I have mixed opinions about The Banner Saga, but I'm still very happy to have played it. Most of the time, when I find games to be surprisingly brief, it's generally to their benefit. However, this is one title where I felt like it ended before it could really shine. I'm appreciative that it didn't drag itself out, but at the same time it's always a bit jarring when the end credits sneak up on you.
The Banner saga is some weird mesh of grid based strategy rpg (Fire Emblem, Tactics Ogre, FFT/A) and...the Oregon trail. And Vikings (or something resembling Vikings). However, only the first part of that hybrid combination does the game feel polished, gameplay wise. The game's most notable feature when it comes to the primary battle engagements is the Armor/Strength duality, as well as Willpower and Exertion mechanics. In order to deal a lot of damage to most enemies, especially Dredge, you first have to spend time working down their armor instead of trying to outright lower their health to zero. This is only a small wrinkle to the normal rpg standby, but it is implemented well enough to have two interesting results. One, it creates some very real consequential moments where you've got a unit able to do decent armor or strength damage and you can't be certain whether you should really strip the armor down further or if you should take a chunk out of the enemy health so that they might be finished off sooner. Secondly, it creates much needed class specialization where certain units are much more adept at stripping armor while others are better set finishing weakened foes. The game then allows you to use some basic accessory-equipment to either further specialize (giving an armor-break boosting equipment to someone already well equiped to break armor) or to make certain units more versatile. One thing that I suppose I wasn't used to is that the class-roles are specified and listed on the heroes pages, but they still don't seem as iron-clad or strict as those in games such as the Japanese srpgs I listed earlier (where the class given to a unit is much more defining). I couldn't tell you which units were which class off of the top of my head, only what each given unit was good at performing in battle. I suppose it feels a bit more organic this way.
I feel like the willpower-exertion mechanics are the most important (and unique) mechanics of the battles. Exertion allows you to add damage points to your strength hits, break down armor faster, and move further than normal. Morale allows you to add willpower to units as you need it, and replenishes as you defeat enemies. Since exertion determines how much willpower you can add to any action, it was the first thing I upgraded on any unit promotion.
The battle animations and sound work is expecially great, and I generally love the look of this game. The battle environments are a bit bland but that's not a real dealbreaker. One thing that I never did gel with was the out-of-battle dialogues, usually set as continously reversing camera shots of the front facing portraits of the various characters. The continuously changing perspective and lack of multiple emotive artworks for each character really made clicking through these dialogues to be a chore at times, and it was sometimes more difficult than it needed to be to determine who was entering and leaving the scene, and even who is all present at any given time.
The in-between battle treks with the caravan were not super enjoyable. I was given a unit count of clansmen, fighters, and varl but I didn't really know what this represented and only tried to keep the numbers high because that's what you're expected to do, right? A handful of times the game would tell me that the enemy force was so large and my force was compartively large but I couldn't really tell what numbers the game was crunching underneath. While other moments of open-ended choice and consecquence within these sections was enjoyable (do you help the random caravan you come accross, do you punish the drunk, do you demand goods from the traders if your supplies are low, etc), the various off-screen battle tactician moments (do you charge in, do you pull back, you have x forces against their y forces) seemed to be more random and less consequential. In the last two chapters of the game, I had made a dumb mistake and lost most of my unit count but it didn't seem to matter at all.
That said, in general I enjoyed the challenge of the game. I played through on Normal mode, and I even lost two battles (one of which I am sure you are supposed to lose :p ) but the game ended up allowing the journey to progress with those loses, which makes the prospect of a replay to see if I could either avoid or overcome though encounters to be somewhat appealing. The last battle of the game took a few tries, but at the same time, I didn't realize it was the last battle. It didn't really seem appropriately grandiose when considering some of the things introduced before that point that I thought I would be tackling. I'm unsure how much the ending can change depending on your choices, so I might have to do some reading.
I just wish the game was a little longer. Some of the units in the game I felt like only saw 3-4 battles, and with the number of units you get in total (quite a few) and the frequency in which the become available and unavailable, and the low-map limit of who all you can bring into any given battle, I just felt like there were a few things I was unable to ever get to try. While I had some units level up many times, but the end of the game I had some units only often enough to have promoted once. But again, I suppose that allows for some variety in re-plays.
Great art, but I wish there was more to the dialogue sections, retweaked caravan between battle-mechanics, some larger more interesting maps would be neat, and more chances to be able to bring units into battle which a lower frequency of units becoming unavailable. Though not to any extreme extent, having some limitations on those sorts of things is a great way to force yourself to try out different strategies rather than just bringing your strongest units every time.
Lastly, the overarching story and narrative were interesting enough, but sometimes it felt messy and cluttered. You find yourself moving from one outpost to the next, each with exotics names, and never in one place for too long. Yes, there's a fairly nice in game map that helps to try to put things into place mentally, but when the purpose of most encampments is to simply upgrade your units and merch and be on your way, there wasn't a lot of incentive to really keep track of much. A large part of the game boils down to someone declaring that you need to leave place x and head to place y for reason z, and that's really all of the motivation I needed or wanted.