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The Banner Saga Review: A better epic than game

Hayden Dingman | Jan. 16, 2014
The word epic is overused. Misused. Abused. It has been stripped of all meaning by an Internet prone to hyperbole.

The word epic is overused. Misused. Abused. It has been stripped of all meaning by an Internet prone to hyperbole.

Having said that, The Banner Saga is epic in the Homeric sense — or perhaps the Asgardian sense, considering the game's strong Norse influence. It's a tale of small characters caught up in much larger proceedings, dabbling in things they don't understand.

Like all good epics, it's about saving the world against all odds. It's about survival in the face of despair. But Beowulf and Odysseus never got this bogged down in the details.

Just look at it
At its core, The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game. I say this as a warning: if you don't like turn-based strategy, you're not going to like The Banner Saga despite the lengthy sections of dialogue in between battles and the amazing visuals.

And wow, is The Banner Saga stunning to look at. The game puts its best foot forward right at the start with a short, fully-animated scene that stylistically meshes with the best Disney classics. Of course, it gets you needlessly excited because nothing else in the entire game is animated in this manner, but I can excuse that — The Banner Saga came from a small team with a small crowd-funded budget. 

It's not like the rest of the game looks shabby. Your caravan trudges through breathtaking scenery, crimson banner fluttering overhead. Dialogue is presented as a series of still frames with simulated camera moves, and primarily without voice acting — expect to read a lot in The Banner Saga.

The game is beautiful, albeit rudimentary in many ways. Combat is played out on a square grid, and many of the animations here are given the same care as the general art style — for instance, the way characters stagger after receiving blows, or crumple after they're knocked out of the battle.

Playing The Banner Saga, it's impossible not to get caught up somewhat in the visuals. Every time my rag-tag caravan of refugees, warriors, and soldiers of fortune set out across the landscape, Austin Wintory's soundtrack swelling in the background, I got excited. In these moments, The Banner Saga feels like a grand adventuret.

The hand of fate
But first impressions of The Banner Saga fail to hold up to deeper scrutiny. Beautiful visuals mask a game that is deeply flawed on a systems level.

The game promises up front, "The story in The Banner Saga changes based on the choices you make." It's smoke and mirrors.

That's not to say there are no meaningful choices in The Banner Saga, but their promise up front primes you psychologically to expect choice. You feel like every decision you make is shifting the whole plot.


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