Platforms: PC (Reviewed), Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Mac
In The Banner Saga 3, it’s the end of the world. Your journeys are over. There is nowhere left to go. What once was a tale of hope, of traveling to find answers and safety, has become a desperate bid for survival in the end times. The land is covered in darkness, its inhabitants warped into monsters and its landscape twisted into a pale visage of its former self. It creeps ever closer to the final holdout of humanity, Arberrang, and yet humanities own folly forces them to turn their blades on each other, even in the precious final seconds we have left to live. All we can do now is hope.
Narrative and choice
The Banner Saga has always been a series that you played for the narrative. This is a tale that began four years ago, as the harrowing story of Rook and Alette fleeing their village from a mysterious threat called the Dredge. Four years later, and nothing is as we remembered it. The Dredge might not be our enemy after all. Our allies may have ties to the very origins of the world. The conflict we face now is a conflict of men standing up against the petty whims of long dead gods. It is one of the most compelling narratives that a video game has spun in decades.
Part of the reason this narrative is so compelling is because it gives you real, actual choice. Many games give you the illusion of choice. You make a few dialogue decisions and a few unique lines of text are spoken, but then the game plays out as normal. The Banner Saga gives you real, heartbreaking consequences for your choices.
Characters can die as a result of your choices, main characters even, and the game doesn’t pull any punches when they do. All the renown (this game’s version of XP) you invested in them is gone, all their items are gone. You get nothing in recompense. They are dead, a lifeless corpse you have to bury and leave behind.
Fellow Gamecrate writer, Justin Woo, and I started Banner Saga playthrough at the same time. Now, after importing our data for each game, we are experiencing totally different things in The Banner Saga 3. Characters that betrayed me weren’t even alive in his game. We weren’t even playing as the same main character. This is one of the few games that actually stands up to its “choice matters” design. Play a second time, and you’ll not only end up with a different plot, but also a different party and protagonist.
Anyone familiar with The Banner Saga should be familiar with how The Banner Saga 3 plays, but for those who missed the caravan the first time around, here’s a short rundown.
The game plays out in three separate styles. The first is a sort of Oregon Trail style travel simulator where you stock up on resources and attempt to take on unexpected perils and avoid starving to death and dying of dysentery… or in this case, dying from a plague of everlasting darkness.
The second is a dialogue tree, reminiscent of Telltale’s cinematic games. Long sections of the game are devoted to simply talking to your allies and making hard choices. In fact, these are some of the most compelling sections that The Banner Saga has to offer.
The third is a turn based tactical battle system which is relatively unique as far as strategy games go. Each character has two ratings, strength and armor. Strength is both damage and HP, and attacking an opponent does damage their strength equal to your strength minus their armor. If your strength is lower than their armor, then you have a chance to miss based on big the difference is. Even if you do manage to hit, you only do one damage.
Luckily, you don’t have to attack a unit’s strength. You can instead attack their armor to make subsequent attacks do more damage. Each unit also has their own class based special abilities, a pool of willpower they can use to boost their damage or movement, items which increase stats, and talents which further increase their skill.
The Banner Saga 3 adds a few new mechanics that spice up the formula. First of all, you now gain renown more readily for your decisions out of battle. This makes it feel like they matter more, beyond simply deciding who lives and dies. You can also gain renown for unlocking achievements, of which there are many.
A new “titles” feature has been added to make your most powerful units even more powerful. Level up enough and you can assign a unique title to your characters. These titles grant unique abilities that only one character can benefit from. My archer, Alette, became “the wolf” who avoided aggro and moved fast. Meanwhile, Iver, my ax wielding giant Varl, became “the mountain” and gained a gigantic buff to armor, strength, and a static chance to avoid damage.
The battles themselves have become much more interesting. Previous Banner Saga titles usually tasked you with killing every enemy on the field. The Banner Saga 3, however, introduces several different objectives such as moving a unit to a specific tile, or damaging a specific part of the environment.
It also introduces many more battle modes. The original Banner Saga featured only six-on-six battles but The Banner Saga 3 features battles with far more units and deeper strategy. Many battles will have environmental hazards which can be used to attack the enemy and set up traps. Many battles have secondary win conditions which can grant you increased renown. Many of the new “warped” enemies you face will take damage to willpower first, explode when defeated, or leave a pile of ash that will sap your willpower when you walk over it. There are many battles which are just as much of a puzzle as they are a fight.
