The Banner Saga (Nintendo Switch) Review

By Jamie Mercer 14.07.2018

Review for The Banner Saga on Nintendo Switch

Taking an incredibly healthy dose of Norse lore for inspiration, The Banner Saga sees players take the reins of a caravan of travellers as they traverse bleak, barren, and desolate landscapes. Something has gone very wrong with the world; the gods are dead, and the sun has stopped in the sky, leaving the world in a perpetual state of twilight. There's also the return of an old enemy - the Dredge - who after a spell on the sidelines has decided that now is the perfect time to pounce on civilisation. Oh, and there's a gargantuan serpent that can topple mountains. The ultimate fate of these travellers, of the world itself, is placed firmly on the shoulders of an army of warriors, stragglers, and criminals.

The Banner Saga puts gamers in the role of two camps: the East sees human father and daughter duo, Rook and Alette, stumble into a Dredge ambush, barely escaping with their lives, while the West story sees the giant race of Varls, led by Vognir and Hakon, escort Prince Ludin on a diplomatic mission. The relationship between humans and the large, horned Varls has been historically tempestuous, and tensions are rising in times of turmoil. A caravan marches on its stomach, and food rations are proving harder and harder to come by.

These tensions form a lot of the major predicaments and impasses that are presented to players in the form of moral or ethical dilemmas. A scout party, for example, hasn't reported back; it's been almost a full day, its supplies will have run out by now. Should another party be sent to go and search for the missing folk, or should they be assumed dead and left? Sending a search party will require additional supplies to be expended and will leave the caravan with fewer soldiers should Dredge approach. Searching for the party, though, may also yield results in the form of extra soldiers or supplies. Much like the psychological trolley experiment, both action and inaction can lead to less than desirable outcomes, and The Banner Saga is quick to remind gamers of this throughout the campaign.

Screenshot for The Banner Saga on Nintendo Switch

These moments of philosophical pondering break up the other elements of the overall Banner Saga experience. The weary party of travellers grows (or is periodically pummelled) through in-game choices, and many of these can come back to bite gamers in the behind. Chapter by chapter, The Banner Saga preys on the weakness of empathy and the cocksureness of proud leaders. Every decision is made with fingers and toes crossed that it's the right one, and incidental or impulsive actions can often have long-standing effects. The lack of save features, other than a frequent auto-save function, forces the player to live with their decisions and indecisions.

When it comes to the bread and butter gameplay of The Banner Saga, there isn't a lot to differentiate it from other tactical RPGs, but at the same time, it doesn't do anything wrong at all. Fans of titles such as Final Fantasy Tactics or the Fire Emblem series will be immediately familiar with the isometric, turn-based, grid battle system. Different classes have different actions and levelling up these characters opens up additional abilities. Striking the right balance of sluggish tanks and warriors with the Varl characters and sprightly ranger or rogue human characters is as important as equipping the right items.

Battles tire characters, especially if they fall, and they will need rest to return to full fitness. Injured characters can still be chosen, but their health will be lower than normal, and they won't be as effective in combat as they otherwise normally would. In an evil piece of genius design, the same currency that pays for extra supplies at camps and towns is also used to level up characters and buy items and equipment. At certain points throughout the campaign, there is a genuine dilemma between levelling up your grudgebearer or ensuring your caravan has enough food and adequate morale to make it to the next town.

Screenshot for The Banner Saga on Nintendo Switch

The Banner Saga shifts into 'war' mode when the caravan encounters a swarm of Dredge. This is a beefed-up battle where players must choose how they approach the confrontation. Wars always lead to casualties - this cannot be avoided - but the number of dead can be increased or decreased depending on the initial decision. Players can choose to face the enemy head-on (low casualties), fight in formation (normal casualties), take a more defensive stance (high casualties), flee, or allow the computer to resolve the battle for you. If victorious, a prompt is displayed giving an option to run down the remaining enemies in a second battle, although health and armour do not replenish between these battles, so it is a risky move if not prepared.

Understanding the relationship between health and armour is paramount to success in Banner Saga, and learning when to use a strength attack to reduce HP or an armour attack to lower defence is a lesson learned early in the game. When an enemy's armour is higher than the attacker's strength, only one point of damage is dealt. Breaking armour makes the enemy more vulnerable to strength attacks, so fights often become a game of chess as characters chip away at armour until they are in a position to really do some damage.

Overall, there is a decent level of challenge presented in the combat. Towards the middle of the game, some fight fatigue does set in, but this is alleviated by a constant sense of progression and neat encounters during travels. There is, however, quite a significant difficulty spike, even on the easiest difficulty, towards the end of the game, which may catch some people off guard. While the experience is far from boring, the action and constant decision-making is juxtaposed by the relentless march of the caravan.

Screenshot for The Banner Saga on Nintendo Switch

The design is bleak, but beautifully so. The artwork and animation are reminiscent of Disney classics such as Sleeping Beauty or Sword in the Stone. In fact, Banner Saga even credits former Disney artist Eyvind Earle as an 'Artistic Inspiration' and named a character after him. The visuals are matched by an equally impressive score, performed by Grammy-nominated Austin Wintory, which captures struggle, defeat, and blight in equal measures. Eagle-eared gamers may remember his work on Journey back in 2012.

What also shines through is the quality of the writing. Dialogue is full of personality and wit, allowing an insight into the mindset of the characters. This is especially appreciated as voice work is saved for 'milestone' moments. The writing does an excellent job of really making you care about the merry troupe, which makes it all the more galling when one of them dies permanently. Yes, that's a thing.

The Banner Saga is a solid port and performs very well on Nintendo Switch, as would be expected for an older 2D title. At times, some of the dialogue and HUD text can be a mite small and hard to read when used in handheld mode - especially true if trying to read while on a plane or train! - but playing in docked mode solves this minor issue, and the experience is almost identical to that of a PC. The touch controls are also a very welcome addition here.

Screenshot for The Banner Saga on Nintendo Switch

Cubed3 Rating

7/10
Rated 7 out of 10

Very Good - Bronze Award

Rated 7 out of 10

For almost four years, The Banner Saga has provided a thoroughly enjoyable alternative offering to the standard tactical RPG. The expertly weaved storytelling and nod towards Norse mythology lends to a game that feels unique in the genre, shattering many tropes and conventions along the way. A well-written cast, solid story, and stunning art and sound direction all result in a very well designed game and an enjoyable experience. Yes, combat wise, The Banner Saga does nothing new, but it does the basics very well, and the difficulty is well-judged for the most part. Clunky and poorly-explained HUD aside, this is a worthy addition to most Switch libraries, and fans don't have long to wait until The Banner Saga 3 is also released.

Developer

Stoic

Publisher

Versus Evil

Genre

Turn Based RPG

Players

1

C3 Score

Rated $score out of 10  7/10

Reader Score

Rated $score out of 10  0 (0 Votes)

European release date Out now   North America release date Out now   Japan release date Out now   Australian release date Out now   

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