After waiting two long years for the final instalment of Stoic’s fantastical strategy trilogy, The Banner Saga 3 begins in the best possible way. It picks up where the second The Banner Saga 2 left off, and one of the first things you get to do is punch your scheming arch nemesis – who probably made your last moments of that second game a right misery – square in the face.
You can punch him so hard, in fact, that you can permanently break his nose for the rest of the game. It’s an immensely satisfying moment in a series that, up until now, has been more a war of attrition and bleak perseverance than anything else. Sadly, it immediately goes back to being a bit grim again, and pretty much stays that way until the credits start rolling. Is it the ending we’ve all been waiting for? Here’s wot I think.
It’s hard to talk about The Banner Saga 3 without mentioning the other two. This is very much the climax of Stoic’s ongoing story, and playing it without any prior knowledge of the others would be a bit like starting your first Lord of the Rings marathon with Return of the King and then wondering why everyone’s so hell-bent on murdering this dusty Frodo lad.
Yes, there’s a recap video on the main menu to remind you exactly what went down in the first two games, and even a dedicated tutorial mode if you’re completely new and/or forgotten how it all works – because let me tell you, the main game doesn’t spend any time covering the ground rules again until the properly new bits come up.
But for reasons I’ll explain in a minute, I’d argue The Banner Saga 3 is really aimed at existing Saga-ites only. The people who, like me, have already trudged back and forth across this gorgeous, decaying fantasy world, gritted their teeth through its repetitive combat, and are now waiting to see whether their maybe-good-maybe-not text adventure-style decisions will save this dying land from the encroaching darkness and world-eating serpent ripping it to pieces. I would not recommend coming to it completely fresh.
Like the first two games, there are two main focus points in the final leg of this journey, and the story shifts back and forth between them. Half of your party are now encamped in the last human stronghold of Arberrang – the game’s Minas Tirith, if you will – and their job is to keep this melting pot of warring factions, desperate civilians and power-hungry dissidents from tearing each other’s throats out, making sure there’s still something left at the end of it all, if and when the darkness finally lifts and the frozen sun starts moving again.
The other half are heading north on a Sam and Frodo-style do-or-die mission to try and prevent this apocalypse once and for all. Protected from the darkness by the Valka witch Juno, this particular strand is The Banner Saga at its most familiar. Here, your band of warriors haul their tired limbs across long, winding landscapes that are somehow even more beautiful than before, despite being warped six ways to Sunday by the spreading purple gloom. It’s a real visual treat to revisit these old locations in their newly twisted state, and it makes you realise just how far you’ve come and what kind of devastation you’ve narrowly been avoiding all this time.
It’s also where you do the bulk of the game’s fighting. Forget the Dredge. The new baddies of The Banner Saga 3 are the Warped, the lost souls who didn’t make it to Arberrang on your trek westwards and have become corrupted by the darkness. All right, they’re essentially just gloopier, meltier versions of all the enemies you’ve fought before, man and Dredge alike, but their newly mutated forms and special abilities do add a new wrinkle to The Banner Saga’s time-worn, tile-based strategy battles.
The basics are exactly the same as the first two games. Your strength stat still doubles up as your overall health, armour still has to be chipped away if you’re not strong enough to get past it, and willpower can still be spent activating special attacks, beefing up your regular attacks, or helping your characters traverse a few more tiles on its grid-based battle map.
Some Warped, however, can absorb strength damage if they’ve still got willpower points left to spend, and nearly all of them explode upon death, leaving willpower-sapping pools of goop in their wake. The latter becomes particularly dangerous if you end up herding a lot of them into the same cluster of tiles – while your willpower gets nuked standing on these tiles, they get a willpower bonus. These goop spots do fade over time, but these self-inflicted hazards definitely go a long way to make up for the overall lack of variety in its battle grids, which are by and large just big empty squares.
Eventually, though, The Banner Saga 3’s combat falls into exactly the same trap as its predecessors. As much as it feels genuinely refreshing for the first few hours, you soon realise you’re being hounded by the same half dozen or so enemy types every fight, and it all becomes a bit of a drag – particularly when, for reasons I won’t spoil during the second half of the game, time is really of the essence. XCOM, this ain’t.