The game will switch repeatedly between two different protagonists over the course of the game, one holding out in Arberrang, and one venturing into the darkness to try and stop the end of the world. The Arberrang party can use a warhorn which restores willpower based on how many enemies you have killed. This hasn’t changed from the rest of The Banner Saga. The traveling party, however, turns their kills into charges of a magic staff which calls down lightning from the sky. They are two very different ways to play and it’s fun to swap back and forth.
It’s also neat to see how the game links the gameplay of the two parties. Your goal is to save the world before the darkness destroys it. The party that is holding out against the darkness determines how much time you have to do so via their choices and preparations. Every time you play as them you get a chance to add time to your doomsday clock. The adventuring party, on the other hand, loses time when they make bad decisions or fall in battle, and this causes you to approach decisions in very different ways. You need to be slow, methodical, and prepared with the surviving party and fast, reckless, and efficient with the traveling one.
While I can honestly say that The Banner Saga 3 was a narrative experience so good it made me cry multiple times, the game itself isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s far from it. It might be a narrative masterpiece but a design masterpiece it is not.
In a well-meaning move, the designers decided to level-up all of the units in your party that were lagging behind. Everyone reaches a base level of eight when the game starts and has a bunch of stat points to throw around.
Unfortunately, this is usually enough to max out a character’s stats, at which point the only purpose of spending points is to gain talents and titles. Since you only have a limited amount of titles to give and talents don’t actually do all that much, it never feels like there is a lot to spend renown on. So you just blow it all on supplies, which is a responsible move but it causes you to be over prepared when the end game kicks in. You never feel that time crunch when you are trying to hold out at the end of the world.
The interface is also awful. Since it was designed with mobile gaming in mind, everything you do is controlled by left clicking. Unfortunately, this makes it hard to tell when you are confirming an action, or when you are clicking to cancel an action, or when you simply want to highlight a unit. It’s all a matter of where you click and in what order, and it’s just not fun to navigate. Taking advantage of the right click or keyboard would have made it much easier to play.
Even though all the new mechanics are fun, it doesn’t actually explain them. The first time I got into a reinforcements battle, where you get to swap characters in and out while taking on multiple ways, I couldn’t figure out how to actually manage my party. I clicked on characters and it didn’t work. I clicked and dragged… didn’t work. I clicked a character’s menu portrait and that also didn’t work. I dragged the menu portrait to the battlefield. Still didn’t work. It took a good 10 minutes of fiddling to realize I was supposed to drag a character’s menu portrait from the roster to the area which shows you turn order in order to change my party.
Much of the game just feels sloppy. For example, between waves of enemies you can rearrange your characters in the starting area of a battlefield. However, if they ended the last wave outside the starting area, they can stay where they were. However, if you click them, even once, just to consider moving them they are instantly put back in the starting area and there is nothing you can do about it.
Sometimes characters will join your party out of nowhere and you’ll wonder who they are, only to figure out that they are actually new characters who will join in the next battle and yet, for some reason, were in your menu beforehand. Sometimes characters will show up on your menu screen before you make the decision to recruit them, meaning you can spend a ton of resources on building them up, only to make a bad dialogue decision and have them removed from your part before they ever see battle.
Even movement is frustrating. The Banner Saga 3 introduces a ton of new battle hazards so movement is incredibly important. However, if you don’t micromanage your movement square by square, units will just charge through the hazards like it’s no big deal. There’s no way to see the consequences until your move is finished and no way to cancel your move after you make it so you’ll find yourself in poor positions simply because of the pathing algorithm multiple times.
An imperfect game that you must play
I cannot describe to you how fulfilling The Banner Saga 3 was to play. Yes, it was flawed, incredibly flawed, but the narrative was so good that it made me keep playing from beginning to end despite its many mechanics hang-ups and snafus. This is one of those strange games that excels so much in one area that you can give everything else a pass.
If you have been enjoying The Banner Saga up until now, then The Banner Saga 3 will be a fantastic conclusion to this four year long story. If you didn’t enjoy the original, then the new mechanics don’t really outweigh the frustrating design. However, if you missed The Banner Sgaa the first time around, now is the perfect time to purchase the trilogy at an absurdly low price, and play the 40-ish hour saga through from start to finish.