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Stoic Studio | Official Site
RPG | Setting:Fantasy | Status:Final  (rel 01/14/14)  | Pub:Stoic Studio
Distribution:Download | Retail Price:$24.99 | Pay Type:Free | Monthly Fee:n/a
System Req: PC Mac | Out of date info? Let us know!

A Gorgeous Handcrafted Game

Written By Pete Schwab on October 22, 2014 | Comments

A Gorgeous Handcrafted Game

The Banner Saga gets its title from banners that groups of people in the game (villages, tribes, etc.) use to record their history. Every time a major event happens, such as someone being born, someone dying, a great boon, or a disaster, the story gets woven into the fabric of the banner. The older groups have long, flowing banners that stretch on and on. In play, this lovely metaphor for tracking time feels like an apt way to describe much of the game: as the story progresses, the characters are moving through a beautiful, hand painted, war-torn landscape which scrolls by in the background, unfurling like a long banner waving in the wind.

The Banner Saga began its life as a Kickstarter created by Stoic, a new company founded by former employees of Bioware Austin. That lineage is unsurprising; The Banner Saga is a story-driven, branching dialogue tactical RPG in the great Bioware tradition. After being very successfully funded in April of 2012, it was released on PC and Mac in early 2014 and was released for iOS devices in early October. Stoic has mentioned in Kickstarter updates that the Android release is imminent, but for the time being we took the opportunity to review the iOS version and evaluate what kind of fit this already critically successful RPG is on mobile devices.

For the purposes of this review, we used an iPhone 5s and an iPad 2, so users of newer iPhones with larger screens or iPads with smaller screens should take that into account. We’ve also decided to split the review into two separate pieces: the first part will evaluate the game generally for those who have never played it and need help deciding if it’s for them, while the second part will talk specifically about the adaptation to mobile devices. This second section is for people who need help deciding whether or not to buy the game again for mobile, or people in the position of choosing between the mobile and PC version of the game.


This game makes a stunning first impression. In their Kickstarter video, the developers describe their idea to imitate the art direction and animation style of the 1959 Disney animated film “Sleeping Beauty”. It was a bold decision that stands up extremely well and creates a unique, gorgeous look to the game that commands attention. The conceit of the stylized animated graphics carries through into combat, where the character movements and attacks create a feeling of nostalgia and set the game in a fairy tale world.

There are brief snippets of voice over, including some dialogue in the prologue to the game. All of this is also extremely well executed. The accents and voices are spot on and do a fantastic job of drawing you into a world of ancient Viking myth and legend. The voiced parts of the game are too brief, however. In most cases it’s better to leave the audience wanting more, but in this case it ends up feeling like there just wasn’t the money and the time to add more.

An ancient Viking time of myth and legend serves as the setting for the game. Human beings and giants, called Yarl, live in a tenuous peace and the threat of the forces of evil, called the Dredge, is kept at bay for the time being. Things begin to change however when the sun stops moving in the sky and Dredge begin appearing to harass villages and travelers on the road. In opposition to the art direction borrowed from a family movie, the storyline is much darker and more mature in tone and deals with issues of loss and responsibility in stark and challenging ways.

Much of the story is delivered through conversational dialogue trees where several responses are offered. The response you choose directs the story. The dialogue is very well written, but the backgrounds of the characters are slowly and subtly hinted at and it takes some time to tease out everyone’s relationships and past history. There are text snippets that you can delve into for each character, but these are brief and don’t offer much detail. Even the dialogue is delivered in a broad, vague style that can make it difficult to figure out what is going on and who knows whom. It creates a great sense of a mythological universe, but it demands a lot of patience and attention.

Outside of dialogue decision trees, there is the caravan. These sections of the game play like the 1985 educational game The Oregon Trail; there is a balancing act between managing supplies and dealing with encounters on the road. As your group (there are actually separate groups in parallel stories but the idea is the same) travels from one town to the next, they encounter groups of Dredge, dissention in the ranks, disease, travelling merchants, and warriors.

At each of these points, decisions have to be made that impact the survivability of the group as a whole. If you stay to try to fight the monsters, some of your warriors might die but you will save a few days of supplies by not having to take a longer, more evasive route. It is not action packed gameplay, but it can be engrossing and there is a lot of tension because the decisions feel very consequential.

The third leg of gameplay that The Banner Saga stands on is the tactical, turn-based combat. Characters on both sides of the conflict are arrayed across a large grid playing board and can then take one movement turn and one action turn. As play progresses, characters level up and gain attribute points which enhance their abilities. Different player characters and enemies have different roles, so there is a lot of strategic thinking that goes into placement, movement and action.

The concepts of the turn-based combat are easy enough to grasp, but have a depth and complexity that makes it challenging. There is also a lot of motivation to level up certain characters as their special abilities gain different properties through progression. Levelling up is rewarding and opens up new possibilities and combinations which makes this part of the game very engaging and fun to experiment with.

Stoic blends these separate game types together seamlessly and in interesting ways. During the caravan segment, it is possible to come across bands of roaming Dredge looting a village. Some degree of large scale combat is handled in the caravan interface, but then you can choose to move a small group of warriors into tactical combat. After victory is achieved, you can optionally press your luck and chain directly into another combat without resting for additional glory, which serves as points to level up your characters in The Banner Saga. It is a very rich, nicely integrated system that offers a lot of options without being overly complex.

The design is tight and it is very apparent that The Banner Saga had a very specific idea behind it which carried through. One aspect of having a very specific design in mind is that it may not be to everyone’s taste. In the case of The Banner Saga, the slow pacing and careful methodical thinking and resource management might not resonate with people who are in the mood for something quick, twitchy or action heavy. That’s certainly not a knock against it, but could be important for gamers on mobile platforms.

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