This article gives our impressions on the Playstation 4 version of The Banner Saga.
As his auburn hair and copper shirt eb and flow in the brisk winds, Hakon, a fierce warrior, shares a mug of mead with Ubin, an aging historian, both recollecting the conflict they’d just created.
These giants, known as Varl, towered over their opponents with their physical presence and oversized weapons, taking great pride in spilling human blood over the nearby tavern floor. It was never a contest really, their experience in battle and overbearing size was too great. And yet, both reveal vulnerabilities in their personality during the brief exchange which suggests that next time they may not get off so lucky.
This is just one of many conversations you’ll have in The Banner Saga, a turn-based, tactical tale that takes many twists and turns along the way. The narrative is told from multiple perspectives, both human and Varl; each action has a consequence and every conversation could lead you down a darker, more dangerous path.
In this game, you’ll need to get used to being on the move a lot. And when you’re not on the move, you’re fighting. And when you’re not fighting, you’re talking. The pace is unrelenting, even when it feels like your characters are resting or training or taking a few moments to slow the plot down. This is because seemingly simple events, like the delivery of goods or sharing of ale, could be interfered with or escalate out of control, leading toward something much bigger.
The road is an extremely perilous place for you and your clansmen, but that’s as much to do with having limited supplies as it is running into the Dredge, the game’s nomadic, sentinel-like beings, intent on war and destruction. Dangers must be faced however, and the march is an essential part of the experience, waving the colour of your banner prominently and proudly as you move to your next destination, spreading both hope and fear as you go.
To break up the grind on the road, you’ll need to move between Camps, then take the time to manage your caravan, whether it’s purchasing further supplies, recruiting new allies, establishing trade routes or simply training for the hardships that lie ahead.
You can also upgrade your allies and equip items to them, such as better weapons or armour. Being at a camp will also improve your caravan’s morale if you take an appropriate amount of time to rest.
There’s no sense in rushing ahead as the lower the morale of your men, the less inclined they are to fight for you and the more likely they are to start causing disruptions or problems for you down the road. However, the more time you take to rest, the more supplies you will use up.
As always, everything in The Banner Saga needs to be carefully considered. The game is one large balancing act.
Battles are turn-based, but where humans just take up one tile on the board, the Varl take up four. As you might expect, this can have huge tactical implications for you, both when setting your pieces pre-battle and also when charging headfirst into the fray.
When you defeat an enemy, you earn renown on the battlefield. When enough renown has been accumulated, the character then gets to promote their rank and learn new abilities. Once promoted, you earn points which can be spent on strength, armour and other special abilities.
You’ll control different unit types in your clan and each one is most effective when placed in the correct position, fighting the appropriate enemy. For instance, a Warmaster wields a massive Axe and has huge melee power. A Shieldmaster is a lot more defensive and harder to kill, but still dishes out a fierce blow. Then there are Rangers who are better served being as far away from the enemy as possible so they can pepper them with arrows.
Turns alternate in battle, which I find a fairer and more realistic system rather than having to wait for an entire mob to get their licks in before you can do anything about it. The aim is to bring your opponent’s strength down to zero, but to do this, you will often need to penetrate thick armour which will deflect many of your attacks. Of course, you could choose to ignore their strength and just reduce their armour to nothing, making your attacks all the more lethal. But again, it’s a balancing act as you could be leaving yourself vulnerable to punishing attacks.
While the bulk of the game is made up by turn-based warfare, where The Banner Saga is perhaps most fascinating is in placing key descriptions about the characters in the text, rather than using the game’s striking art-style. You’ll often read about a character’s contempt or excitement for something, yet their face will remain in a fixed, emotionless state.
Where others may see this as a flaw and limited use of a gorgeous engine, words can articulate someone’s inner-most thinking much more appropriately as opposed to a simple sneer or smirk. This gives the game another dimension and not only enriches the narrative, but also brings these characters to life in an exciting new way. It becomes personal to you. You can see that expression play out in any way you choose.
The same can be said for voice-acting. I do sometimes think that voice-acting would have worked better in the narrative exchanges, particularly the longer and more plot-significant sequences, but in this way, not only does it really draw emphasis to the words, it allows the player a personalised level of customisation to create their own voices and produce their own take on a sentence.
What’s different on Playstation 4?
Not a great deal. The game has ported perfectly to Playstation 4 with no slow-down or major hiccups and has even made good use of some of the Dualshock 4 functionality. During conversation and marching sequences, you can swipe along the touch-pad and look at the scene in full, seeing characters that may have been hidden behind others, but also small details in the background. The Right Analog Stick can also be used for this purpose.
You can also zoom in and out at any point using the shoulder buttons, whether you’re in the middle of battle or just want to admire the magnificent art-style in close-up.
Everything maps wonderfully to the Dualshock 4, and that’s on top of the usual PS4 functionality, such as Remote Play, Share Play and ease of streaming. It’s a great fit.
Future Expansion for The Banner Saga
We already know The Banner Saga 2 is deep in development – despite King’s best efforts – and is likely to release as soon as this year. We’re also not expecting the delay between PC and console release to be quite so long this time (the PC version released this time, 2 years ago). This is significant because Stoic have clearly stated that your save file from TBS 1 will be used in TBS 2, clearly affecting some of the action in the new game.
We also know that a Vita port of The Banner Saga 1 is definitely still happening, as confirmed by Vs Evil and Gio Corsi. No word on a release date just yet, though.
We also know that The Banner Saga Warbands board game recently got funded on Kickstarter and is very much in development, further expanding the narrative of the world.
In terms of patches, DLC and development of TBS 1, we didn’t encounter any issues during our playthrough to warrant any urgent fixes. Likewise, with the amount of work Stoic have going on right now, I’d be very surprised if we saw any DLC for the game arrive on consoles. The game can, however, be freely modded on PC.
Basically, it’s a great time to get invested in this universe as Stoic are showing no signs of slowing down on the franchise.
The Good Stuff
- Beautiful, eye-catching, hand-drawn graphics that remain timeless and memorable
- Elegant score that really captures the essence of this universe
- Well-balanced, thought out gameplay.
- Excellent narrative development for the characters
The Bad Stuff
- Some might find it a bit repetitive with the limited variety
There’s nothing like The Banner Saga on your current-gen console right now. It’s striking, heart-felt, engrossing and timeless. A relevant and captivating experience that will leave a lasting impression.