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The Banner Saga / 24th of January 2016

Arriving roughly two years after its debut on PC, Stoic’s gorgeous, table-top RPG-like adventure has finally arrived on PS4 and Xbox One, but has time diminished the beauty of this adventure? No, not one bit. Initially finding a following through Kickstarter, Stoic have combined their BioWare background and RPG making knowledge with Norse mythology and a wonderful art style that recalls the early Disney films to create a game that is at once both thoroughly modern and yet full of misty eyed nostalgia. It also just happens to be one of the finest releases in recent years, so I for one am only too happy to see it make the transition to consoles before the sequel is released later on this year.

Like most RPGs, The Banner Saga is centred around a catastrophe that threatens to destroy the world, yet unlike most games, this epic setting is not simply pushed into the backdrop as mere motivation for some merry jaunts across the land to recruit new squad members and have a jolly old time. It is happening all around you, it is permanently in your face, and the inescapable feeling that all has been lost makes for a rather strong highlight to the experience as a whole rather than simply being used as a sensational setting. In this world, the humans live in peace with a race of giant, horned creatures known as Varl, but this peace is shattered when the Dredge (stone men of some sort) awaken and flood across the land, attacking both human and Varl alike. As if that wasn’t bad enough though, time is not progressing as it should, the world is trapped in a state of perpetual evening as the sun hangs low in the sky; never setting, never rising.

What we have here is a superbly paced, and extremely well written doomsday scenario with a surprising amount of humanity to it. Part of the game sees the player leading a caravan through a world descending into madness as supplies begin to dry up, leaving them turning upon one another, and the player encountering situation after situation that requires a well-considered approach, as there are always consequences, sometimes these will not be felt until some time has passed whilst others have an immediate, and often painful outcome. You see, for all of its aesthetic charm, The Banner Saga is a work of beauty grounded in a mire of pain and loss, where it is all too easy to lose playable characters to a situation quickly spiralling out of control. A situation where the most immediate concern is keeping one’s party fed, but this often comes at a cost.

Like Telltale Games’ efforts though, The Banner Saga has been designed to lead the player from one no win situation to another, sure there are likely to be some playthroughs where you will somehow perform better than in others, but there’s no escaping the fact that ultimately, survival feels almost out of your own hands. This should be a bad thing, and yet somehow, it’s not, the decisions still carry gravitas, they still warrant consideration and the outcome is still somehow powerful, impacting upon the proceedings in ways perhaps unforeseen.

The console version is not perfect, sadly, though complaints are pretty minimal to say the least. The text is pretty small, which means that those who, like me, generally sit a fair bit back from their television screens, may have to squint to be able to read the dialogue and button prompts. This can make combat a tad troublesome at first, but it’s hardly likely to have much of an impact on the overall experience, which is still a mightily impressive one.

Speaking of combat though, the game plays out like a traditional strategy RPG, with combat taking place on battlefields comprised of squares that characters move about on, it’s certainly nothing new, but it’s definitely rock solid in its presentation. Stoic gives the player’s party an overall strength stat, this is diminished by taking damage, making defence all the more vital as the more damage that the party takes, the less damage that they will be able to dish out, it’s simple but elegant, much like the game as a whole. Personally, I find that the battlefields generally lack variety, but again, this is a fairly trivial complaint that doesn’t detract from the game very much at all.

As one might expect, as it is an RPG, completing battles earns the player experience points, though in this case they’re known as Renown, but there’s a little twist on the old formula, this also serves as the game’s currency, meaning that upgrading characters itself becomes a decision that carries weight. After all, does one utilise their earnings to improve the party that they have, or purchase those much needed supplies instead? In a game world tearing itself apart over its ever dwindling resources, it seems only too appropriate that this should be extended into the mechanics that drive the experience, and plaudits must go to Stoic for this.

What more is there to say really? The Banner Saga is an absorbing and emotionally affecting RPG that will hopefully find itself an expansive audience on console before the sequel arrives later on this year, it may have launched at the dreaded £16 price point, but trust me, it’s worth every penny. Buy it, you surely won’t be disappointed by its combination of quality writing, beautiful soundtrack, stylised visuals and deep, involving gameplay. To state the obvious, it’s the best game released so far this year.
James Paton
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