While this series is as addictive as it is achingly beautiful – thanks to a moving Austin Wintory score and hand-drawn aesthetics – we still need to warn you about The Banner Saga 3. This game’s about as upbeat as a twelve-hour deathmarch.
Built by a bunch of OG, ex-BioWare folk, it’s a trilogy round off that sets a new high standard in terms of quality but also a crushing new low in bleakness. Oh, how your hasty words and tough decisions shall come home to roost today.
The Banner Saga 3 is a narrative-heavy, tactical role-playing indie with Kickstarter origins from 2014, so obviously it’s become a richly-woven tapestry of character arcs and faux-Nordic lore in the fullness of time. We’ll steer clear of any major plot points beyond the opening hours, however, it’s basically impossible to review this without spoiling the outcomes of the previous games. Fairly warned, be thee, says we.
SPOILER WARNING: The following article contains story spoilers for the Banner Saga series.
I am the Lore
Newcomers who insist on diving in will be adequately briefed on the terrible state this world now finds itself in. Basically, when the sun suddenly stopped in the sky, calamity followed in the form of stone-armoured Dredge monsters pouring in from the north. As a life-consuming darkness bled across the land a world-devouring serpent carved chasms in search of…well, nobody really knows what, yet.
The races of men, varl (think: giants with horns) and horseborn (centaurs) had to flee south in vast caravans, dealing with a Dredge general named Bellower and the constant dickery of a Littlefinger-like governor named Rugga.
Despite all these trials and tribulations the motley crew has now reached the human capital of Arberrang where a throne-hungry Rugga is now poisoning any outsider’s chance of getting on the right side of the moat. Your problem to solve on this front: smooth over a few centuries worth of hatred and forge a unified defence, or the city will turn on itself and fall.
Magical Moments Ahead
Meanwhile, on a second front far removed from here, you’ll also be given control of Juno and Eyvind, powerful spellweavers on a low-chance guerrilla mission that’s straight out of the Samwise/Frodo playbook. They have no other option but to push into the core of darkness itself, protected by a spell of light and a reluctant crew of mercs who have been temporarily bewitched into providing aid. Will they be able to strike the heart of darkness before all of Arberrang, and humanity, is swallowed up? And at what cost?
Basically, it’s George R. R. Martin rules here. The stakes are stupidly high and no character is safe. You may be paying for a full front-row seat to watch one of the most well-realised worlds since the original Mass Effect trilogy, but you’ll only ever need the edge of your chair.
Decision trees and dialogue selections will serve as the rudders that steer the course of your personal adventure. The game auto-ventures-forth to destinations as battles jack-in-the-box on you en route. We do highly recommend you come into this with a previous save, though – your renown (XP), abilities, attributes, and saved/killed characters all roll across.
One Good Turn Deserves Another
Veterans will be pleased to hear that the level cap has made another leap of five (up to 15 now). Plus Stoic has threaded in a bunch of great mechanics and accoutrements to what was already a robust and deceptively simple turn-based battle system.
The best way to describe it is a game of super chess. Your party of six pre-selected characters (of varying movement, range and unique abilities) must give the business to swarms of Dredge or living beings who really ought to know better at this point in the impending apocalypse. Targeting your enemy’s armour meter over their health bar can improve your hit and crit chances, but hacking away at health and hoping RNGesus loves you might just end the brawl quicker.
You can also make bolder movements and hit harder than usual if you siphon a bit of your character’s limited pool of Willpower. Battles in The Banner Saga 3 are easy to wrap your head around but difficult to master and there’s always a genuine feeling of consequence hanging over your head.
Witch Way Will She Go?
You’ll quickly attach to some favourite characters and develop a fierce desire to protect them – especially if you’ve built up a bond during the last two adventures. Stoic has stocked the roster with some worthy new faces, too. Take Alfrun, a tricksy, dark energy-using witch who put me in the mind of Kreia from KOTOR 2. She has the nifty ability to heal units or you can go on the offence with a Ride the Lightning dash that zips her nine tiles away to unleash damage before teleporting you back to sender. Lots of fun.
