Live and let die
The Banner Saga began as an inkling of a Kickstarter in 2014 from Stoic, a studio with just a few people under its banner at the time. Slowly gaining a strong fanbase over the years, The Banner Saga has now evolved into a three-part story of loss, endurance, and camaraderie.
In its finale, the caravan has reached its literal wits’ end as an ominous darkness closes in on the last bastion of humanity in the city of Arberrang. The gods are dead, society is crumbling, and there’s a giant god-like serpent on the loose. This time it’s not just about survival, but about the depths to which people will go to protect their loved ones and weigh them against the lives of others.
The Banner Saga 3 (PS4 [reviewed], Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Windows, Mac)
Publisher: Versus Evil
Released: July 26, 2018
At the conclusion of The Banner Saga 2, our heroes split into two caravans: one to seek an end to the darkness and the other to find safety within the walls of Arberrang, the human capital. At the start of this installment, the story picks up right where it left off in the middle of the fray. If you’re importing a save, you’ll carry over your renown (your “currency” to buy supplies or upgrade your characters) along with your choices that carried you this far (aka any characters you managed to save from death in the first two games).
I had the good fortune of owning each Banner Saga on three separate platforms, allowing me to start fresh with all available characters alive, plenty of renown, and a good assortment of items (a stark contrast to my playthroughs in the previous games). The only downside to playing the game in this way is that your choices from the first and second games definitely affect some major plot points, including the ending of the game and whether or not critical characters die. The “illusion of choice” mantra is definitely not present in The Banner Saga and certainly affects the major outcomes in this particular installment.
The Banner Saga 3 is a little more mechanically interesting and different than its predecessors. Rather than focusing on supplies, rest, and clansmen/fighter ratios, the two caravans have different gameplay goals and elements. While your caravan in Arberrang focuses on fighting against internal political conflict, the dredge, and the looming darkness, your other caravan is racing against the clock to fix the source of the darkness. When the countdown of days runs out, it switches back to your party in Arberrang where you have the chance to buy more time for them through battles and savvy plot choices. However, this can only be done a number of times before the darkness reaches Arberrang and it’s essentially game over.
To make things more interesting, your caravan in the darkness has some slight twists on battles. The characters have some fun new abilities including Juno, who has the ability to be reborn. In addition, the horn of willpower is replaced with Eyvind’s staff which holds up to three charges and can send a shock of lightning to the battlefield, taking away enemies’ strength. Wave-style fighting is also introduced, which allows you to swap characters in and out in between waves of enemies. If you defeat the waves along with the boss (usually a beefed-up version of an enemy), you gain an item and more renown.
Even with the addition of the new battle and gameplay elements, I found this installment to be a tad too easy compared to the previous two. Although the battle mechanics are a lot of fun, it also made things much less challenging given the ability to swap fresh characters in between waves.
The items granted were also fairly overpowered, and since they were easy to get I didn’t have trouble equipping my entire team. There’s so much renown to go around with the lack of supply-buying that you can go crazy with promoting your team, and to top it off, TBS3 added “heroic titles” which allow you to boost your characters even further with permanent stat upgrades. All of these factors allowed me to fly seamlessly through the last part of the game during the countdown phase, which is a problem for plot reasons as you need to “fail” your countdowns traveling through the darkness to see additional storylines in Arberrang.
The story and dialogue is still quite impactful, despite the fact I didn’t experience a good portion of it. The hand-drawn animation is vibrant and beautifully illustrates the depths of which humanity is at the brink of despair. Coupled with the instrumental music, they fully capture the emotion of battle and the dreariness of the overarching realities. There’s a certain grandness and desperation in the scenes more so in this installment than the previous two, which comes out not only in the dialogue, but is also hammered home by the art, down to the bags under people’s eyes.
There are few trilogies out there that will grip you until the very end, and The Banner Saga is one of them. The Banner Saga 3 does a more than admirable job in seeing us through the desperate times, with some of the most determined characters conceived in modern storytelling. My only true disappointment is the lack of resolution or epilogue for most characters. In my ending, it left me with a single (but beautiful) illustration depicting the outcome of Arberrang, and a small cutscene due to one of my main characters dying. The rest is left up to interpretation.
Alas, main characters sometimes receiving a single line of dialogue to describe their end, if anything at all, is what makes The Banner Saga so unique. Life is fleeting, as it is for the hundreds of clansmen I lost throughout the past four years, as it is for my characters who wandered off and never returned, and as it is for the ultimate conclusion to The Banner Saga.
[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]