The Banner Saga is a charming little tactical RPG with a good story and some interesting decisions. It's set in an idealized Viking-ish world, where humans and varl (read: giants) coexist, more or less, and occasionally unite to fight off the dredge - a race of poorly-motivated Bad Guys. The game excels at its aesthetic - the setting, the characters (though not the writing), and the art and music are all quite good. Those elements serve to create a feel for the game and, while I may be critical of some of the actual gameplay elements, it's important to note that those gameplay elements are ultimately servants of the general aesthetic the game is going for, and in that capacity, they serve it well. The game does a really good job of creating an interesting, well-put-together setting and aesthetic, and of arranging game components (of which there are a few) to support that goal. The game components are:Combat.
It takes place on orthogonal tiles where you control different characters (up to six) and try to beat up your opposition. Characters have strength, which counts as both hit points and damage dealt. When you get hurt, you also do less damage, as your strength goes down. Characters also have armour, which is directly subtracted from any damage taken. Armour can be difficult to remove and is often high enough that you have to spend a little time getting rid of the stuff before you can really lay into your opponent. Characters have a special ability, and they have some extra (limited) 'willpower' points they can add to specific actions to move faster and hit harder. Also, the combat has this weird thing where, as long as there's more than one person per side, each side alternates taking actions. So even if you have three people and the computer has nine (or vice versa), you still get to act as often as your opponent - with the result that if you have fewer people, they will get to act more often overall. Consequently, contrary to most games of its type, I felt the best strategy was to weaken without killing my opponents in order to make them useless, thereby wasting my opponent's turns. It seems better, in some respects, to have a few good characters than a bunch of crappy ones. The game makes when to kill vs. when to wound an interesting tactical decision.
The combat's good enough for what it is. Generally, I enjoyed it. I felt to really excel at it (rather than just win on normal), a player would have to math it out a little to be able to optimize special abilities (some of which are just crazy if used right) and to avoid damage at key moments. That's not me. I like to run intuitively on my tactical RPGs, so while I had no real problems, I also recognize I'm not playing the game on hard any time soon.Resource management and strategic decision making.
You spend a lot of time watching your caravan move across frozen tundra being chased by the dredge, and running out of food. Running out of food is bad, as members of your caravan leave (or die off, I guess) and your moral drops, making tactical combat harder. Tactical combat gains you renown, which you can use to level up your characters to make them better fighters, or to buy food (or to buy artifacts, but that's the worst use of it, I think). Your caravan contains fighters, varl, and clansmen, and occasionally you'll use the fighters and varl to conduct a large-scale combat that is handled off-screen while you handle a typical tactical combat using your heroes. If people starve, you'll run out of fighters and varl, which I guess would be bad? I don't know. Never seen it happen. The whole large-scale 'strategic' game doesn't really seem to do much.Interactive story events.
You are given a situation, you make choices, and then things happen. It's not always clear why the things that happen happen, and sometimes those things are really bad, but not something you could've anticipated. I had to reload a couple times because I'd made a choice that saw me lose a few key heroes, and I didn't know that would happen. Good (/lucky) choices can gain you renown, same as in battle. Choices that gain renown are, I found, much easier to anticipate than other choices, and don't seem as arbitrary. It's better than it sounds - while the choices you make are annoyingly opaque, I think they're supposed to be so. Bad things are supposed to happen, and you're supposed to pick up the pieces. In all cases, that's much of the game - the characters you control are people who are watching things go south awfully quickly. Making choices where you don't know what's going to happen, and often what happens is bad, is pretty consistent with the game as a whole.
Generally, the game was quite good. It won't be for everyone. But I think those who appreciate it will really enjoy it.