The Banner Saga 3 Review
Norse mythology is cool again with the likes of Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok and Neil Gaiman's American Gods proving that the Scandis really know how to spin a good yarn with a colourful cast of characters. Stoic, the team behind 2014’s The Banner Saga and its sequel, were well ahead of the trend and in this, their last instalment of their strategic-RPG series, set out to hammer home just what a rich and vibrant world Norse mythology is for inspiration. Stunning visuals and a strong soundscape make a welcome return, twinned again with a sweeping, mature narrative and all the gameplay triumphs and niggles of the previous two games in this compelling conclusion to the series.
A brief story recap and brisk tutorial let you know this isn’t really a game for newcomers, but then no-one would suggest you start with Season eight of Game of Thrones or read the Return of the King first, so the lack of hand-holding isn’t a surprise. The gameplay is as before: a mix of tactical, turn-based combat, with a light management system for your caravan of travellers and a branching narrative played out in conversations and difficult choices. Indeed, narrative choice (and consequence) will carry over into Saga 3 if you have previous saves from 1 and 2 and will affect both your playable character and story options further down the line. In The Banner Saga, no-one is safe and part of the challenge is trying to keep favourite characters alive through the many trials the game throws your way.
The story is split between two caravans: the first, led by the human Rook or Alette (depending on your choices), has finally arrived in the great city of Arberrang and must wrestle with unruly townsfolk and refugees while battling incoming waves of dredge. The second, led by the giant Varl, Iver, along with two menders (magic-users), must push on into the encroaching Darkness, enemies forever at their heels. And if this wasn’t enough, there’s also the threat of a giant earth-eating serpent looming above them. The action never wavers as the story bounces between the two caravans, with new character revelations and motivations uncovered after each battle. It makes for an addictive cycle of gameplay as you fight, travel, make story decisions, then camp and regroup. There’s always something happening in each story thread to pull you through and tease you onwards towards the next enemy encounter.
The core combat is unchanged and sees you controlling upwards of five different characters on the battlefield. Health is split between armour and strength stats that require thoughtful planning; neglect to break an enemy’s armour sufficiently before a strength attack and it will be grossly ineffective. Lose too much health yourself and the strength of your own attack depletes. There are a wealth of special abilities to understand and take advantage of and consume your limited willpower. Willpower can also be spent on moving further than a fighter’s range would usually allow, or on beefing up an armour or strength attack. Managing and moving willpower around the battlefield between fighters is a key part of the game since certain special abilities are devastatingly vital for taking out large numbers of enemies in one go or getting the upper hand in the handful of boss battles.
Your party will need to be carefully balanced to succeed: the Varl may be heavy hitters but are difficult to manoeuvre taking up four tiles on the battle-grid, while weak menders will need to be protected as they are frustratingly unable to heal themselves. Horseborn are granted extra movement, as well as effective special abilities to poison or push back enemies, while the humans are a mix of spear fighters and long-distance bowmen and women (Saga is welcomingly inclusive with numerous and varied female fighters). All this needs to be taken into account as movement and placement of fighters is important for scoring a tactical advantage with certain shots and hits only possible with the correct alignment. The new playable dredge fighters have useful long-range explosive skills and there is the option to assign a Heroic Title to your fighters, granting additional boosts under certain conditions, meaning there are more options than ever to customise your loadout. Other new additions include ‘warped’ enemy types and ‘waves’ of enemies that grant special items if multiple waves are survived.
The flipside is that this can be a lot to get your head around. Stoic seem aware of this with in-depth tooltips and there’s no doubt that these are useful, but at times the screen can become a cluttered mess of UI, explanations and stats. The isometric fixed camera is as unhelpful as ever, meaning that smaller fighters can be obscured behind a large grunt, leaving you squinting at the screen trying to find your fighter amidst the chaos. All the more annoying if you waste a crucial special ability on the wrong enemy and leave yourself open to a counter-attack.
Punishment is not severe however in Saga (in terms of battles at least, the story is where the true heartbreak comes) and a slight miscalculation won’t spell doom or even a game over. Death in battle is not permanent, instead, fighters will be injured for a set number of days and unable to enter into battle until they are healed. It’s a neat system that ensures you can’t stick to one strategy and brute force your way through the game. Saga is keen to let you know through story and gameplay that it’s not about one hero, it’s about a group of people, fighting together and you’ll need everyone’s strengths to win. Deaths are inevitable in Saga: it’s how you react to them that count.
But even death is beautiful in Saga because everything is beautiful. One of the most arresting facets of Saga’s debut was its stunning visuals recalling the hand-drawn animation highs of the 50s and 60s. Character models are bright with energy and distinction, helping to identify them on the battlefield and accentuate their personalities. Saga has a vast cast of characters but each one is intricately drawn with their own quirks and personalities: whether it’s Alette’s determined eyes or Iver’s weary face. Animation is liquid-smooth in battle, with knockbacks and lightning strikes rendered in fluid, realistic motion. Thanks to the rotoscoping, a method of animating over video footage, your first arrow fired is just as satisfying as your last. The backgrounds are intricately rendered and also hand-drawn: the landscape feels huge and otherworldly as your caravan passes great monoliths and towering mountains. Here you are given control of the camera allowing you to zoom in and experience a brief moment of calm before the next battle.
The score too deserves a special mention, a sweeping orchestral soundtrack composed exclusively for the game by Austin Wintory and comes to the fore as you take in those epic backgrounds. The sound design also helps sell every hit in battle, with the the thrilling ring of metal on metal or a guttural cry as an axe throw drives home, squelching into flesh. Stoic wants you to know this is a game world crafted from the ground up, each element given careful attention and precision — that every penny from its Kickstarter campaign has been put to good use.
So is this the thrilling end to The Banner Saga that fans have been waiting for? In short, yes, Stoic have gone some way to address the repetitive gameplay issues from their first instalment, and while some of the longer battles still feel wearisome, the stunning visuals and animation ensure the screen is never dull to look at and that the story never fails to captivate. A twist on the structure later on keeps the narrative fresh and urgent, ensuring fans of the series won’t want to miss out on Saga’s compelling conclusion. And with the release of The Banner Saga Trilogy, newcomers to the series have never had a better opportunity to take up arms and set their longships towards the shores of Arberrang. The Banner Saga truly lives up to its name.
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