The Banner Saga is the middle ground of iOS gaming. It’s good enough to play through, but anything less would be a waste of time. It’s the very definition of a ‘C’ in the A through F scale.
Although all games ought to be judged on their own merits, it’s tough to review this one coming off of one of my favorites: Final Fantasy Tactics. Both are tile-based strategy RPGs where you can customize your team as you travel across a war-torn world… but FFT does it so much better. Given the option, I’d pick FFT over Banner Saga and I’d recommend that to anyone (regardless of preference for Western vs Eastern art style).
Even without that however, The Banner Saga is not a casual game and that killed a lot of my enjoyment.
On the iOS, The Banner Saga’s loading time is absurd — rivaling that of Sonic ’06. What’s worse is I needed to be vigilant during the loading, tapping my screen every so often lest my iPad sleep and risk the game crashing. A long loading time is punishment enough, but forcing you to stare at the screen while it loads is torture.
The loading wouldn’t be so bad if there was a better auto save feature, like if you could resume mid-battle (cough like-in-Final Fantasy Tactics), but hitherto you NEED to dedicate uninterrupted time to the game in (at least) 30 minute increments. Without that, you won’t be making much progress as it loads every time the screen changes.
The animation style is epic, claiming to derive inspiration from Disney classics, although I got a much more Wizards vibe — remember Wizards? God that was great.
Drawing the animations must have been a tireless affair as there are separate animations for each character’s attacks, injuries, and death. Enough effort has gone into the various models and animations that I genuinely didn’t mind when they simply palette swapped existing models for new characters. In fact, I didn’t notice until Hogun and Mogun appeared — identical twins with matching outfits and gameplay.
When you go to battle (which happens less often than you’d think), you’re given the tile-based board and a select number of heroes. Although I love this style of gameplay, there is not a lot of variation between maps, i.e. you’ll spend the majority of your time on snow-covered forest grounds. This means no obstacles in-game and no changes in altitude (no stairs, hills, or ledges).
While I’m sure ‘climbing animations’ would be just that much more to animate, I was shocked at the lack obstacles. They could have had trees or stones or bodies of water to make your movements that much more strategic, but they didn’t and it’s not as if the developers didn’t know this as there’s one level with a gaping hole in the ground and I had to walk around that or lure enemy groups around it to split them up. It heavily impacted how I started the battle… but after that it was back to a flat board. In my opinion, this design element would have brought more value to ranged fighters (i.e. archers).
In regards to the iOS controls, there was one problem: you’re unable to rotate the map (unlike Final Fantasy Tactics). This becomes an issue when you’re trying to move behind an enemy but can’t select the tile, or you want to target an enemy standing behind another one. For people using game controllers and computers, I’m sure they can navigate this no problem, but on the iOS it’s a real issue and more often than not I’d resign to target a convenient enemy vs a strategic one.
Overworld Gameplay and Story
The most time-consuming and least exciting part of the game (in my opinion) is the overworld which ties directly into the story because it’s basically a text quest with multiple choice answers. Choices that are supposed to affect the story, but as far as I can tell, it only determines which auxiliary characters live or die. That’s a problem.
“Choice” stories are already challenging, but The Banner Saga stacked the cards against itself with this element because, in order to make a “choice” story work, you need a character-centric game, not a story with interchangeable characters. This is why games like Fable, Star Wars, and Mass Effect are very character-driven, it’s so the story doesn’t change but your character does.
If the story changed, as The Banner Saga claims, then you should have hundreds of webs of different locations, characters, dialogue and actions… But no one is going to take the time (and money) to do all that, least of all an indie developer.
As it is, characters are usually given a pretty strong introductory dialogue scene, but then they disappear from the script. The only characters that seem to have any real impact are Alette, Rook, and Iver. This is doubly bizarre since you don’t even start the game with them. Your time is split between their party and a group of inconsequential Varl (giants)!
But the other, and more disconcerting aspect to the “choice” mechanic is that most times, you don’t have a choice. You have to choose based on the character, not how you want the character to play. On its own, that would not be a problem since the game makes it clear who these characters are before you take control, but it’s bad design since you’re rotating between two different characters (Rook and Hakon).
Rook and Hakon are very different, so there’s a good chance you’ll only gravitate to one of them and if you’re entrenched in Rook’s sentimentality, but apply that to Hakon’s story, you’ll be punished for it (and vice versa). It seems like they could’ve encouraged replayability and the choice-mechanic if instead the player chose at the start of the game whether to be Rook or Hakon. You’d play through two different stories that sync at the end and, based on the choices you made in one, you could have them impact the latter. You’d only need to write six or so different story-lines, but alas they did not.
When Alette died (not a spoiler since there’s choice, right?) I was actually excited! I thought, “Wow! Now maybe I can play Rook like a maniac who has lost the only person he’s ever loved! He’s going to become jaded and cruel and if any of my clansman start some sh*t, I’m just going to kick them out or draw my sword. Yes! Yes! YES!”
Oh. I see.
I couldn’t tell you how disappointing it was to have my only critical choice affect nothing more than the ending scene. Furthermore, it left a lot of questions: What about the giant serpent thing destroying the world? What about that baby dredge I saved (thought that thing would become playable)? What about the menders and their grand plan? End of days?
Saved for the sequel I suppose.
All criticism aside, I liked The Banner Saga, but I’d be hard-pressed to recommend buying it.
The ‘C’ grade may seem harsh, given that Stoic is a three-person team, but now we’ve seen what they can do and I am looking forward to what they produce in the future. As I understand it, the sequel has already been announced, and I don’t feel naive about recommending it — even without knowing anything about it — as I’m sure they will improve upon the flaws here with their bigger budget. That is indie gaming in nutshell, give gamers an appetizer so they’ll be eager for the main course.
PS. It’s kinda funny that they flat-out said, “We desperately wanted to avoid the very overdone ‘elves, dwarves and orcs’ dynamic…” but the Varl are essentially large dwarves with the elitism of elves (Shack News).
For more iOS reviews, visit Derek Hobson’s Article Archive