The Banner Saga - XB1 Review

The Banner Saga is a series that has come a long way from its PC-only inception a few years ago. Having since graced both the console and mobile markets, the first two entries are re-releasing as a combo pack on both the Xbox Marketplace and the PlayStation Network. With The Banner Saga 3 having reached its target funding in under twenty-four hours, now is a good time to visit (or re-visit) both the first and second episodes of the trilogy before the third concludes this epic saga.

Set at what could feel like the end of the world with the Gods having died and the Sun having stopped in the sky, The Banner Saga is a Norse inspired tale. Follow both Humans and giants known as the Varl as they fight and flee even larger stone armored beings known as the Dredge that have returned and would once again attempt to destroy everything in their path.

The Banner Saga took me by surprise. Generally when you are told that your "choices will have consequences", they either kind of will or you'll simply load it back up to see what else could have happened. In either case there is generally a do-over. For the Banner Saga? This is really not the case as it uses an auto-saving system that keeps you locked into your choices. Do you chose to engage the enemy head on? Do you leave someone behind? Do you try to hold onto a cart about to fall from a cliff with someone else or give the order to pull back and lose what you've fought so hard to keep hold of? Be sure of your decision as your choice can be quite permanent.

Split into chapters, you'll be following two separate caravans. While branching differently in terms of story, both "play" out the same way with combat sometimes being inevitable and choices on the road often going from hard to impossible to make without some form of sacrifice. From that point of view, the overall experience is very text heavy and at times I wished that there was a way to make the font just a little bit bigger as it could feel rather small when the text was really packed in there.

Leading these caravans isn't easy as the bigger they get the harder they can be to manage. Supplies have to be taken into account for each day on the road and the moral of the caravan can plummet if the supplies run out. That is honestly the least of your worries as by that point people will either leave or simply die off because they could not move on without sustenance in the cold. Moral, like in any situation, is finicky and people whether they be commoners or noble, Human or Varl, need to rest even if they are on the run. Calling stops in order to rest will always improve moral but at the same time will also drain your supplies. You don't always know when the next town or settlement is and even then? They may not even have that much to trade for.

Trading for supplies each time your caravan comes to a stop in a settlement is just about mandatory if you want to survive. Raising the bar on the difficulty is that trading can only be done with the renown that you've amassed either through combat or through the variety of decisions that you've had to make out on the road. Unfortunately, renown is also required to level up units and costs more for every level that you wish to increase them by. This means that if you've got a bit overzealous in setting up your fighting force, you may not have enough to feed the caravan that they are meant to protect.

Combat takes place through a turned based strategy formula with a concept that I recently thought was "new" but turns out it wasn't. I probably should have sat down to this sooner. Every unit that takes to the field has both an attack and a defense score. The attack score, the concept that I thought was new and interesting, is also the unit's health so the more damage that they take, the less damage they can perform.

The defense score on the other hand exists to delay the inevitable. The higher it is, the less can be done to a unit especially if the defense score is higher than the attack score. Just like the attack score however, defense can also be brought down in order to do more damage. Finding the right balance of defense to hack away before hitting a unit's health is very important as some units are wrecking balls on the field and the longer you leave them up with their immense attack score? The less chances you have of taking the field.

With that concept in mind, The Banner Saga plays "fair" in which the turn order is a strict your turn / their turn approach. This means that "ganging up" on a unit in particular isn't the easiest to do as it will more often than not lead your own units into trouble depending on who moves when. It is possible to set out a strategy before hand with the ability to set up your unit order back at camp, and from there, set out where you wish each one to initially start off on the field.

Once it is your turn, your unit can choose to either rest and recover "willpower", move and wait, or move and attack the enemy. Now I had some issues with moving in general as if you make a mistake and selected the wrong square to move to? Too bad. Deal with it. There is no undo. Your choices on the battlefield are just as permanent as your choices when moving the caravan. The other issue is that some of the Dredge are freaking HUGE making it really hard to see the spaces behind them as the camera even if you can zoom in and out is locked to an isometric third person position. Add in your own Varl to the mix and good luck spotting your Humans.

Movement issues aside, combat does flow rather smoothly. Once you've moved into place then it's as simple as selecting either to attack a unit's attack score, their defense score or use an ability to either attack several enemies at once or to move them out of the way with a shield bash. The best part is, the turn order cannot be broken. If you take out one of the enemy or the enemy takes one of you out, it does not mean that two of your units or two of theirs can go back to back. This simply moves their next unit into the queue until there is only one left. Once only one troop is left "Pillage Mode" is activated in which units move in their turn order meaning that if you have four units left? All four get to act one after the other. It really simplifies the end of combat. Just hope that you're not the one with only one unit remaining. It does suck to be cut down that way!

With all your foes dispatched, more choices come back into the mix. Do you chase after them in order to pursue or do you let them go? Battle is more than just your units. There's the entire caravan and your army to think about. The more that your "heroes" take on the less casualties will occur elsewhere. There are times however that you just barely made it out of an encounter and the extra losses are the only way to go as most of your forces are lying face down. Thankfully this doesn't mean that they are dead, just that they are injured.

Injured troops can take a few days to recover and while they are injured they take penalties to their combat capabilities. If you're moving along the road then it's not an issue as they'll have a few days in order to rest up on the road. If you've had to hunker down because you're surrounded on all sides and have to make a break for it? You'll want to rest up and use those supplies of yours to attempt to give yourself a better chance at making a break for it.

Once a unit has proven itself in combat, it'll have the chance to level up by using some of the renown that you've collected. Proving oneself is essentially tallying how many enemies they've killed. The first level requires two kills and five renown. That isn't so bad but the cost of each further level can really tax your supply of renown especially when there is food to be considered as your supplies are getting low. It takes a long while to get things right and even then, sometimes it may have been better to level up one or two other units for certain situations than it would have been to have one or two days extra of supplies.

The Banner Saga is a well crafted and complex experience that had me rooted from start to finish. What happens next? What do you mean one of my favorite people died!? How the hell are we going to make it out of this one? I've got to fight through what? Each of these questions spanned from each and every leg of both Human and Varl's caravan journeys as each of my choices affected their lives. The best part? All of your choices come back in order to fuel The Banner Saga 2.

Game Information

Microsoft Xbox One
Versus Evil
Turned Based Strategy
Single Player
Other Platform(s):
Sony PlayStation 4

Provided by Publisher

Article by Pierre-Yves