The Banner Saga delivers tactical role-playing with fabulous fantasy artwork

bannersaga battle lead

Winter can be a very dour, taxing time, and holiday stress only exacerbates what the seasonal shift begins. That may be motivation enough to pour hours into a fluffy, colorful diversion like Candy Crush Soda Saga—but I have an alternate suggestion. Invest that time into an altogether different kind of Saga that’s ideally paired to the season: The Banner Saga ($10), a richly presented, albeit somber Viking-inspired tale about fighting to stay alive in a world falling to pieces.

Perhaps not the most uplifting fare, but it is fascinating—plus it’s the perfect game to explore during extended holiday downtime and/or travel. The combination of tactical action, caravan management, and choose-your-own-adventure fantasy elements lend the game impressive depth and plenty of intrigue.

Hardly a banner year

bannersaga dialogue

Conversations inform much of the story, and you’ll switch between different sets of characters across the campaign.

What do you do when the sun suddenly stops in the sky and horrifying beings start decimating your neighbors? In The Banner Saga, you respond by forming a caravan and traveling from city to city, fighting those evil beings as your faction fluctuates in size and mood during its constant march for survival. Death is common, both during combat and story interactions, and no matter how amazingly beautiful the backdrops may be, it’s decidedly a downbeat affair.

But at least the action can be pretty exciting. The Banner Saga takes cues from strategic role-playing classics like Final Fantasy Tactics for its combat, which finds your squad fighting foes on a grid-bound battlefield. It’s complex and sometimes could be explained better, but in time, the characters’ differences and abilities reveal themselves. You’ll start to understand the benefits of formations and the order in which your warriors attack, and adjust to maximize impact.

Combat is only a small part of this fantasy campaign experience, however. Between battles, you’ll take part in the narrative through dialogue exchanges, which allow you to make decisions that affect the storyline and character interactions. It feels very much like an old-school fantasy gamebook experience in spots. Also, the caravan management and presentation can’t help but lightly recall The Oregon Trail. They’re both perilous treks, only here, there’s quite a bit less dysentery.

Dazzling, but dreary

bannersaga caravan

As a crowdfunded project from a small team, The Banner Saga isn’t extravagantly animated. However, the artwork remains absolutely stunning, especially during scenes in which your caravan parades across the lavishly drawn countryside.

bannersaga combat

Understanding the nuances of the turn-based combat can take time, but the basics are clear: you move, and then you attack or use a special ability. Devising advanced tactics will help you survive the tougher battles that emerge later in the campaign.

bannersaga choices

You’re often prompted to make a snap decision based on a bit of text: an ally is in danger, unknown men want to join your caravan, or someone is causing trouble. Your choices help affect the makeup and demeanor of the entire convoy.

bannersaga heroes

Each hero you command can be upgraded multiple times as a reward for kills on the battlefield. There’s strategy in how you align your party before action, as well, since weaker ranged fighters are best kept behind burly brawlers on the grid.

Why it’s worth your money

The Banner Saga provides a sizable mobile campaign—a good dozen or more hours on first playthrough—with solid incentive to play again to test different decisions and dialogue choices. It’s really interesting to see how your choices affect the flow of the quest, all the way through to the ending, and the challenging combat keeps things interesting beyond the off-the-battlefield events and conversations. Also, a sequel was just announced with an eventual mobile release planned, so take solace in the fact that there’s more to come once you close out this chapter.

Beyond its unique concoction of tactical role-playing and resource management, The Banner Saga also happens to be one of the most attractive games on Android today. It’s light on animation, but the hand-drawn backdrops are utterly gorgeous; even the battlefields themselves, eventually laced with the blood of your foes and comrades alike, are a sight to behold. The Banner Saga is a rich and enticing fantasy adventure, and it’s a perfect companion for your holiday travel slog or quiet moments hidden away from the extended family.

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