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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.

It's an interesting system, and there's a fair amount of depth. Plenty of times I pulled a victory out against seemingly impossible odds, due to a fortuitous combination of my characters' abilities.

However, the meta aspects of combat are fairly broken. Each battle earns you Renown. Renown is used for everything — leveling up your characters, buying items that buff character stats, and purchasing supplies.

It's the last one that's the biggest thorn (sword) in The Banner Saga's side. You need to purchase enough supplies to feed your caravan each day. Your caravan is represented by numbers at the top of the travel screen — for instance, you might have 450 people in your caravan plus 132 warriors and 88 varl. Great.

These numbers are meaningless. They're not characters. You won't meet these 670 people in your caravan. They just "exist."

Each day you lose supplies based on how many people are traveling in your caravan, so in every city you buy more supplies. And more supplies. And more supplies. It's easy to blow all your Renown on supplies, especially if you lose a portion to bandits in the wilderness or a wagon falls off a cliff or something.

So when supplies run out, you'd expect some huge consequences. Nope. Instead, the number of faceless, meaningless people in your caravan starts dropping. But those numbers are so poorly explained in the first place — I still don't understand why I needed to keep them high, outside of my own roleplaying — that it's easy to feel frustrated with the whole supplies system.

The bottom line
It's fortuitous that The Banner Saga looks like an old animated Disney film because it feels like one too.

The Banner Saga is Disney's Sword in the Stone compared to T.H. White's Once and Future King. It's The Black Cauldron compared to the Lloyd Alexander novel of the same name. It's, in other words, a fake epic. A romp, rather than a struggle.

Characters come, characters go. Deaths play out off-screen, if at all.

But for all that, I feel like this review is unfairly harsh. Despite a whole host of problems with The Banner Saga, I really, truly enjoyed my time with the game. Those moments when my banner fluttered in front of the gorgeous Norse landscape, Austin Wintory's music playing in the background — for better or worse, those are the moments that stuck with me.

Parts of The Banner Saga — the art direction, the audio, the naturalistic dialogue — are breathtaking. But the actual game in The Banner Saga doesn't live up to the promise of its epic setting. Not yet, anyway. Let's hope the next installment is more Homer and less Fievel Goes West.

 

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