The Banner Saga for Android Review

by Reads (6,023)
  • Pros

    • Highly original setting
    • Engrossing story
    • Simple but engaging gameplay
  • Cons

    • High system requirements
    • Only the first of three planned installments

Quick Take

The Banner Saga is easily worth the attention of any RPG gamer, and has great crossover appeal to anyone who just likes beautiful art and a good story.

With a lot of RPGs out there for the tablet user to choose from, The Banner Saga stands out for its original, hand-drawn art and unique storyline. Is it worth your $10? We looked into it.

Note: This review was written based on the Android version of this game, but there’s also an iPad edition that is essentially identical.

The Premise

The very first line of the game’s narrative is “The gods are dead.” This sets the tone for the eerie, borderline-apocalyptic feeling of the story.

As things go on, you learn that in the maybe one or two hundred years since the gods died, the humans and the Varl — a race of gigantic, horned humanoids who love to battle, and were all hand-made by their god — have formed a kind of rough alliance to survive together.

But now something has changed: The sun has stopped in the sky. No one knows what it means. And with it the Dredge, a race of stone-skinned aggressors who were pushed back into the far north in the last Great War, have returned in force, flooding all of the north with warriors. But following them is something else, something maybe so terrifying that the Dredge themselves are fleeing it.

The Banner Saga

The Banner Saga

In pure RPG terms, the setting is very grounded and low-magic. There are many different types of fighters with various skills, but most combat is melee type, with even archers taking a relative back seat. Most RPGs these days, even the good ones, tend to be a derivative of a derivative, cribbing from other games going right back to Dungeons and Dragons’ “Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off” setting. That’s not necessarily bad, because there’s a reason people keep being interested in that sort of thing, but it’s decidedly not what The Banner Saga does.

The creators of The Banner Saga went out to create a wholly original feel and setting, drawing instead on Norse mythology and culture, as well the sense of what it would really be like to live in such a harsh and unforgiving environment. No village wizards, no handy armorers, no easy anything … but a very evocative and engrossing world backed up by a solid storyline.

The Look

The Banner Saga on Android

The Banner Saga on Android

The rich worldbuilding is accompanied by equally lavish visuals. Rather than use computer-generated anything, the designers went with 100% hand drawn animation cels, the kind you’d have only found in a major studio game fifteen years ago — and which you don’t find anywhere today, having been supplanted by cheap CGI. More’s the pity, as it lends a beautiful aspect to a game.

For The Banner Saga, the artists created an odd combination of extremely stylizing some things — some trees, for instance, are just circular patterns of branching lines — while going into exceptional detail on others, such as cities and true landscapes, drawing inspiration from the designs of famous Disney illustrator Eyvind Earle.

The Gameplay

Once you get past being stunned by the visuals, though, you want to play the game. And that’s where it gets interesting. Gameplay follows a roughly linear storyline, albeit one heavily affected by your choices throughout. How difficult your journey is, what characters stay alive, even the results of the final battle are all changed by your decisions along the way.

Various random events make each replay different, but what makes it really interesting are the consequences. Unlike many games, there aren’t necessarily “right choices” and “wrong choices.” There are just choices. One decision might accept a couple strong new fighters into your group, but result in the death of one character who’s followed you all the way from the beginning. Avoiding one battle could leave you at the next with more backup troops, but less experienced main characters.

The Banner Saga -- Your Party

The Banner Saga — Your Party

In style, you could compare The Banner Saga to a crossbreed of tactical RPGs with the “Oregon Trail” games. (Assuming anyone reading this is ancient enough, like me, to remember The Oregon Trail.) You lead your caravan through the landscape, consuming supplies at a rate determined by the number of people with you. More supplies can be found by random, scrounged at times, or bought in towns using “Renown” that you accrue through your decisions and victories in battle. The same “Renown” however is spent to upgrade your troops, and to buy items that can help them, so you have to be careful how and when you spend it.

But before you ask, no: The Banner Saga is not one of “those” games, and does not allow you to buy more Renown using actual money. The $10 you pay upfront is the last dollar you’ll spend playing the game; if you want Renown, you have to earn it.

Your path itself is more or less pre-set, but you make the decisions for what your people will do on it. Do you take in the group you run across who are admitted criminals, but are fleeing the Dredge too? When some of your people want to break off to go warn relatives who live in this area, do you tell them no? Accept it? Give them extra provisions so they can move faster?

Some of your choices avert disaster, some create it, some have no effect at all. Some gain you Renown for your exploits, fearlessness, or generosity. But the ones you make in combat are even more potent. Along the way are any number of battles, big and small.

The Banner Saga for iPad

The Banner Saga for iPad

Combat is straightforward while still being challenging. Characters have Strength and Armor. Each fighter can attack one or the other in each turn; Armor reduces damage to Strength, but Strength is used to determine attacks on you. If one of your character’s Strength is reduced to zero in a battle, they’re “wounded” and need rest to heal fully. You can throw them back into combat without resting, but at a penalty, and you run the risk of them being further wounded or dying. This encourages you to spread out the load, developing strategies for all your available characters.

“Turns” are alternated between combatants, so that for every turn you get, the enemy gets one too, no matter how many troops each of you has. If you have six guys and he has three, he will get two turns to your one, to make even simple battles challenging.

Anyone who’s played The Banner Saga on the PC will appreciate that the interface hasn’t changed one iota for the tablet. Every button, every option, is right where it was. Tablet users will appreciate that it feels like a game built from the ground up for a touchscreen. Which is true, since the development team had mobile platforms in mind from day one.

There is one big hitch there, though. Although it’s listed as broadly compatible with Android 4.1+ devices, you’d best have a fairly high powered processor if you want to see it as it was intended; those animation cels, while beautiful, also take some horsepower, and 3D rendering hardware means absolutely nothing to them.

For iOS users, an iPad Air or iPad Air 2 is recommended.

Conclusion

The worst thing we can say about The Banner Saga is that it’s unfinished. The current game is intended to be the first part of a trilogy, thus even at the end of the game you’re left with far more questions than answers, and little about the main plot has been revealed. We know that alone would be enough to ward some people off, either worrying that it will never get finished, or thinking that they’ll play it when it’s “done.”

While we can sympathize, those people are only denying themselves what is an entirely enjoyable experience on its own. You don’t need the rest of the story to necessarily enjoy the beginning, or the simple yet engaging combat mechanics.

We would call The Banner Saga a great choice for anyone who likes a good RPG on their tablet.

Pros:

  • Highly original setting
  • Engrossing story
  • Simple but engaging gameplay

Cons:

  • High system requirements
  • Only the first of three planned installments

Bottom Line:

The Banner Saga is easily worth the attention of any RPG gamer, and has great crossover appeal to anyone who just likes beautiful art and a good story.



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