It has been a long time since the original Banner Saga came out, but even now I can remember the first time I saw a Varl, and fighting a horde of the Dredge before I truly understood the threat they posed on the land still feels fresh. As I played through the third and final installment I felt a fear seldom known when playing video games – the fear of finality. I have been through so much with these characters – with Rook, Hakon, Iver, Oddleif, and the rest of my ragtag group of survivors. They have felt like a family – one that I have cared for for many years, and knowing their time is almost up gave me an uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t know who would survive or who would perish, but I knew I would do my hardest to keep them all alive.
A darkness has descended on the world, and not only is it a key element of the final story, it impacts gameplay in a welcome addition to proceedings. If you’ve played the previous two games, you can carry your save files over so that your choices will impact the finale, but new players can also jump in. I’d suggest going right back to the start an investing time into the trilogy as it’ll make the final impact mean so much more. I won’t be discussing story points in depth here (for obvious reasons), but like its predecessors, The Banner Saga 3 follows the stories of two different parties: Rook, Oddleif and friends (or Alette depending on your choices) are in the last human city of Aberrang, doing their best to defend it from the Dredge, whilst Juno, Iver, and their party are travelling through a mysterious evil known as The Darkness. Choices are just as hard as they have ever been, so make sure you make every one with complete conviction or it could impact your story greatly. You may choose to welcome in new travelers to bolster your army, or give up supplies to help the less fortunate, but remember you’re struggling to survive as well so even the littlest choice can affect things drastically.
The gameplay is split between making these choices, battles, and managing your party. Battles have improved massively, making the already tense encounters even harsher on the player. You will feel more pressure thanks to the new Wave system, a mechanic that now draws out battles to last much longer. If you enter into a fight, you must dispatch a range of enemies within a certain time, but if you’re not successful new enemies will appear without giving you much of a chance to recuperate. Once a wave is completed and you managed to do it in the alotted time, you can choose to flee, but one of the joys of continuing is that a special item will become available once you have finished all the waves. Between each wave, you can swap out party members if they become injured meaning you’re not entirely without hope, but this is the joy of The Banner Saga: overcoming the odds when everything is stacked against you.
In terms of the stats and abilities, this remains the same. You have Health, Armour, Willpower, Exersion, and Break. Many of the Varl have high armour and Break attributes, meaning they can to a lot of damage as well as take it. I always used the Varl to move in close and provided power and defence on the front line, allowing some of the archers and mages to attack from further back. The choice of tactics are entirely down to you, and moving your players across the battlefield in the right way will work out after a few trial and error scenarios. The gameplay is so good in The Banner Saga that every battle feels like it is the last. They are intense, draining, and unique you never feel like they are repetitive or easy. Juno is finally playable, and her presence on the battlefield makes the fights she involved in very different from the others.
Unlike when another character perishes, Juno becomes a ghost. When play returns to her turn, she must harness this dark energy (almost ready to talk about The Darkness!) to build her armour and health back up. What makes this interesting is you can return whenever you want as long as you have collected some of the dark energy. Collecting more will build up your health and armour to a more dominant range, but you risk the chance of the whole party dying. Collecting a little will bring her back (as long as you return to the body), but the chances of you dying again are higher. It’s yet another addition that makes the game feel that bit more developed, and later on who involvement will become important so learning what works best for you is a lesson you need to learn early on.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the series is The Darkness. As well as it being integral to the story, it also makes certain battles much more of a challenge. Essentially, The Darkness is turning familiar races and characters into purple, enraged beings that have heightened attributes to which you must fight against with more proven methods (think Zombies, but much more powerful). No race is safe, and when first encountering enemies imbued with this evil entity, you’ll both be in awe and terrified. Harnessing individual heroes’ special abilities will become integral, and going into combat with the plan of simply using brute strength is a recipe of disaster. You will learn to dread these battles because they are possibly the hardest of all, but those seeking the ultimate challenge will thrive on them.
One thing that has set The Banner Saga apart from everything else is the art style and the music. Once again, the Sleeping Beauty/early Disney look of the world and its characters is present, but the artists have upped their game, especially when you’re encountering The Darkness. The colours are bold and the way they bring such a dangerous world to life is breathtaking. Not only are the visuals beautiful, but the new orchestral score from Austin Wintory makes every second of The Banner Saga 3 so engaging. From the tense battles to the bleak and sorrowful goodbyes, and the final moments of the story when you feel it all about to end, the music acts as the main storyteller, weaving such a gorgeous score within the moments you find yourself so wrapped up in.
The Banner Saga 3 is a fitting end to a magnificent trilogy. You will no doubt travel through a whirlwind of emotions and exhiliration, all whilst appreciating the differences Stoic has made to the gameplay. New characters such as the witch known as Alfrun is a huge addition to battles, using Strength of Will (a new ability) to restore the health of your party – another first for the series. I didn’t want the trilogy to end, but if anything it has left me positive that whatever Stoic do next, I’ll be there ready to lap it up. If you’ve never played the series before, now is the perfect time to do so. My only advice would be to make sure you’re sat next to a big box of tissues as tears will flow.
The Darkness is a menacing new addition to combat and the story
The art is sublime
Austin Wintory's score is beautiful
The story is excellent
Battles can go on for a long time