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Platform(s): PC
Genre: Action/Adventure
Developer: Armitage Games
Release Date: Aug. 31, 2017

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PC Review - 'Bannerman'

by Andreas Salmen on Oct. 4, 2017 @ 2:00 a.m. PDT

Bannerman is a retro medieval action/adventure with challenging skill-based combat inspired by historical swordsmanship.

Buy Bannerman

If the aesthetics of 16-bit games are appealing, you may instantly fall in love with Bannerman, a gritty and combat-heavy adventure set in medieval times. Fans of sword fighting were already treated to For Honor and the indie gem NiddHogg 2, which mostly satisfied those who wanted to duel with friends and other players. Bannerman attempts a single-player experience with atmosphere-heavy retro visuals, light storytelling, and an unforgiving skill-based combat system that makes every enemy encounter intense.

As the title suggests, we take on the role of an unnamed soldier who's waiting for a battle to commence when our lord instructs us to be his bannerman. Our first encounter on the battlefield goes south rather quickly, and we lose the banner and the battle. There is only one honorable option after a horrible defeat: Hunt down the victor and get our banner back, even if we have to pay for it in sweet, pixelated blood spurts. The story may sound straightforward at first but quickly evolves into a strange journey across a war-torn country as our protagonist faces magical creatures while being haunted by weird visions in his sleep. Don't underestimate Bannerman based on its weird tale and slow-paced combat, which probably won't appeal to many, but the game might be surprising in the most pleasant of ways.

Bannerman strives to get everything out of its 16-bit visuals that are reminiscent of the Mega Drive/Genesis era, with animations and an atmospheric color selection that enhances the feeling of isolation while walking across a war-ravaged land. Bannerman may be much more intense than expected, given its basic visual style. The skies shine down as we slowly walk through a myriad of corpses and grayish countryside, participating in intense battles and slowly closing in on the foe who stole our lord's banner. The soundtrack is very fitting; it's sometimes very apparent but often merges into the background as a source of additional atmosphere that works incredibly well with the violent and tense environment. Although we see mutilated bodies at every turn, we add to the body count by slaying enemies at every opportunity.

The combat system is undoubtedly the cornerstone of Bannerman. From the get-go, we have access to a longsword, and we can perform light and heavy attacks, block, hit and kick, all of which can be dealt either low or high, forcing us to pay attention to our opponent's stance to deal damage. While light and heavy attacks are equally effective on unprotected enemies, heavy attacks are more efficient on armored foes to wear down their defense. After an introduction to the combat system, we gain a dodge move and are equipped to face anyone who crosses our path.

The premise may sound simple, but it's actually more difficult. The combat boils down to a careful dance of attack and retreat, similar to Dark Souls, so an overeager all-out attack will likely get you killed or at least gravely injured. It is immensely important to read the enemy and know when to dodge, block or retreat to avoid damage and find the opportunity for a well-placed counterattack. Early on, enemies deal about the same damage and only vary in weapon types and armor, so they're similarly dangerous to fight but demand different strategies. The fun starts when the game pits us against two enemies at once, one fighting us directly while another guy shoots from a distance. In those situations, things start to get tough since bow attacks can only be dodged (or blocked with a shield), and the timing to pull this off is difficult enough without the additional danger of a spear in your face.

However tough the combat may be, it never feels unfair but more like a test of skill that fits with the progress the player should've made up to that point. You'll die a lot, and you'll occasionally hate the game for it until you realize that your timing and tactics were wrong, and it may not be too hard after all. It's a revelation I had more than once, especially during boss fights.

Visually, Bannerman tries to merge a 2-D side-scroller with a visual novel, and the formula works well until it doesn't. The atmosphere and visual representation wowed me in the early stages but lost appeal after a while. Entirely new areas of the game started feeling somewhat similar to previous ones, so they were beautiful but repetitive. After a couple of hours with the game, the combat and enemy types start feeling the same, which does not impact it too much because of its overall limited length. It can get repetitive, but the game isn't long enough to overstay its welcome.

Bannerman's plot is also conveyed through dialogue with comrades, enemies and your lord, and you can occasionally decide and influence certain aspects of it. Ultimately, it feels like a letdown, as your decisions do not drastically change the story. All these efforts cannot mask the fact that at its core, Bannerman is a level-based side-scroller. We progress through linear levels that encourage a limited amount of exploration to solve lever-based puzzles and find hidden areas with additional armor, combat techniques, story and weapons.

Otherwise, we face off against enemies until we eventually reach a challenging boss fight, see a weird dream level, and move on to the next section. This isn't a bad thing, but I wish the visual novel that the game has the potential to be could've been better integrated. It feels like a missed opportunity that could've had a much deeper impact.

The game has no checkpoints within levels and cannot be saved manually, so if you die, you have to restart the entire section, which can lead to minor frustrations. The game counteracts this by having opened doors remain that way after you die, so you can return to your previous spot in a fraction of the time.

Overall, Bannerman feels fresh in the way it looks and plays, and we wouldn't be too far off the mark in describing it as a 2-D Dark Souls.  Fans of skill-based combat who are interested in the masterfully created retro visuals will get a short but intense journey through the gritty side of war in medieval times.

Score: 7.5/10

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