The Banner Saga is a tactical RPG and like Final Fantasy Tactics and Shining Force before it, the game uses the triumvirate of tactical combat, character development and story progression to engage the player and get them to forge ahead with battle after battle to the game's conclusion.
The Banner Saga differentiates itself from the host of tactical RPGs by two key components: branching storyline that alters the outcome of the game and a startlingly beautiful art style that is similar to the works of Don Bluth (Dragon's Lair) and Ralph Bakshi (The Lord of the Rings).
The game is split into three elements. The first is the 'rest areas' as I started to call them while I played the preview code. These are respites that afford the player to level up the characters, buy supplies and items and also engage in conversation with key people in order to progress the narrative.
The second is the travelling between these respite areas, which is represented in a wonderfully animated 2D caravan trail with a long fluttering banner hanging over it as the arduous march across the snowy Nordic wastes progresses. During these marches incidents occur that require the player to make choices about what actions to take. These can vary from corralling deserting warriors to curing sick cattle. Every decision made impacts on the overall story as some actions earn the player renown, the main currency to the game and they can also result in some Game of Thrones like ends to characters.
The third element is the very core of The Banner Saga and that is the combat. As explained previously this is a tactical RPG and therefore follows the traditional turn based system that is prevalent in this genre. The play area is an isometric square tiled map with humans and smaller dredge taking up one space and larger creatures such as Varl and heavy dredge taking up 4 spaces. Characters from both sides of combat alternate between themselves and based on their agility have a limited amount of spaces than can move. Varl and large dredge move very slowly, but hit very hard. Humans and smaller dredge are very quick and some can launch ranged attacks, keeping them out of reach of many foes.
All characters are split into classes that have special abilities that when used judiciously can turn the tide of battle very quickly. Some of these abilities are offensive in that they cause significant amount of damage that can even be ongoing in some instances. This is especially useful for smaller units as they can dart in, deliver a 'bleeding' wound and dart away leaving the enemy to die from their injuries. There are also defensive abilities that either aid ally characters or create enhanced defences for the unit casting the effect.