Review: The Banner Saga Complete Pack + Survival Mode

The Banner Saga is a turn-based strategy game but is as much about the story as the strategy here. In fact, it’s arguably primarily about the story and you (certainly early on) spend as much time reading what’s happening to the characters as positioning them on a battlefield.

That’s the most striking observation as you get stuck into the Complete Pack – a combination of the Banner Saga 1 and 2, with the addition of Survival Mode – a wave based ‘horde’ endeavour stretching 40 battles. The artwork is subdued and elegant, harking comparisons back to animated Disney but with a much, much darker tone. This isn’t a romanticised vision of Nordic lore. The Banner Saga is bleak. Tales of war, refugees and Viking dissension is the backdrop here so anyone expecting a light-hearted jaunt should look elsewhere.

Before you really get into the action, you will start to understand the relationships between characters, factions, the political backdrop and get to make your own choices via dialogue. Sadly, most of this is all text based but will have an effect on the story. Simple choices at first turn into more weighty ones later on where you can elect between destroying villages or breaking alliances, ending up fighting with former friends.

Having the two games together, you’d expect strong comparisons to be drawn between them but they are very similar, and if anything The Banner Saga 2 just refines things slightly but the Complete Pack makes sense, as they’re more of a continuation than fully fledged sequel iterated. The story – and your choices – carry through, and can be as significant as determining your starting character and their state of mind in the gloomy landscape of which The Banner Saga exists.

Whether or not you like the story may be of little issue depending on how you find the gameplay. The Banner Saga operates on turn-based rules played out on a grid system. There is a character order which alternates between players. This takes some getting used to, so rather than move your heavy power character, then again next time – you have to wait for a full game board rotation to get back to him.

Each character has a limited tile moveset. Once at their destination, if in range you can elect to attack an opponent. The attack damage is dealt equal to your character’s stats which in turn are impacted by combat. Do you elect to take down your opponent’s armour or strength, either weakening him for future combat or edging him closer to death. You may be slightly short of that killing blow, so The Banner Saga offers up an additional stat – Willpower.

Willpower is available in limited quantities, but it’s useful for giving you a little extra boost. This can be in the form of additional movement squares, or additional damage dealt. The rewards for levelling up your characters can enhance this, but there’s no real penalty for character death in battles as they don’t die permanently – perhaps a sign of the developers steering clear of a more serious difficulty. I was surprised that a ‘hardcore’ mode doesn’t exist here, but nonetheless even on Easy, The Banner Saga offers a fair challenge.

There’s further depth to the gameplay to, by way of supplies and morale, but they are not introduced especially well and I found myself willing away the walls of text that I didn’t really want to read any more about gameplay dynamics.

The art-style really shines in game though – all of the characters retain their cut-scene drawing-looks, although I was sad to see when I zoomed in that the outlines pixelated a bit, as though you were going past 100% on a JPG image. It’s a minor niggle.

For Banner Saga 2, the gameplay is much the same but with addition of a few new unit types, and some alterations to the game maps by way of immovable or destroyable objects. This may infuriated purists slightly but I found that it added some much needed variety to battles.

Survival Mode does add a new way of play – and does bring in the permadeath mechanic. A time keeps things fast paced and allows for leaderboard competition. As you would expect, it is not easy and some serious strategy will be required in order to complete all 40 battles.

Missing from this pack is the free to play Banner Saga Factions PvP mode. It seems odd to exclude this from this pack as it would be a good way to boost the value of it (given that Factions is not available on console currently). Perhaps the developers are waiting for the Saga to complete, but it seems like a great fit (and is good fun from what I’ve played previously).

A good mix of story and gameplay, The Banner Saga Complete Pack is good value and will give many hours of enjoyment to strategy fans.

Reviewed on PS4

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