The Banner Saga 3 Review — The Heart of Darkness
Stoic Studio's tale comes to an end in The Banner Saga 3 and while it has a high difficulty curve, it is also the series' most poignant installment yet.
Right from the beginning, The Banner Saga series from Stoic Studio has been defined by choice. Throughout each installment, players have been tasked with facing hard choices, and whether they are as simple as deciding how to rally your troops before battle, or making the decision between who lives and dies, The Banner Saga games have blended a fascinating, Norse mythology-inspired world with the sort of gritty, grounded take on fantasy that we’ve come to know and love from the likes of Game of Thrones. Naturally, those decisions and choices have to come to an end, and in the case of The Banner Saga 3, what awaits players of the epic series is a conclusion that is tragic, beautiful, and thrilling all the way to the story’s end.
The Banner Saga 3 marks the third and final chapter in developer Stoic Studio’s trilogy of strategy RPG titles that started with 2014’s The Banner Saga. Much like The Lord of the Rings or A Song of Ice and Fire, each subsequent game in The Banner Saga series has felt more like a continuation of the story versus an outright “sequel,” in the same way that a fantasy novel is typically part of a larger whole. The Banner Saga 3 is indeed no exception to that, but the game not only effectively closes out Stoic’s story, but also brings with it some of the most unique changes and new features to the series yet.
Picking up right where The Banner Saga 2 left off, the final chapter of the series ends up switching between two very distinct storylines that put the series’ vast cast of characters in dire circumstances. The first storyline revolves around Rook or Alette (depending on your choices in the previous games) and their band at the last human city of Arberrang, as they make their last-ditch efforts of holding off massive Dredge forces closing in on the city that will bring its (inevitable) destruction.
Meanwhile, this action is interspersed with the second storyline set inside of The Darkness, the mythical, apocalyptic force that consumes everything it touches. All this comes to a head as the second caravan with Eyvind, Iver, Juno, and more find themselves venturing deep into The Darkness to find a way to stop its spread across the world and, eventually, bringing it to its prophesied end.
With The Darkness now the focal point of the story, an uneasiness sets in that permeates across The Banner Saga 3, giving the story a heightened sense of tension and dread like never before. The impending spread of The Darkness not only directs the majority of the story, but even gameplay-wise it puts pressure on the player in much tougher and more challenging ways beyond just the narrative. As doom is quickly approaching for the game’s cast of characters, there is a weight to each and every decision — both past and present — that Stoic wonderfully incorporates into every aspect of The Banner Saga 3.
That feeling came to me right from the beginning, as in my playthrough, Rook was not only faced with the task of warding off thousands of Dredge forces waiting to pummel Arberrang into oblivion, but also has to balance the internal politics of the numerous bands of fighters and captains inside its wall to maintain some form of morale in the face of imminent demise. It says a lot about the world of The Banner Saga that petty political squabbles should get in the way of humanity’s demise, and yet these moments and more define the exceptional world-building and storytelling that Stoic has crafted with the series, and The Banner Saga 3 displays these elements at their finest.
The core combat mechanics of The Banner Saga 3 are mostly tried-and-true to what we’ve seen from the series before, but that doesn’t mean the gameplay has dulled its edge at all. While the third game maintains the series’ Final Fantasy Tactics-esque combat, The Banner Saga 3 adds a considerable amount of new variations and features to environments, character progression, abilities, and more to make its gameplay the most complex that the series has seen yet, especially when it comes to combat.
The most apparent changes to the combat in The Banner Saga 3 include a heavier emphasis on unpredictability, especially when it comes to the environments. Numerous new environmental hazards have been added — such as fire, sinkholes, and more — that can either significantly damage or hinder your units and add a unique layer of strategy on top of each encounter. These new hazards add a great dimension of extra danger to look out for on the battlefield, but they can just as quickly be played to your advantage against enemy forces with the right amount of strategy and ingenuity, such as forcing enemies to take damage on their turns or creating makeshift barricades to defend your own units with.
Likewise, a crucial new element of the gameplay comes in the form of the Valka Spear, a new item that essentially replaces The Horn from past games. The Valka Spear comes into play during your battles with Eyvind and Co. in The Darkness and provides players with the ability to call down Arc Lighting to damage enemies at the players’ will, as players can earn up to three charges for it by defeating enemies on the battlefield. While this means that players will have to be way more conservative in their use of Willpower with the Horn being unavailable, the Valka Spear offers an entirely new dynamic for players to utilize in battles, with the Spear instead encouraging players to group enemies together and take advantage of its chain damage effect.
The Banner Saga 3 also dramatically expands on the number and variety of party members at your disposal, and with a much heavier emphasis on playing as characters that might be outside of your comfort zone; this time around, it’s crucial to experiment with them all. This is especially the case when it comes to the game’s newly-implemented Wave Battles, which faces players with increasingly difficult waves of enemies in battles for the chance to earn more Renown points and special items as a reward.
While plenty of the characters at players’ disposal fall into the traditional roles of tanks, ranged attackers, spellcasters, and more, The Banner Saga 3 gets creative with some wild new characters and abilities introduced that open up completely new strategies. In particular, The Banner Saga 3 introduces many new playable characters with more specialized playstyles such as Alfrun, the mysterious witch who not only has some potent offensive magic (such as the killer “Ride the Lightning” spell), but she also acts as one of the game’s very few “healer” roles. Likewise, the female mender Juno has one of my favorite playstyles in the entire game, as her combat style revolves around a “resurrection” mechanic that can bring her back from the brink of death. The Banner Saga 3 even introduces the series’ first playable Dredge characters on top of a rich and diverse array of characters to choose from in combat.
With the numerous refinements and new features to the gameplay, The Banner Saga 3 also brings with it a considerably higher difficulty curve compared to its predecessors, which may be a double-edged sword for series veterans. Though The Banner Saga 3 is a long way from the more simplistic combat of the first game, the amount of complexity to the battle system, combined with some especially-challenging new enemy types, may be a bit overwhelming to those looking to enjoy the game for its narrative. Those looking for a more challenging gameplay experience will undoubtedly welcome The Banner Saga 3‘s bump in challenge, but for players that may want to enjoy the series finale with slightly less strenuous combat, I’d certainly recommend a turning down the difficulty if you’re looking to appreciate the storytelling.
Aside from its gameplay and combat refinements, The Banner Saga 3 continues to improve on the series’ exceptional visuals and soundtrack. Though I was drawn to its world and art style immediately in the first game, The Banner Saga 3 goes even deeper into the series’ fascinating world with its excellent hand-drawn artwork and animations, and a new range of visuals coming from the game’s Darkness-drenched environments that truly make it stand out compared to the previous titles. This, of course, is all accompanied by the game’s thrilling soundtrack by composer Austin Wintory, and given his work on the past two games, it’s incredible to hear how he has taken the game’s emotional and heart-pounding, music and expressed it in new ways through its dark and foreboding story.
Like closing the final chapter on a thousand-page-long fantasy novel, The Banner Saga 3 delivers a dark and thrilling conclusion to remember. Though at times it might prove to be a bit more of a challenge than some might expect, The Banner Saga 3 is the culmination of Stoic Studio’s four-year-long journey through a tense and memorable world that’s entirely worth seeing through to the end. While I’m sad to see The Banner Saga series come to a close with its third and final act, The Banner Saga 3 finishes it all in a brutal and brilliant fashion. The story may be over, but The Banner Saga‘s world is one that I will surely yearn to come back to.