The Banner Saga manages to keep things moving at an enjoyable pace thanks to the fact that it regularly switches the perspective of the narrative. You'll swap between two parties, each of whom are on opposite sides of the continent, and within those parties, you'll be switching between several involved characters for large chunks of the story. All in all, it's a great way to get you involved in proceedings.
Player choice is the driving factor behind all of this immersion, though. Again, much like older, more traditional RPGs, some scenarios are described through text in a very storybook fashion. You'll often be presented with tough choices, and your decisions allow the plot to branch off in different directions, which obviously adds quite a bit of replay value should you want to start over once you're finished with your first playthrough.
It's something that gets said a lot these days, but we did genuinely find ourselves hesitating to make decisions on multiple occasions. At times, The Banner Saga can be brutal in terms of consequence: playable characters can leave your group or even be killed off as the story progresses, and it all depends on the actions that you decided to take. As such, it's safe to say that everyone will walk away from the experience with different tales to tell.
For the most part, the game gets role-playing just right, but there are points where you're left feeling a little bit lost. Usually, this is when the narrative decides to take a break from one party and jump to another. Suddenly, the scenario that you've been working through for the last few hours will end on a cliffhanger, and you'll be thrown into a situation that involves an entirely different cast, who you'll have to quickly reacquaint yourself with. It's not the narrative technique that's at fault, though – it's just that the release could do a little more to ease the transition.
Considering its branching storylines and multiple player characters, it's important that The Banner Saga breaks things up with its strategic, turn-based battles. As you and your caravan of allies automatically march through the world towards the next chunk of plot, you'll be tossed into combat scenarios. These brawls aren't unlike battles from classics such as Final Fantasy Tactics. You'll need to place your various fighters on gridded maps, with the destruction of your enemies being the sole route to victory.
Initially, it can be difficult to get a grip on combat due to the game's controls. The button layout is clumsy at best and downright baffling at worst, which is a real shame since the basics of battle are relatively accessible. Each combatant, whether they're a damage-soaking shieldbanger or a tactical archer, has three separate key statistics: armour, strength, and willpower. More meaty warriors tend to boast high armour, while those wielding big, two-handed weapons usually come with a lot of strength. Meanwhile, willpower can be used to boost your attack or move a few extra spaces across the map, but it doesn't regenerate in battle, so it needs to be rationed and spent wisely.
Having just three main stats may make it sound as though the game has a limited amount of depth, and while it's true that The Banner Saga doesn't offer a huge amount of tactical possibilities, the simplicity of the system means that battles are fairly quick, brutal, and tense. Strength is a good example of this, as it acts as both your health and your damage output. Consequently, this means that giving a foe a good wallop will also weaken their offensive capabilities – with the same being true of you and your allies. This leads to combat which puts an emphasis on being as efficient as possible – the longer a skirmish lasts, the weaker your party will gradually become as their strength is picked away.
The other side of this is the armour stat, which determines defence. Chipping away at this allows for increased direct damage, so there's always a decision to be made with regards to how you'll approach each foe. Is it better to weaken their own attacks, or have your party chip away their armour so that you can send in a heavy hitter to finish them in a single blow? It goes without saying that getting it wrong can be costly – with wounded allies then having to rest before they can partake in another brawl – but watching your strategy pay off as your enemies fall one by one is supremely satisfying.
Life in this icy wasteland doesn't have to be unforgiving, however. If you're here purely for the role-playing aspects of the release, or you just don't want to get bogged down too much by combat, the easy difficulty level makes for a great entry point, making combat less challenging, while wounded party members won't need to rest up. In contrast, if you're looking for a real slog, setting the game to 'hard' can make it incredibly tough to survive this never-ending winter with everyone intact.
Get used to the clumsy controls and The Banner Saga is a great role-playing ride right the way through to its conclusion. Meaningful player choice and engaging storytelling are broken up perfectly by bouts of enjoyable strategic combat, which creates a wonderfully paced experience that's very hard to put down. This is a banner that we want to see soaring well into the future.