From the outset, everything in The Banner Saga seems designed to encourage you to be careful. As you lead your caravan towards safety, you try to keep people alive by rationing food, managing the number of your followers and weighing the dangers of the unknown. Anyone who has ever given a soldier in XCOM a custom name knows that it takes very little to get attached, and The Banner Saga builds on this by giving you plenty of chances to get closer to the people in your army.
You may feel like you actually know these characters. It doesn’t only endear them to you, but it can also be useful to keep them alive. Having learned their strengths and weaknesses, you get the occasional chance to use your party accordingly.
By the time you play the third instalment, you’ve built a relationship with these characters. You have come to rely on their skills and teased out some personal information, yet the only thing you can rely on is that almost all of them could leave you. The Banner Saga 3 makes this simple fact both bad for you economically and easy to understand at the same time, as you have led your people all the way across the world, only for them to get caught up in a full-scale war on several sides once they enter what was supposed to be the last safe city.
It’s all hands on deck from that point. If you still have a big roster of characters, they will defend different choke points within the city. Factions of the Varl and Horseborn may have already left you at that point to protect their own interests.
From a mechanical point of view, it’s almost scary how many of your friends you can lose in quick succession. Yet it is important to commit to those deaths, because they are what gives The Banner Saga it’s emotional depth. You’re going through war and famine and large-scale destruction, so as frustrating as it may be, there is often no sense to what does or doesn’t cause someone’s death. It’s so impactful because it doesn’t always happen in a battle, as a heroic sacrifice. It just does.
In many ways, this is the antithesis to The Banner Saga’s chess-style combat, in which it is often necessary to think several steps ahead (and which makes occasional sacrifice an important part of combat too). No matter the size of your army or your clan, The Banner Saga 3 makes it very clear that no hero is immortal. After all, key characters already died to get you to this point.
It’s a great equaliser, in a gaming genre that is so often about having the bigger crew and the better preparation, that you mostly don’t know what you’re getting into in the Banner Saga. It’s a trilogy that told me to not get attached, but of course I did.