Last night was bad for both of my teams of Vikings. My football Vikings, of course, lost 42-10 to their archrival Green Bay Packers. Meanwhile, I was forced to bury a young warrior after a dredge's mace crashed through his shield and reduced him to paste.
The latter event took place in Banner Saga—a combination tactical RPG and visual novel by indie developer Stoic, which was released yesterday on iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch. I missed the original when it was released back in January, but I've been keeping one eye on it ever since Mike and Cassandra blessed it with an extremely positive review.
"Banner Saga is an animated storybook with player choice at the forefront," Mike wrote at the time, "that also happens to have a very good tactical strategy game."
Having now spent some time with it myself, I generally agree. The tactical elements aren't exactly shallow, but they're definitely secondary to the story, which follows a norse tribe as they flee an oncoming onslaught of armored monsters known as the dredge. Like Telltale's Walking Dead series, much of the tension is found in the various choices that have to be made throughout the story, which can alternately result in new supplies and new party members, or the untimely death of a party member. In the latter instance, the death was the result of me shooting an arrow to distract an attacking dredge, giving a favored party member time to escape but indirectly resulting in the death of her companion. Banner Saga is full of indirect consequences like these, making every decision both consequential and nerve-wracking.
Outside of these little vignettes, Banner Saga is divided into Oregon Trail-like travel segments and turn-based battle segments. The former is mostly an opportunity to sit back and enjoy Banner Saga's excellent art—which reminds me a little of a more serious-minded Dragon's Lair in the way that it looks and animates—while periodically making decisions regarding drunken troublemakers, dwindling supplies, and other issues. The latter is a somewhat simple but intelligently-designed tactical battle system with an emphasis on reducing enemy armor so they can ultimately be damaged and defeated.
The system's depth is derived from the way that it handles the strength stat, which declines as characters accrue damage. If a character loses all of their hitpoints and becomes incapacitated, they have to rest in camp to regain their strength, and by extension their ability to do an appreciable amount of damage. Beyond that, every character has a special ability, and it's possible to choose whether to damage armor or hitpoints. Customization, for its part, isn't a terribly strong component of Banner Saga, with classes being static and characters only being able to equip one item. As a result, most battles boil down to using your strongest character as a meat shield and having everyone focus fire on an enemy until they're dead.
Interestingly enough, though, these elements also make Banner Saga an appealing choice on mobile. Having played a number of mobile RPGs over the years, I've found that the ones that tend to work best are the ones that are fast-paced and not overburdened by a huge amount of granular customization. A good example of this philosophy is the original Battleheart, which was a delightful tactical RPG that seemed aware of the platform's limitations, and as a result put its focus on party composition and its simple but rather elegant ability system. Banner Saga is much the same in that regard.
In general, Banner Saga's combat is meant to complement the story and the decision-making, and it does that very well. Being so short, the combat also lends itself to relatively quick gameplay sessions, making it ideal for a trip on the train or a quick round before bed. The pacing of the story is likewise well-suited for mobile, as it alternates between the caravan segments and the text-based narrative sequences.
Admittedly, its relatively small text and detailed art make it better-suited for the iPhone 6 Plus, or even a full-on iPad. I've been enjoying it well enough on my iPhone 5, but I'd be lying if I said that I haven't had to squint at least once to try and make out the campsite menu options. Happily, despite the fact that my device is now "obsolete" by the standards of the fast-moving mobile industry, Banner Saga still runs just fine. The menus are the tiniest bit laggy at points, but the smooth animation of the PC version has for the most part held up very nicely on my phone. Interacting with the map in the course of a battle can be a tiny built unwieldy, but it's a comparatively minor issue.
All told, I'm pretty pleased with how well Banner Saga has turned out on iOS. I've waited this long precisely because I wanted to play it on a mobile device (or a console)—my preferred platform for a tactical game like this—and I'm glad to see that it doesn't disappoint in that regard.
So if you're looking for something a little meatier than the average endless run game or Angry Birds clone to play on your new iPhablet, consider Banner Saga—a lovely little game with just enough depth that will also be a great fit for your iOS device of choice.