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Ye gods, The Banner Saga is as bleak as it is beautiful. The sun hangs motionless in the sky, serpents the size of the San Andreas Fault topple mountains as though they were building blocks, and likable characters fall dead mere minutes after I’d decided I liked them. The upright perish, the brutal linger, and smiles number only slightly more than microbes on Mars. It's the kind of approach that could make Game of Thrones seem like slapstick comedy, and the bleakness doesn't even relent when you hunker down into the punishing tactical combat.

There's precedence for this kind of gloom, of course. The oldest of us remember it from The Oregon Trail, and developer Stoic Studio captures the spirit of MECC's classic via the sight of bands of Nordic folk scrolling across a frigid 2D fantasy Vikingscape that pelts you with hard choices about supplies and morale. But there's no smirking about oxen dying here; The Banner Saga made me care. One of its great strengths is the quality of the writing surrounding the story, which starts out in the middle of things in the tradition of the best epics.

Such unceremonious narrative dumping proves disconcerting at first. It relies too heavily on identical poses for each character during the (unfortunately) unvoiced cutscenes, and perspectives shift so often that identifying
 who's being referred to as "you" remains a small chore hours in. Meanwhile, the curious dynamic between the hulking, horned Varl giants and their lithe human companions only becomes clear with time. It's a tough adjustment, not unlike inching down into a steaming hot tub. On the positive side, it effectively captures the confusion of the multiple bands of refugees as they flee from the seemingly interminable swarms of enemies pouring through villages and forests intent on eradicating all life.

Beautiful hand-drawn visuals recall Eyvind Earle's cherished work for Disney's classic, Sleeping Beauty, but a large part of the appeal of The Banner Saga is that the story isn't just a pretty (and my, how pretty) complement for the combat. Much as The Oregon Trail before it, it excels through the variety and meaning of its choices. As your little caravans rumble east or west, their banners growing larger with your community's size, The Banner Saga constantly forces decisions on you that could alter progression.

The choices and consequences start off simple: let a plucky young clansman join up with a skirmish, and the dialog boxes that pop up afterwards may report his death at the hands of a vicious foe. Deftly, The Banner Saga eases you into far tougher choices, such as whether to destroy an ancient Varl-built bridge and risk shattering the entire Varl alliance with humans. The lack of any saving features (aside from a frequent autosave) forces you to live with your choices and lends them weight, even if it means finding once-beloved allies facing you down as enemies.

When you do fight, you'll find yourself in the turn-based gridded combat maps. If you've spent any time during the last year playing the free-to-play PvP counterpart, The Banner Saga: Factions (which will remain a separate entity independent of The Banner Saga proper), you'll know what to expect here – aside, that is, from the difficulty spikes. Even on Easy, the Banner Saga is a challenging tactical RPG that rewards foolishness with defeat, although sometimes even the execution of my best strategies wound down to a mere two dudes attempting to out-attrition the other.

But there's plenty of room here for thought. The Varl hit like trucks at the expense of plodding, four-square strides across the grid, while agile humans zip around with comparative ease, even to the point of using Varl as barriers. For all of the creativity of the rest of The Banner Saga, the available fighters tend toward token roles such as greatsword-swinging giants and powerful female archers, but Stoic gives them personalities beyond the story by granting each a unique ability that compelled me to hang onto them.

To Stoic's great credit, this isn’t the kind of game that allows you to rush in and win. It largely achieves this effect by slapping units with one value for armor and another for health and strength combined, which means you'll have to whittle down the armor of the most beastly Dredge before you can make any notable dent in their health. It seems a little too gamey at times – one of the best tactics for success is to leave enemies with one point of health and strength, thus effectively converting their resulting weak strikes into a wasted turn. Alas, it's a strategy that works both ways. Consequently, if you haven't nibbled away a strong unit's armor and you're near death, you might as well be battling with baguettes.

But all hope isn't lost. Stoic wisely accommodated for such scenarios with its idiosyncratic Willpower stat. Although limited, Willpower lets characters exert themselves more, such as by moving up an extra grid on the map or adding more force to standard attacks or special abilities. It adds the necessary element of calculated chance to battles. Only the fact that heroes don't permanently die in battles strikes me as a sign of forgiveness in The Banner Saga; for that, you'll have to endure the story prompts before and after combat. It's a tough system, but one that manages to teach wise players its strategies through the mere act of playing.

Too bad it's not so good at teaching you everything else. The combat scenarios are well explained, but several core concepts pop up with little to no explanations. The importance of supplies and morale on the Oregon Trail-style interface aren't well explained, for instance, and it's initially not clear if the stat-boosting trinkets you pick up in markets are consumable, timed, or permanent. Elsewhere, mousing over the icons on the leveling menu for heroes gives little concrete idea of what they do.

The Banner Saga also gifts us with some of composer Austin Wintory's best work since 2012's Journey, even if it's a subdued score that never reached the rapturous heights that landed him a Grammy nomination. This, rather, is music for the Polar Vortex. It's grim, it's bleak, and like so much of The Banner Saga, it sneers at all expressions of optimism. It's beautiful.

 THE BANNER SAGA TRAINER 


Features:


  • Super Unit
  • Weak Unit
  • Full Unit Roster
  • Add Renown
  • Varl Units
  • Fighter Units
  • Supplies
  • Kills

Made exclusively for GameZ8ne. WRITTEN FOR THE ORIGINAL RETAIL/STEAM VERSION OF THE GAME. May not work with all versions. This trainer features customizable hotkeys. This file has been scanned and is virus and adware free. Some trainers may set off generic or heuristic notifications with certain antivirus or firewall software.

Compat: Windows XP, 2000, Vista, Windows 7, Windows 8




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