Are you a fan of turn-based combat and story-driven games? If you haven’t tried The Banner Saga yet, now is a great time. The first two games have been released as a bundle for PS4 and Xbox One, with an extra Survival Mode game. The Banner Saga Complete Pack includes all three games at one lower, package price, and the release coincides with the recent funding of The Banner Saga 3 Kickstarter. Time to catch up and prepare yourself for one intense finale!
If you are not yet familiar with The Banner Saga, it follows caravans of refugees fleeing a darkness that’s swallowing their world. It’s a story-driven game with dialogue-based decisions that affect the outcome of your playthrough. If you decide to stop and explore a burning village, you may get the opportunity to recruit a skilled fighter, or you may be ambushed by a dozen enemies, losing clansmen and supplies along the way. In most other games, it’s easy to determine which dialogue option leads to the safest outcome, but Stoic, the developers of The Banner Saga, make it much more difficult and realistic.
The Banner Saga 2 picks up immediately after the ending of the first game. Because this series is so heavily dependent on the story, it’s highly recommended that you play the first game before playing the second. Having a convenient bundle like The Banner Saga Complete Pack is the way to go. You can import your saved game into the second game if you want continuity. Your companions, levels, accessories, and supplies carry over. If you made terrible decisions in the first game (I’ll admit, I did), you may decide not to import. If you don’t import a saved game, you can decide between two main characters, and most likely, more companions will be available to you. Expect to have to re-level your strongest fighters if you take this route.
Survival Mode is an extra released with The Banner Saga 2, and it’s included in this set. It’s suggested that Survival Mode is played only after completing the first two games because it unlocks almost every available character. Your goal in Survival Mode is to survive a total of 40 battles in a row, with limited story interruption. You begin with a six-character party of your choice. All of them start at level three, and you may level them up as renown is awarded, just like the full games. Characters you do not pick to be a part of your first six are then locked. If you decide to add them to your party later, you must spend 5 renown to unlock them. Accessories are acquired through battle, which can help immensely as the game progresses.
There are a few differences between the battles in Survival Mode and the full games. The most noticeable difference is that characters who fall in battle die permanently and cannot be used in another Survival Mode battle. It is possible to remove and reassign their accessory, but all the renown spent levelling them up is wasted. Another difference is battle turn order. In the full games, your characters would trade off with the NPC fighters until the end of the battle. In Survival Mode, once a fighter dies, their turn isn’t replaced with another fighter on their team. This often leads to one side taking more than one turn in a row. Battles are timed, and although restarting a battle is an option, the number of times you are allowed to restart is capped.
On your first time playing through the Banner Saga games, it may take a while to immerse yourself in their world. The initial conversations and battles do a careful job of walking you through everything you’ll need to know to play well. Hang in there, though. There are twists in the story line that will stick with you for a long, long time. The strong narrative will keep you coming back for more. Even the second game ends with a cliffhanger, which has many of us anxiously awaiting The Banner Saga 3.
Keeping with the strong story theme, there are no manual save points in the Banner Saga games. As long as you don’t quit in the middle of a conversation or battle, your progress will be saved, but it will automatically be saved over your previous game. This prevents players from making a new save file to protect themselves from a poor dialogue decision. Just like in real life, you are stuck with the choices you make. It takes some time to get used to this idea, and I found myself crossing my fingers that the two hours of progress I made would save correctly. On the console port, the consistent auto-saving seems to have also lead to longer loading times between screens. The lack of save points is thematic, but it requires trust and patience.
The incredible, hand-painted, 2D-style graphics help to create a unique and memorable experience. It often feels as though you are watching the vintage, animated Lord of the Rings film instead of playing a video game. Small details are everywhere. While my soldiers were marching to the next town, I’d find myself squinting to see what danger was lurking on the horizon. Silhouettes of the enemies could often be seen along the edges of the camp screens. On the battle maps, NPC’s would be shown on the sidelines, either watching intently or taking part in their own attack.
Although the soundtrack is interesting and Viking-themed, there were some poor sound design choices. A high-pitched ringing noise made when a character used a ranged weapon or willpower was enough to get me to turn off the volume during battles. This was most distracting during Survival Mode, while I was constantly using these elements, without much of a break in between. Like the ringing noises, some of the war drum sequences had to be muted so I could better focus on combat strategy.
The port from PC to console was well done. I had the most difficulty adjusting to combat controls. On PC, you could click to move a character to a specific spot during battle, but it was trickier to get that quick precision with a PS4 controller. I can’t count how many times I accidentally placed a soldier exactly one square too far away from an enemy, especially during the timed Survival Mode sessions. Without the option to move a second time, I forfeited multiple turns this way. A few other combat mechanics were affected by the port, but overall the Banner Saga series feels right at home on consoles.
Almost every choice made determines the course of your caravan, and much like Oregon Trail, there are random events that you may or may not encounter during a playthrough. One game may be drastically different than the next. You can gain or lose companions, morale, and supplies through dialogue choices. For the completionist, multiple playthroughs are necessary in order to gain all of the achievements and trophies available in the series. Even the Survival Mode offers different achievements for difficulty level and variations in the party.
Overall, The Banner Saga Complete Pack provides a memorable, story-rich experience for mature console gamers. It’s convenient, bundled form will get you all caught up for the third, and final, release expected to arrive in 2018. Patience is required, but well-rewarded, and you’ll not likely forget about your time leading a caravan of refugees away from a great, mysterious darkness.
A PS4 review copy of The Banner Saga Complete Pack with Survival Mode was provided by Stoic or the purpose of this review