Fans of the series will get a kick out of using the incredibly powerful Stonesinger units, too (one of which is a pre-order bonus). At some point you’ll be allowed to control hated enemy units – like Bulwark the walking OP tank Stoneguard – and not being on the receiving end of its brutality is a novel experience. Stoic has also listened to the fans and promoted some hotly requested characters to playable status. Case in point: Ubin the deliciously snarky varl scribe.
But the biggest fan service of them all is the chance to wield the enigmatic Juno on the battlefield. She’s great for her Weaved Energy ability that bolsters the Will of multiple units at a time (providing they’re lined up in a duck row). Her signature Confuse skill – which famously earned her a death sentence in the wider lore – is well realised as a means to make enemy units wander off and belt their closest ally.
The obvious problem Stoic had here was how to include a playable, plot-essential, and basically immortal character in Juno. The solution is fairly elegant. If downed, she’ll become a ghost who can resurrect into her body, though doing so immediately will respawn her hideously under-strength.
The only way to be reborn effectively is to zip about the battlefield to collect pillars of power before you get your Lazarus on. That’s going to eat up a lot of moves, something you’ll not want to do thanks to our favourite new wrinkle in the game.
Many times you’ll find yourself in a race to survive. If the new “turns remaining” number depletes to zero, a fresh wave of baddies will roll in and use your intestines for skipping ropes. There is method to Stoic’s sadistic madness here: shrewd players knew how to milk the old battle system, by weakening an enemy force to trick the AI into wasting turns with low damage output units. That cheese is off the menu. Adapt quickly or die awfully.
Likewise the orb sitting in the top-centre of your screen has changed. It used to house the warhorn ability which let you trade kills for a chance to boost your team’s Willpower (note: it still does for the Arberrang-based party). For the second party, however, the orb has been replaced with the chance to earn arc lightning charges. They’re a pleasingly vulgar display of power, but the friendly-fire nature of electricity makes it a double-edged sword.
Bonus Prizes or Death?
The cool new systems don’t stop there, either. Winning a brawl will trigger a Respite system where you can flee (continue the story) or earn additional benefits by sticking around and asking for seconds. Should the Arberrang party win a Respite it’ll mean the wider conflict in the city will go better for them – fewer NPC casualties, more supplies, that sort of thing. For Team Frodo out in the wilds a Respite will mean the introduction of a tougher enemy who will be rocking a sweet item that can be yours if you clean house. That, and a sizeable boost to your renown points.
Not only is Respite a wonderful risk/reward element that will surely be the end of the greediest among you – it’s also a means to ensure your parties don’t become over-specialised and brittle. Every Respite allows a chance to sub in characters outside of your six starter besties. This is great for training up your forces more evenly and letting you discover new favourites while giving your elite units a bit of a holiday to lick their wounds for tougher fights yet to come.
Is The Banner Saga 3 Good?
Combine that host of clever, game-improving systems with an increase in enemy variety, and The Banner Saga 3 is easily the best entry in an already impressive series. Though we’ve taken pains to avoid spoiling the incredibly well-written narrative in this review, know that it continues the high standards set and expected by BioWare alumni from the studio’s salad days.
As dedicated fans, we’ve invested a great deal of effort and emotion into the Banner Saga series since it swept us off our feet in 2014. The Banner Saga 3 feels like a worthy payoff to that lengthy investment – we couldn’t be happier with the outcome (though perhaps the term “happy” isn’t the correct word for the ending we made for ourselves).
It’s an exceptional franchise that makes us want to start up a full trilogy replay after the end credits have rolled. Not just to carve out a better destiny but to recapture the magic of discovery all over again via roads not taken. This is the now-complete Banner Saga series – it flies the flag for that type of rare, magical experience.