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(The Banner Saga has been selected as one of MacLife's 25 Best Mac Games Today!)
The heroes of The Banner Saga, the debut effort from a three-man upstart called Stoic, are rarely heroic: one is dashed against an outcropping of boulders after he falls off a cliff, while another assaults a young girl and takes an arrow through the eye for his trouble. The backdrop of The Banner Saga may be Armageddon — or Ragnarok, in keeping with the game's Norse theme — but its characters are merely, tragically human.
Half of The Banner Saga is spent guiding a caravan of refugees from town to town, searching for shelter from both the cold and the stone-skinned marauders known as "dredge" that spill out of the frozen North. The perspective shifts between Rook, a family man from a small village, and Hakon, the leader of a race of ram-horned giants called "Varl," each tasked with protecting his respective scared people to the best of his abilities. With precious little food, decisions about where to camp and who to trust are fraught with danger, and each choice shapes the story to come. Despite the looming specter of the dredge, The Banner Saga's best moments are the quietly desperate exchanges between fathers and daughters, or between comrades in arms, lovingly hand-drawn and set to a haunting soundtrack.
The other half of the game is spent on gridded battlefields, trading blows with brigands and dredge alike through a set of straightforward tactical role-playing game mechanics. Combat places a heavy focus on positioning and crowd control, but The Banner Saga is satisfying in its consistency and learning curve. Best of all, combat is one of the few places where players have complete control: nothing is left to whims of a cosmic dice roll or random-number generator.
"Renown" points are the elegant lynchpins connecting these two phases. Winning battles earns renown, which is used to buy supplies and strengthen party members. Seeking confrontation may produce more renown, but it also places your fighters at risk: injured party members need to rest in camp, which wastes time and food for the entire caravan. The Banner Saga is an intricate system of ligaments tying disparate mechanics together, one in which every decision has an equal (if not always perceived) opportunity cost.
The breadth and scope of The Banner Saga threatens to stretch too thin, however. The constant shifts in perspective keep players from getting to know the supporting cast, so their deaths have a tactical impact, rather than an emotional one. With dozens of auxiliary characters flitting about, some narrative threads and combat mechanics go underexplored. The world map is studded with background and lore, but The Banner Saga comes to an abrupt end after exploring less than half of it. The storyline doesn't arc so much as it envelops the player in the gentle and unshakeable rhythm of combat, caravan, and camp.
The bottom line. Even when it overreaches, The Banner Saga is engrossing and captivating, spinning gorgeous art and simple mechanics together into a tense web. The end of the world is rarely this poignant or bittersweet.
Mac OS X 10.7.5 or later, 2GB RAM
Gorgeous art and music support a poignant, understated story about family and survival. Combat is straightforward and steady and intertwines elegantly with tense narrative choices. Good and bad decisions alike come with unintended consequences.
User interface niggles hold the combat back, and it becomes repetitive in the final third. Narrative events sometimes lack emotional impact due to poor pacing.