It's a rich, compelling backdrop for a fantasy narrative, but this isn't a novel. Released in January 2014 on PC, The Banner Saga is a video game that borrows from many that come before it but assembles numerous tropes into something new, fresh and interesting. The strategy side of the game comes in the form of a survival game where you have to make some very tough choices: push your caravan on to the limits of their endurance to reach the next town more quickly, but risk being exhausted if the dredge attack? Do you peacefully negotiate with the ruler of the next town who is skeptical of the news of the dredge invasion, taking up valuable time, or seize his town's supplies for the good of the caravan? Like The Oregon Trail or Battlestar Galactica, balancing survival, prudence, caution and the need for morale-boosting military victories can be tricky and, if you make the wrong choice, the results can be catastrophic.
There's also a more personal element to these decisions. Both caravans are led by generals and heroes, along with a mixture of ambassadors, archers and other personalities. These heroes can take part in direct combat with the dredge, which plays out on an XCOM-style turn-based battlefield. There are some differences to the formula: there is no cover, since fighting is mostly done hand-to-hand, and combat requires breaking through an enemy's armour before inflicting actual damage on them. Your heroes level up, but you have to be careful as you use "renown" to level your characters, buy better gear and buy more supplies for your caravan. Don't concentrate on your heroes enough and you risk falling behind the tougher dredge in combat. Focus on them too much and you may not be able to feed your refugees.
There's also a striking imbalance between the two caravans: the one heading along the coast to the west is mostly a military force, comprised mainly of varls whose skills on the battlefield are immense. The one in the east is comprised mainly of humans, who are great for hit and run, fast attacks and have ranged archers, but can't go toe-to-toe with the tougher dredge as easily. The game alternates between the two caravans until they come together to defend one central location.
It's a rich, compelling game backed up by some excellently-written characters, such as reluctant archer-turned-leader Rook, the sneering human prince Ludin whose arrogance hides a genuinely brave warrior, and Hakon, a skilled and mighty varl warleader whose gruff confidence belies his uncertainties at being a leader. On the darker side of things are heroes who say the right things and do well on the battlefield, but whose ambitions and true nature are much darker. Treachery is never too far away in The Banner Saga. But this is also a remarkably beautiful game, with a striking, rich art style and an utterly fantastic soundtrack.
The game is the creation of Stoic, a studio of ex-BioWare writers and anyone who's familiar with the Mass Effect or Dragon Age series should be aware of their ability to force the player into a position where they have to make tough decisions. However, the two Banner Saga games are these guys with the EA-branded training gloves of BioWare firmly removed. Choices this time around are harsher, the consequences grimmer if things go wrong and there are times when there is no optimal solution, only the one that will save the largest number of people. Don't expect too much in the way of exposition, either: you are thrust into the midst of a desperate struggle for survival and the explanations for why and how things are happening will only emerge in quieter moments between battles.
The Banner Saga wasn't a perfect game, with some apparently random difficulty spikes in battles and a final engagement that could be almost unwinnable, but later patches solved these problems and The Banner Saga 2 has addressed these problems with more enemy and ally types and the introduction of a whole new race, the horseborn, who can provide formidable support on the battlefield.
The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2 are both available on Steam now. The Banner Saga is also available on Apple and Android mobile devices, as well as X-Box One and PlayStation 4. The Banner Saga 2 should also be making its ways to those devices in the future.