You Should Play: The Banner Saga delivers epic role-playing in a bleak-but-beautiful fantasy world

The Banner Saga

These days, keeping up with games can be a full-time job. So how do you separate the signal from the noise, the wheat from the chaff, the Temple Runs from the Temple Jumps? Allow us to help by regularly selecting a game You Should Play.

It’s the end of the world as the fantasy inhabitants of The Banner Saga know it, and to be quite honest, they’re not feeling so great. The sun suddenly stopped moving in the sky, the terrifying and towering humanoid Dredge beings have begun appearing more rapidly, and everything by and large has fallen into disarray. 

To save your people—and ultimately, perhaps, the human race—you lead a caravan from city to city, managing your resources, engaging in turn-based tactical battles, and making tough calls that could well affect the fate of your comrades. This is your task in the debut game from Stoic Studio, a small team founded by former lead developers on BioWare’s massively multiplayer epic, Star Wars: The Old Republic.

Breaking from the corporate world of massive teams and multi-million-dollar budgets, Stoic set out to create a strategic role-playing experience on a smaller scale, albeit without sacrificing narrative and gameplay depth or striking presentation. After raising more than 700-percent of its goal on Kickstarter, the team launched The Banner Saga on Mac and PC earlier this year to strong reviews, and now the full experience is available on iPhone and iPad.

bannersaga cinematic

The Banner Saga is light on animation, but the mostly-still imagery is detailed and highly evocative.

Compared to the average App Store game, The Banner Saga’s $10 asking price is ambitious—even if it’s half the price of the computer version. But this long-lasting and solidly replayable adventure provides more than enough richness and value to justify its premium entry fee. Not totally convinced? Here are three reasons why The Banner Saga is one of the top RPGs available for iOS today.

It’s your call: The Banner Saga frequently empowers you to make decisions about almost everything, from the makeup of your ever-changing caravan to the tactics you take in battle. However, it’ll make you pay for your slip-ups and deal with the consequences of any tough judgment calls. Even dialogue selections feed into how the storyline twists and turns on the road ahead, and you’ll need to mind your moral compass while also considering what’s best for your allies and continued survival. 

bannersaga battle

The turn-based combat is similar to that of other tactical RPGs, such as Final Fantasy Tactics, with a grid serving as your shared battleground.

Not every choice seems significant, such as deciding how best to deal with a rambunctious drunk who keeps causing trouble, but your reactions affect how the others see you and can test their allegiance to your crew. Choose wisely, even when it comes to seemingly mundane quandaries.

The combat is pretty serious: Even with the cartoonish, colorful look, the grid-based battles in The Banner Saga are no laughing matter. Skirmishes play out like in classics such as Final Fantasy Tactics and Tactics Ogre, with each turn providing the ability to move a hero a certain number of squares and then perform an action, whether it’s a melee or weapon attack or perhaps a magic/support interaction.

bannersaga caravan

Many of the decisions you make affect the size and makeup of your caravan, and you’ll need to maintain resources to keep them alive. And we can’t say enough about those gorgeous backdrops.

You’ll command a squad of up to six fighters, each of which can be lightly customized and upgraded over time, and each of which also has its own strengths and weaknesses. While not the most approachable tactical RPG I’ve ever played—the UI in particular could be a bit more refined and/or better explained—the combat itself is satisfying, and there’s a real thrill to planning a strategy and then properly executing on it.

It looks and sounds wonderful: Compared to most AAA-style games, The Banner Saga was made on a shoestring budget with a tiny team—and it shows in the dry menus and minimal animation. But the art design itself is really gorgeous, with a Don Bluth-inspired look that makes the Dredge look like a second cousin to The Iron Giant, and stunning backdrops that’ll wow you as your caravan rolls through the countryside. And Austin Wintory’s haunting original soundtrack matches up perfectly with the dreary tone of the setting. 

bannersaga conversation

Conversation serves as a primary way to move the story along, and your dialogue choices may impact how others interact with you.

If you have a soft spot for nicely realized fantasy worlds, love obsessing over tactical affairs, or simply need something complex and absorbing to play on your iPhone or iPad this holiday season, The Banner Saga’s robust role-playing should be at the top of your App Store wish list.

Developer: Stoic Studio
Platform: iOS (Universal)
Price: $10

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