What would you do if the sun stopped moving? Six years ago, the first chapter of The Banner Saga opened with that very premise. Ancient creatures arose, civil war broke out, and life embarked on the final days of its existence. Today, with Banner Saga 3, the final chapter of that story is finally here. The choices you made, the actions you performed, and the people you saved or sacrificed all come to a head in the darkest, most somber act of this masterfully crafted trilogy of games.
If you aren’t familiar with The Banner Saga, you definitely don’t want to begin your journey with this entry. Each of these sequels are crafted as direct follow-ups to the previous one, to the point where Banner Saga 2 ended on Chapter 15 and Banner Saga 3 begins at “Chapter 16”. Most video game sequels provide enough explanation or fresh material for someone to be able to jump in blind, but Banner Saga 3 is so entrenched in the details and events of the previous games, you’ll just be lost and confused if you attempt to come to this one without having experienced the others.
Thankfully, the time commitment in playing this trilogy is nowhere near as daunting as other video game trilogies – hello, The Witcher. Each of these games clocks in at just around a dozen hours, so tackling the three of them together comes out to the length of a standard RPG, which really helps all of the games feel like a single, cohesive narrative.
Banner Saga 3 opens with your primary characters splintered off as everyone attempts to save humanity through different methods in their final days. While Rook or Alette and the caravan continue their journey across the lands to establish themselves in a new settlement, Juno has traveled directly into the heart of the Darkness to try and bring a permanent end to it. You’ll find yourself swapping between these two parties and their stories as the game progresses, not unlike the splintered storytelling of something like Yakuza Zero. The Banner Saga 3 can feel a little slow at times, and having these alternative stories to help break up the monotony a bit helps keep the experience fresh all the way through.
Your stories aren’t the only things alternating, though. Gameplay remains largely unchanged from the top-down tactical turn-based action of previous games. Each group of characters, however, have wildly different types of character classes available, as well as different ultimate Willpower abilities. The main caravan operate as usual, with the familiar variety of classes and the Willpower-fueled War Horn that allows units to cash in it’s charged orbs for extra actions in combat.
It’s with Juno and her group that things get interesting, though. Juno encounters a number of exciting new characters during her time inside the Darkness. One of these characters, Alfrun, is a powerful witch who is the closest thing to a healer that there’s ever been in Banner Saga. She utilises placement-reliant magic to deal damage, but also has intricate abilities that she can use to restore ally willpower and armor. Juno is also accompanied by Dredge warriors, who are normally the main enemies in Banner Saga. These reformed Dredge have unique ranged and melee abilities that are hard to learn, but effective if used correctly. A lot of them are also specifically effective against other Dredge, which makes these allies useful in battles when Dredge are present, but a bit of a liability when there aren’t any.
Juno and her crew don’t utilize the War Horn, but instead have access to something called the Valka Spear. Each kill charges the Valka Spear for a maximum of three charges. On any friendly character turn, you can choose to have them use the Valka Spear in order to fire off an arcing lightning-bolt attack that strikes one enemy, and then arcs diagonally to strike anyone else until there are no more occupied diagonal spaces to arc toward. It’s a useful tool to get some extra damage in on tricky enemies, but it can also strike friendly characters, meaning you have to be very careful and plot out it’s course before you use it.
Something else that helps spice up the gameplay for both parties is the new Heroic Title system. When a character reaches level 11, you have the ability to choose a Heroic Title for them. It’s a selectable nickname from a large pool of choices that bestows a wide variety of new buffs or abilities on them. For example, Juno the Mountain has +1 Strength, but Juno the Swift gets +1 Move speed. Once you pick a Heroic Title, the experience that character earns in battle feeds into the ranks of their Heroic Title, increasing the value of the bonuses granted on them. It’s a neat way to customise your favorite characters a little bit, and it helps give you more of an excuse to level them up and keep using them.
The Banner Saga 3 also has the same incredible storytelling and artistic direction as the previous games. The characters in this game are far from stereotypes, and are each fleshed out and three-dimensional in ways that really help you connect with them on a personal level. Each of these games is darker and grimmer than the last, and the way the world and story are built through the sharp writing and the haunting visuals really hammer in those feelings. All of this is accompanied by a beautiful, ambient Austin Wintory soundtrack that perfectly captures the idea of “depressing Nordic fantasy” whenever I hear it.
Still, while many of the things unchanged from previous games had no reason to be changed, there are a few things that certainly could have used some fixing up. I’ve always felt like the combat in these games feels a bit slow and sluggish at times. In part it’s due to the slow speed some actions are performed at, but it’s amplified by the animations. Every animation is traced from real life motion-reference, but many of these motions lack any kind of snappy movement or kinetic energy, so many of them end up looking a bit dull or sluggish. It’s something that put me off way back in the first game, and it’s an issue that persists even today.
The Banner Saga 3 closes the book on an incredible saga of turn-based action and dark, haunting storytelling. It’s hard to make player choices and branching narratives successfully payoff over the course of three games, but Stoic Studios have done just that. It’s a shame that they never tried to revamp or update the sluggish combat speed along the way, but that’s a small price to pay for a once in a lifetime narrative experience like this.
Version Tested: PC – also available on Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One and Mac