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REVIEW / The Banner Saga (iOS)

 

2015.02.09 update: This game made our Top 5 mobile games of 2014 list!

The Banner Saga was a good game. Released on PC in January of this year, developer Stoic Studio’s bleakly beautiful, Viking-inspired strategy title captured the attention of critics and gamers alike with its blend of punishing tactical combat, compelling story, and striking visuals.  Its turn based combat played out against the backdrop of a frozen Nordic wasteland, forcing players to make at times morally ambiguous choices in order to ensure the survival of the caravan, like Oregon Trail with more shields and spears. While not perfect, it’s certainly held its own on Metacritic. Then it was ported to iOS. And The Banner Saga became a great game.

 

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In The Banner Saga, you follow the parallel journeys of warmaster Hakon, a member of the horned giant race, the Varl, who are escorting a prince of men, and hunter Rook, a human suddenly saddled with leading his community to safety after their village is destroyed by White Walkers-cum-Baby Colossi, the Dredge. The transition from PC to iOS does nothing to diminish the story. It’s still easy to get swept away in a tale filled with dead gods, Viking giants and stone monsters that stalk the woods. The beauty of the hand-drawn cutscenes and combat, which evoke the best work to come out of Disney’s “Pre-Renaissance Era,” only serves an an achingly poignant counterpoint to the harsh setting, a desolate and unforgiving world of ice that seems to teeter constantly on the brink of destruction. The Banner Saga keeps you on this edge for the entire 10-hour campaign, which is filled with enough shifting alliances, desolate losses and surprise betrayals to give Game of Thrones pause.

As for the gameplay, you’re really getting 3 games in 1. Firstly, there’s Final Fantasy Tactics-esque turn based strategy game. If you’ve ever played a strategy game, you’ll see that Stoic has gone with the classic “you go, they go” formula. I’ve never been a fan of alternating turns between teams, preferring XCOM‘s squad-based movement. But The Banner Saga does try to put its own twist on things, hinging its skirmishes on a dual gauge system. Your heroes have gauges for strength and armor. The twist is that strength represents both your hit points and attack power. Battles are a balance between weakening your opponent’s defenses and inflicting punishment. Hacking away at their strength alone won’t even make a dent in their health if they have high armor. And hacking away at their armor alone could leave you near death and too weak to finish the job once you break through. Add to this the varied character classes and various upgrades, special attacks, and attack and movement boosts and penalties, and you have a decent, if somewhat derivative, combat system.

 

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Secondly, there’s the Oregon Trail-eque inventory management game. When not locking swords, axes or arrows with your enemies, you must continue the trek toward illusive safety while managing the supplies necessary to keep your followers from starving to death. Each day spent side-scrolling across the bleakly beautiful landscape uses supplies and impacts moral. Should you run out of supplies, you will lose Clansmen, Fighters and Varl to disease and famine, drastically lowering your caravan’s morale. And should your morale drop, your heroes will receive fewer willpower points – needed for stronger attacks – at the beginning of each battle. And should you be defeated in battle, you will not gain renown, the resource needed not only to promote your heroes but to purchase supplies in the towns. It’s a delicate, often devastating, juggling act. You will lose people. The challenge is keeping the death toll low.

And thirdly, there’s the King of Dragon Pass-esque gamebook. For me, this is where The Banner Saga shines brightest. The battles,  while challenging, are not nearly as intense as the decisions you must make in the spaces between. You can’t lose heroes in battle, but you can lose them if you make the wrong choice in the story; allow the wrong person/refuse the right person into your fleeing traveling band and boom! A knife in the back and perma-death for a major character are your unwelcome reward. This leaves you second guessing every choice you make, and loving the game all the more for it. Unlike some other titles that tout morality systems, which amount to a binary choice between “good” or “evil,” The Banner Saga offer up real ethical quandaries. Do you send farmers turned fighters to their certain death against the Dredge, buying time more time for others to flee? Or do you choose to leave behind the old and weak, who would probably die anyway on the difficult journey ahead? There’s no manual save, making it a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book where you can’t flip back between the pages. But it’s precisely because there’s no going back that every step forward means more.

 

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But you already know all of this if you’ve played the PC version. What makes the iOS version superior is the seamless way the UI works with touchscreen, almost as if it were made for mobile devices in the first place. This goes against the genre grain. Most reviews summarize PC-to-mobile ports in one word, “disappointing.” Something almost always gets lost in translation; usually the controls, as developers struggle to compensate for the limitations of the touchscreen by adding noxious virtual joysticks and cluttered user interfaces.

But The Banner Saga‘s controls beautifully on iOS, losing none of the functionality of the PC version while gaining an immediacy and intimacy unique to handheld gaming; there’s nothing like snuggling beneath a cozy comforter, even as your caravan slogs across the desolate icy tundra. That’s not to say the controls are perfect. Even on my iPad 2, I often struggled to select the right cell on the grid during battles – sometimes they simply wouldn’t “activate” – so I don’t dare imagine the teeth-grinding, hair-pulling frustration of playing on an iPhone. And as previously mentioned, the combat can be a slog even when things are working. Minor quibbles aside, The Banner Saga sets the standard for mobile ports, working with rather than around the touchscreen.

 

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The Banner Saga may not be the best strategy game, or the best simulation game, or the best storytelling game, but the way it blends these three genres into such a memorable, magical gaming experience makes it one of the best iOS games.  Period. The absolutely stunning hand-drawn graphics, the sweeping musical score, and the morally ambiguous decision-making process already drew me into the game on PC. That sense of intimacy seems more visceral now that I both literally and figuratively hold the lives of these compelling characters in my hands. Which is why I recommend you get your hands on it and experience it for yourself. It’s a brutal journey, but well worth it.

 

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