When Stoic first pitched the concept of The Banner Saga to potential Kickstarter backers in 2012, it was clear that they had potentially struck gold from the get-go. With a $100,000 target, the company managed to raise over seven times that much to bring their tactical RPG to life. Now, just a day or two over two years since the PC version launched, the game has landed on Xbox One.
Those that patiently waited for a console version to turn up can feel safe in the knowledge that all that waiting wasn't for nothing. In many ways, The Banner Saga is a triumph, successfully blending a few different genres to come up with a final product that does great justice to the tactical RPG that it's built around. Set in a Viking-inspired world, the game puts you in charge of a group of fighters as they set out on a journey of survival against the evil "Dredge" – a race of enemies that is hell-bent on wiping humans off the face of the planet. Led by the giant Bellower, they prove to be formidable foe.
Battles are – as mentioned – turn-based affairs, but your success in them largely depends on your resource management in the sections between fights, which play out something along the lines of the 1971 classic The Oregon Trail. Your caravan of cohorts treks across the icy wastes and you have to deal with situations that arise within the ranks, such as deciding whether or not to trust a band of outlaws who turn up wishing to join your group. Allow them to join and they may turn on you and run off with some of your precious supplies, but they may toe the line and swell your ranks, although that means that there will be more mouths to feed. Keeping morale up and ensuring that your crew has enough to eat and drink is more than half the battle, especially when you consider that the same currency you use to purchase supplies, is used to promote your fighters. You'll often be faced with the tough decision of ranking your shieldbanger up to make him more useful in battle, or purchasing supplies for the road ahead. Given that you never know how long it'll be until you'll next be able to stock up, it makes sense to be cautious, since your clansmen and fighting ranks will dwindle due to starvation if you run dry on the road.
Indeed, many marches will leave you with your heart racing as you watch the supply counter gradually run down while there's nothing in sight ahead but ice and snow. It's to The Banner Saga's credit that a simple (yet beautiful) side-on animation of Rook, Juno, Alette and the rest of your tiny cohorts traipsing through the expanses of cold stuff can cause such a response. You would expect it to be a dull and boring trudge that just fills the gaps between the battles, but that's far, far from the case.
When you do happen upon a fight, the rest of the game's hand-animated visuals are brought into stark relief. The whole thing puts us in mind of a classic Don Bluth animated cartoon and the attention to detail is clear to see. Taking an isometric view of the action, it's relatively standard turn-based RPG fare with a twist or two. Enemies have separate ratings for armor and health, and you can choose which one to attack on each move. If you're massively overpowered, then ignoring the armor is probably your best bet, as you'll be able to take the opponents out before they can damage you too heavily. If you're on a par, you're probably better off in weakening their armor first, so that your strength attacks can do more damage and eventually see them off. Bigger characters take up more spaces on the battlefield, too, and while that isn't something that you'd think would be a huge deal, it really can be. If you've got of your two behemoth fighters blocking all routes through to the opponent, with many turns still remaining before they can be shifted, that can be the difference between winning and losing. It can occasionally throw a spanner into the works too with regards to not being able to clearly see what's going on. With no overhead camera and no ability to rotate the view, it can sometimes be tricky to see exactly where you're asking your character to move. The ability to zoom in and out using the triggers can help here, but not always.
Another battle modifier comes in the form of willpower. Each character can store willpower (up to a maximum amount, based on their class and skill level) which can be used to enhance their actions. If you have two willpower points in stock, you may be able to move an extra two spaces during the movement portion of your turn, for example. If you've just got one, maybe you'll get the opportunity to increase the damage of your archer's arrow by a point. Once used, willpower doesn't regenerate automatically, but killing off enemies adds a single willpower point to the communal pot. This means that your spearman might drop an opponent on one turn, giving your close-to-death warrior the opportunity to grab that communal willpower point and extend his getaway by an extra space on the next turn.
Winding beautifully around the battles and resource management is the story of course, which is played out using a kind of advanced "talking heads" format. Everything is played out with textual conversations, your decisions in which can seriously affect the way in which things proceed. Characters can be sent away or brought back into the fold based on your decisions, with branching choices meaning that multiple playthroughs are on the cards. These conversations do serve to highlight one of the game's low points though, and that comes in the form of loading times. Almost everything you do leads to a black loading screen that hangs around for ten seconds and that can be somewhat off-putting when you're getting into the story. Even bringing up the relatively simple team management screen from a camp causes it to happen, and that's not great. Battles are unaffected of course – once you're on the battlefield, there's no loading to be done until the fight is over – but the resource management sections are plagued by it somewhat.
There's also the subject of the game's difficulty to tackle. We're not the greatest tacticians in the world, and our first playthrough saw us lose only one battle – the final one – while everything else was very much a cakewalk. A second run on the harder difficulty setting was much more rewarding, so we'd suggest that anyone with the slightest familiarity with the tactical RPG genre should jack that difficulty setting up from the off. As a consequence, an extra achievement is on the cards should you complete the game on that tougher setting, though the achievements in general are interesting enough to reward repeated plays. The game doles out Gamerscore relatively generously, but trying to pick up the full set of awards adds longevity in a way that makes sense. There's no real grinding to be done here. Getting to Boersgard in 120 days is fun to attempt (although no mean feat), whilst keeping the always-susceptible Egil alive for the entire journey is going to be one that trips more than a few people up.
The minor issues exhibited in The Banner Saga aren't enough to cause the game to be less enjoyable, though. There's a lot of story to be had – not all of which is resolved, given that the Saga as a whole will apparently be delivered over three games – and the sheer number of characters means that you'll need to concentrate in order to keep track. If you do though – and you should – you'll find that this isn't far off being a masterpiece.
As a package, The Banner Saga is addictive, attractive, compelling, enjoyable, and truly challenging on the higher difficulty level. Some will find fault with the price, given that the Xbox One version is £15.99 and the PC and iOS editions have been available for a third of that in their time, but we say that the price is fair for what you get here. It's been a long wait, but there's nothing like kicking back and overseeing your merry band of fantastically animated fighters trekking across a frozen wasteland on a big-screen TV, or hearing the roaring clank of metal on metal as you fire in a battle-winning series of attacks.