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"Oregon Trail meets Game of Thrones" is how I'd sum up The Banner Saga in one sentence. Banner Saga is much more than that - such as an RPG and a turn-based strategy game - but at its heart the game is a grueling journey through a bleak fantasy world.
In Banner Saga, men and giants (varl) live in an uneasy truce. The two races forged an alliance after defeating the dredge, a violent people made of black stone. The game opens with the dredge mounting another invasion. This new war, along with the sun's sudden halt in the sky, leads many to believe that the end of the world is at hand.
The campaign switches between multiple human and varn characters trapped in the middle of the war. No matter who you are, there's always one constant: the road. You must lead a group of soldiers and refugees across the dangerous countryside. As their leader, you'll have to make a series of tough calls. If a group of travelers approaches your caravan, what will you do? Will you drive them off, ask to trade, or let them join your ranks? Followers might die or the caravan might lose supplies depending on your decision. Alternately, you might gain a new playable character or item. Sometimes there's no right answer, and you're simply choosing what you can sacrifice in order to keep the caravan going. There's no manual saving so you can't just reload and try the encounter again. You have to grit your teeth and move on.
The game's battles don't match up to the expectations set by the story. Though your followers can include several hundred soldiers, you'll only lead six of them in combat. These battles seem very bare at first. Nearly all the maps are rectangles lacking terrain features. A special ability is often the only thing distinguishing one class from another. Most battles are against the dredge, who don't pack enough surprises to keep the battles interesting across the full campaign. Each character can only equip one item and these trinkets are restricted by level. What's more, you have very few characters to choose from so you have only little control over your party's class balance.
Combat is thankfully more interesting than it appears at first, though. Character health is split into two categories, armor and strength. You can choose to chip away at either when attacking. Reducing an enemy's strength lowers their damage potential and ultimately kills them when it reaches zero. However, attacking their armor ups the damage of later attacks and reduces the chance of deflections. You have to balance reducing your enemy's damage with setting them up for an ally's killing blow.
Coordinating your attacks is more difficult because you don't give orders to all of your units at once. Instead, you and your enemy take turns moving one unit apiece. This small change has a significant impact on strategy. Focus-firing units down isn't always the best strategy. If you kill off a weak unit, you've allowed a stronger enemy unit the chance to act more often. Again, balance is the key. You want to thin the enemy's ranks but in some cases you're better off weakening an enemy to the point of being ineffectual and keeping them alive until their friends have been dealt with.
Other strategy games give you rocket launchers or fireballs to sling around but Banner Saga offers very few area-of-effect attacks. The few that exist require very specific conditions. One character's lightning attack will only jump to multiple enemies if they're diagonal to each other. Dredge will splinter when attacked and cause damage to other nearby dredge but only if they take a significant hit. There's no quick way to wipe your enemy off the board. Each match is a methodical battle for position. The lack of variety in combat can make this slow pace tiresome but by the end I gained a grudging affection for this game's peculiar take on turn-based strategy.
The most interesting aspect of combat is how it feeds back into your caravan's struggle for survival. If you lose a battle, you might not have to restart at a checkpoint. Instead, the game will continue but your supplies or caravan population will take a hit. Or you may lose a playable character permanently.
Injuries are the more common problem. If a character falls in battle, they'll have a penalty to their strength stat for a day or more. These injuries can go away while you're traveling but if you want to avoid going into the next battle with a bloodied warrior, you can set up camp and rest. Resting also restores morale, which affects how much willpower (points spend on using special abilities) you have in battle.
Resting has its tradeoffs, though. It costs supplies, the lifeblood of your caravan. If you run out of supplies, your caravan followers start dying. You'll end up in combat more frequently and against worse odds if you have fewer followers.
Renown, the currency earned from special events or completing battles, presents more dilemmas. You can spend Renown on new items, leveling up characters, or supplies. There's almost never enough for all three. The effectiveness of your party has to be weighed against the overall health of your convoy.
The sum of all these parts is a long, difficult voyage. Your caravan is constantly threatened by dredge, bandits and other enemies. Bad luck - or a poor decision by you - could decimate your ranks. The constant battles force you to send wounded fighters into battle or swap in untested newbies. All the while, your supplies slowly bleed away. Can you afford to rest, or will you have to press on to the next town? Come to think of it, you don't even know if the next town will have any supplies to spare. They could be starving, under attack, or dead already. Even if you find a safe haven, it won't be that way for long. The dredge are on the march and you need to keep moving.
Banner Saga may seem lacking if you expected a pure strategy, RPG or adventure game. The truth is that it combines elements from each genre into a fascinating tale of survival. Banner Saga's characters are trapped in a conflict far beyond their control. The road in front of them is long and you feel every step of it.
Platforms: PC, Mac
Publisher: Versus Evil