When it comes to the independent games of the past decade, one would be hard pressed to find a product more enjoyable than 2014’s The Banner Saga by Stoic Studios. Created by a trio of former BioWare developers through a Kickstarter campaign, the game focused around a family fleeing west from an unstoppable army of stonemen known as the Dredge, who themselves were fleeing from an all-consuming darkness of unknown origin. Taking place in a Norse Mythology inspired setting, the game had you leading an ever-growing caravan of refugees across a countryside full of danger and forced you to make critical decisions that determined not only their fate but possibly the fate of the world. And while The Banner Saga 3 can’t quite match the initial novelty of the first game it does provide a satisfying conclusion to the trilogy.
Taking place immediately after The Banner Saga 2, the game focuses around your protagonist, (Rook or Alette), who is either defending or assaulting the city Arberrang based on your decisions from the previous game. After this initial conflict is resolved, you and your warriors are forced to play peacemaker and/or enforcer for the city’s various factions as both an army of Dredge and the coming darkness threaten to consume and destroy everything within. At the same time, one of your protagonists’ dear friend, the Varl Iver, travels with the menders, (the Banner Saga’s version of a mage), Juno and Eyvind into the darkness in the hope that they might be able to fix the mess that they caused in the first place.
The main thing that makes the game work is its masterful blending of plot, story, characters, and gameplay in ways that most games do not even attempt. Whereas the previous two games struggled to maintain a balance between these four, The Banner Saga 3 does so almost seamlessly. Previous Banner Saga installments divided their runtime in half with the Rook/Alette narrative being more story/character driven in nature while the other half, (centering around a Varl character), focused on more plot-driven aspects. This time around, however, the developers finally managed to strike a near perfect balance. The majority of the more high fantasy plot threads still happen with the Varl character but it also takes the time to dig into his past and how his decisions and actions still affect him to this day. Meanwhile, the events at Arberrang are incredibly tense with its own compelling story that manages to keep you fully invested, even as the more important stuff goes on elsewhere.
What makes this work is one of the franchise’s main gameplay mechanics. You have your combat sections, (more on that later), and the decision-based sections which affect the story, plot and characters throughout the game. Like the previous two games, the latter of these can and will have unexpected consequences based on your actions. Sometimes doing what you think is the right thing will make a volatile situation even worse and possibly result in a major character’s death. In other instances, doing something horrible and treacherous may end a problem before it becomes an even bigger one. And in some cases, simply going with your gut is the proper course. Unlike many other games, however, the decisions you make directly impact what characters you can recruit, who among your allies will live and die and, in some instances, how the game ends. Such things are not unheard of in video games but it is rare to see one where nearly every decision can potently affect the overall experience in such a significant way.
Actual character development is also directly helped by this mechanic. The game’s protagonists can choose to be as ruthless or as compassionate as they want to be, ultimately informing what kind of person they become. This extends to the supporting characters who are directly affected by your decisions. Some accept their past mistakes and the consequences of their actions and become better people as a result. Others simply rediscover what they already knew to be true and become more committed to your cause. In other cases, your decisions can have the opposite effect and the supporting characters just might end up dead or leaving your group. It makes all of your decisions seem all the more important and clearly affect the various characters that you may have grown attached to throughout the trilogy’s length. The only real downside to this is that not all of the characters get this kind of treatment. As the series has gone on for the past four and a half years you recruit and lose dozens of heroes throughout the three games. Because of this, many of the characters lack a fully realized arc and come off more disposable than others. Some are hardly developed at all and were clearly only included to give you an extra unit for the games combat mechanics.
Combat, unfortunately, is the one area where the game is profoundly underwhelming. Like previous games, it sadly has something of a shallow strategy system. Players have to make decisions regarding attacking an enemy’s health or armor as each bar affects combat differently. The armor bar, for example, often needs to be drastically reduced before a character can do damage to an enemy with the health bar representing hit points as well as a character’s strength level. In other words, the amount of damage that you can deal out is directly affected by how much damage you have received. As a result, battles tend to resemble something of a slugging match where both sides attempt to knock each other out with the most powerful attacks possible before the other side does it first. It’s not an intolerable system but it lacks the same depth as some of its peers and is easily the most underwhelming aspect of the game.
Likewise, it has to be said that some of the games big reveals land with something of a dull thud. Throughout the course of the game, the writers more or less attempt to resolve every mystery the series introduced. Why were the dredge so hell-bent on destroying Rook’s caravan in the first game? Why is this giant snake destroying everything? Where did this darkness come from? All of these questions get answers before the game ends but none of them are what you would call mind-blowing. They aren’t bad but they’re more than likely going to have one saying “That’s it?” in response. Luckily the journey to these answers is well worth the rather underwhelming payoff.
In the end, The Banner Saga 3 isn’t perfect but it is an overall satisfying conclusion to the trilogy. Its combat strategy may not be deep and its reveals aren’t exactly earthshattering but it still delivers where it counts. The decision-making aspects are better than ever and the storytelling aspects are far tighter they anyone could have hoped for. If you haven’t had the chance to play the series yet then this is the perfect time to check it out, because this time around, the conclusion is well worth the journey.
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