The Banner Saga trilogy has introduced us to a Disney meets Don Bluth 2D world, steeped in European-esque medieval fantasy with tactically deep and satisfying combat. But, like all things, it must come to an end. This world where the sun has died and the Varl and Human races’ have suffered and fought to try to overcome the apocalypse, delivers it’s denouement here in The Banner Sage 3, and indeed it’s a strong end to a terrific series.
The march of the two caravans of warriors across the beautiful 2D layered panoramic perspective of the frozen land continues, with the pattern of narrative-driven dialogue and decisions punctuated by grid-based combat still being the order of the day. Decisions still have lasting effects on what’s left of your story, removing characters, sometimes temporarily and other times by permanently killing them off. Despite knowing the end of this tale is imminent, there’s still a terrific minefield of unknown consequences that can play out in completely different ways depending on your choices. This still also occurs with combat, where defeat isn’t necessarily game over, making the adventure feel somewhat more grounded in reality than in many other games, despite the Tolkien-esque fantasy setting.
The combat itself is largely unchanged from previous entries, with grid turn-based conflicts that centre around the three stats of strength, armour and willpower. Your strength doubles up as both your health and your attack power, introducing an interesting tactical challenge where the longer a battle continues the weaker you typically get. Armour, meanwhile, simply measures how much of an incoming attack can be deflected, whilst willpower offers the chance to increase your movement and attack strength from a finite pool that only replenishes outside of combat. It’s a fairly simple system that’s very easy to fathom. Characters and enemies receive a turn based on the order shown at the bottom of the screen, and a turn allows you to move and attack. Varls are larger than humans and take up four squares on the grid whilst humans take up one. The complexity comes with how you use this simple system to defeat your foes.
When you attack you can choose to target their strength/health or their armour. Reducing a foe’s armour means you can deal more damage in the future but means your foes will hit harder come their turn. Meanwhile, if a foe’s armour is higher than your strength, then your ability to inflict damage is reduced giving you a percentage chance to hit, therefore encouraging you to reduce their armour before targeting their strength/health. Additionally some characters have special abilities they can unleash, such as the ability to hit multiple opponents with one attack. When attacking and moving you can spend willpower to increase the amount of damage you inflict or grid squares you can move, adding a tactical consideration, but willpower is limited and won’t replenish automatically in combat, so you need to spend it wisely. It all comes together to offer a fun and easy to learn combat system that offers a nice range of tactical possibilities.
This time around you can often remain in combat taking on additional waves of enemies rather than leaving the battlefield, with more enemy reinforcement joining the battle depending on a turn counter. Defeating these waves provides rewards in the form of special items, providing a risk verses reward system that can benefit you with important supplies if you choose to prolong a fight and allow these waves to keep spawning. However, it doesn’t ever feel necessary to risk staying in combat for these rewards, making it an interesting addition to freshen the experience somewhat, but one that’s not as well integrated into the rest of the game as other systems.
With the experience shifting between combat and narrative heavy dialogue and decisions it’s still a shame that so little of it is voiced, but what is voiced is performed to a high standard, and the writing continues to impress. The tale in this third game has turned from dark to absolutely dire, and tone has shifted well to represent the desperation of the characters. It’s gripping stuff.
The soundtrack is once again fantastic, with powerful brass sections that really work to sell the honour and glory of battle against the darkness consuming this world. However, one issues from the previous titles still remains: the loading, which, whilst fairly short, is still relentless. It’s a problem that optimisation and even faster hardware, as in with the Xbox One X, still hasn’t solved. Practically every screen transition required a black loading screen, and sometimes multiple loading screens stacked on top of each other.
The Banner Saga as a whole has offered a brilliant branching story with intense and accessible turn-based combat that’s hard to put down. Death can take any number of characters you’ve come to love away and decisions can seriously affect how your tale unfolds, making it a wonderfully compelling personal experience within an intriguing fantasy world with good replayability. Meanwhile, this final chapter in the story does a tremendous job tying everything together and maintains the high quality of its predecessors. It’s been a delightful experience to play this trilogy.
Thanks to Xbox and Stoic for supporting TiX