It doesn’t help that most of the characters in your Sam and Frodo party are stuck with such piddly stats, making them ill-equipped to deal with a lot of enemies reliably on their own. Even if you’ve imported an old save file where they’re as buff as they can be, you’ll quickly find several characters’ stats max out well below your average Warped, which rather forces you to rely solely on your trusty giant Varl and a couple of other beefier favourites.
You can pour points earned from levelling up your characters into extra talents – such as giving them a higher chance of absorbing or even avoiding strength and armour damage, for example – but fundamentally, it still doesn’t change the fact that most of my party can still be wiped out in a single hit, particularly when the latter part of the game’s difficulty curve takes a steep climb north. This stagnates the game’s sense of variety even further, as you’re not only facing the same enemies multiple times, but you’re also using exactly the same party members to take them out. I’d much rather trade talents for higher max stats any day.
It also discouraged me from engaging much with The Banner Saga 3’s other new feature: wave battles. At certain points in the story, you’ll only have a limited number of turns to take out your foe before a new batch pitches up. If you succeed, you get a chance to swap out your injured for fresh blood and carry on for the chance to earn rare treasures you can equip later on, or just high-tail it out of there and carry on with the story. The only problem is that none of my reserve party were anywhere near capable of surviving a complete wave, so I often just legged it and carried on – which sometimes makes narrative sense, but mostly feels a bit contrived.
The downside is that if you fail, you’re stuck dealing with a fresh wave of Warped with whoever’s still standing, no substitutions allowed. This prompted a fair share of reloads when this happened to me (made even more infuriating by The Banner Saga’s vague and often sporadic auto-saving), as there was no way in hell I was going to defeat more than half a dozen fresh Warped with just two remaining characters on half health. Maybe I’m just not very good at keeping people alive in The Banner Saga 3, but no-win situations like this just aren’t very fun.
Combat is still a bit of a dud, then, but thankfully, The Banner Saga 3 really delivers on the old text-adventure front. This has always been The Banner Saga’s greatest strength in my books, and you continue to have a tangible impact over the events of both parts of the story right up until the very end – particularly when it shifts back to your Arberrang crew.
You still do a bit of fighting in Arberrang – there continue to be hundreds of Dredge camped outside the walls, after all – but this part of the story does suffer somewhat for being confined to a single location. I got rather sick of marching my 1000+ strong caravan back and forth between the main hall and city gates time after time, and I felt Stoic could have done more with the city’s artwork to better portray its gradual descent into frenzied desperation.
Luckily, as someone who’s strolled into town with the respect of what appears to be at least half the city’s population in tow, you get to do a lot of the decision-making on how to deal with this catastrophe, and the choices you make here result in some of the game’s biggest and most heartbreaking set pieces. They may not be as thrilling or exciting as The Banner Saga 2’s iconic floating rock bridge getaway, for instance, but the stakes have never been higher for the perilous city of Arberrang, and the last thing you want to do is mess up all the hard work you’ve put in to get to this damn city in the first place.
I won’t go into the details as they’re best left discovered for yourself, but I was surprised by just how brilliantly it incorporates all of your previous decisions from your past playthroughs. When I played The Banner Saga 2, for example, I had a really rough time. Being the nice person I am, I ended up picking up every waif and stray possible, which took a massive toll on both my food supplies and my caravan’s overall morale. When morale is low, you get penalised with fewer willpower points, making every fight that bit harder, and by the end I was just glad it was all over.
In The Banner Saga 3, all those hours of grind and toil from the previous games were finally made to feel worthwhile – and damn it felt good. This is save-importing done right, and something I hope other studios (*cough*Telltale*cough*) learn from in the future.
Don’t fret if you didn’t end up with a 1000+ strong caravan, though – there may be an initial panic around a certain mid-game event, but Stoic’s narrative structure does everything in its power to get you through to the other side. Trust me.
Ultimately, though, whether you have a satisfying ending or not is very much down to your choices, and yours alone – which, for a game like this, couldn’t be more fitting. Yes, it runs the risk of being a massive anti-climax if you make a few duff decisions, but even that has a kind of poetic justice to it – it’s just another tragic tale to be woven into your ever-eventful banner.
Overall, I think you will have a good ending – and one worth the pain you’ve had to endure over the course of these collective 40-odd hours. And even if you don’t, at least you’ll never be faced with the question of why Frodo just didn’t use an eagle to plop the ring into Mount Doom and have done with it all.