Raise the Banner High
The Banner Saga trilogy comes to a close with its final installment, four years after the first game launched. While the gameplay hasn’t changed much since Stoic’s Nordic fantasy tactics RPG began, the story’s stakes have dramatically increased. Surviving characters and player decisions play a part in shaping The Banner Saga 3’s epic conclusion.
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If you’ve played the trilogy’s previous games, then it’s an easy recommendation to see the journey through to its end. On the contrary, it would be difficult to start with The Banner Saga 3. Although there is a brief recap, you might get lost in the lore and likely won’t be as invested in the characters and their dire plight, so newcomers will want to start from the first entry. Returning players can import their save file from The Banner Saga 2, as long as it’s on the same system. Alternatively, you can pick one of two protagonists, Rook or Alette, and join the action in progress.
The story picks up right after the second game’s cliffhanger. Darkness is looming overhead, much to the dismay of the heroic cast of humans, giants, and centaurs. Like in the first two titles, the characters are divided into two caravans, which you switch between throughout. One group consists of Rook/Alette and their allies who have made it to Arberrang, a city that has not yet been overtaken by darkness. In a bold move, this team does not venture outside the city much, but instead makes its rounds settling political disputes and defending this last stand from the dangerous Dredge army. It may not be a standard journey, and it comparatively feels a bit underwhelming. Nonetheless, it plays out like a bitter hard-fought survival game. You still engage in turn-based tactical combat and make difficult decisions during narrative segments inspired by The Oregon Trail. The only difference is that the action is confined into one slowly crumbling city.
This first group is literally buying time for the second caravan, who is heading straight for the darkness to restore light to the world. This team is more intriguing, thanks to its more dire atmosphere and diverse roster. One of the best additions is the mysterious but crucial spellcaster Juno, who is now playable. Her unique abilities to confuse enemies into hitting each other and revive herself if she falls in battle are extremely powerful and fun to play out. Other standout characters include a powerful and equally eccentric witch, and for some, playable Dredge creatures. This group also has an exclusive party-wide ability, the Valka Spear that can invoke chain lightning on foes. It’s a sharp contrast from the usual horn that grants heroes the willpower they need for stronger attacks, increased movement, and abilities. While you can get extra hits in with the Valka Spear, you have less room to squander your much needed willpower.
Combat is just as strategically engaging as in previous titles, but don’t expect many updates. You and the opposing team still take turns moving around a grid-based battlefield, choosing to either target foes’ armor to make them more vulnerable or directly attack their health, which is proportional to their strength. Maps are tight to maneuver around, and interactive obstacles spruce fights up. These 6v6 encounters raise the stakes during the new wave battles, in which a turn limit steadily counts down. When it hits zero, a new wave of enemies ambushes the group, forcing the player to hastily kill foes to prevent this. If you achieve victory before the turn limit, you can either accept your win or continue fighting the next wave, able to switch out your tired fighters for fresh ones. I appreciate that this challenge not only grants brave players valuable rewards at a risky price, but also encourages full use of your roster.
The cast of over 40 playable characters make up the heart and soul of The Banner Saga. You can now strengthen your surviving fighters further than increasing their stats and abilities. Beyond a raised level cap, you can now pay renown earned from battles to bestow characters with heroic titles that offer passive power-ups like increased willpower or movement. The heroic titles are permanent and exclusive, meaning that once a character has one, it’s theirs forever and nobody else’s. Given how the fates of each character are hard to predict, this choice is difficult, but it feels gratifying to honor your favorite characters with these upgrades.
Even though preventing the apocalypse is the priority, witnessing who lives, dies, and leaves your party remains a hallmark of the Game of Thrones-esque narrative. Regardless of what happens, it’s rewarding to see how your playthrough has paid off, for better or for worse. Even your caravan itself plays a part in survival. I won’t spoil anything here, but the story has a definite conclusion. I was fine with how my ending played out, although I wish I had seen more resolution. I did encounter some variations for the final moments after going back and remaking choices, so there is room for variability.
My biggest issue was with the performance of the Nintendo Switch version. The game retains its trademark eye-popping visuals inspired by classic animated films and bittersweet and beautiful music from talented composers like Journey’s Austin Wintory. However, the frame rate tends to stutter on Switch. Worse, if you leave the game on or asleep for too long, there may be heavy lag during battles. Hopefully, performance updates fix this, as it is otherwise convenient to bring the tactics game on-the-go, especially with its adapted text sizes and touch screen support for portable play.
As a finale to a trilogy, The Banner Saga 3 delivers its long-awaited conclusion, told through a sharp character-driven narrative. Although the mash-up of tactical gameplay, Oregon Trail decision segments, and serialized fantasy drama haven’t evolved much, they effectively carry the emotional weight of a banner years in the making.
Note: A review copy was used for this article. This review was written on DarkStation.