The Banner Saga 3 Review: A Final Stand Against The Darkness
Every day, the darkness grows closer to the walls of humanity's final stronghold. I have three days of supplies left. My units are hurt and tired, and they're starting to fight among themselves. A rebel leader is threatening to take over the city if we don't meet his demands. I'm given three choices: reason with him, imprison him, or try to kill him.
This is the world of The Banner Saga 3, where few things ever seem to go right.
In the first game of the series, a mysterious darkness emerged and began to swallow the world. Humanity was forced to continually retreat as the darkness warped and twisted everything in its path. Those heroes who set out to defeat it, alongside their band of allies, have been fleeing from this force for the span of two games, not knowing what caused the darkness or if there's anything they can do to stop it.
The Banner Saga 3 is the conclusion to the series' dramatic narrative and the denouement of the trilogy. And despite a few frustrations, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with it.
Note: Minor spoilers for The Banner Saga 3 follow.
Painting a Beautiful Picture
When you first boot up the game, the game's beautiful art and engrossing animation are immediately apparent. The game's colors are striking and vibrant, and the environments are extremely detailed; when walking through the streets of Arberrang, you can see little stick-figure-versions of each of the game's different races, creating a unique look at a thriving, if endangered city. Add to that the game's entrancing animated sequences, and The Banner Saga 3 stands as one of the prettiest entries in the series.
Despite its beauty, the world of The Banner Saga 3 is undeniably dark, and all of the game's artistic aspects reinforce that vibe. Landscapes frequently dwarf the characters, making you feel small in comparison to everything that's happening.
And that's reinforced by the game's dynamic sound effects, which rise, fall, and change based on dialogue and the soundtrack; it makes the game feel very cohesive, especially when you consider the voice acting is also excellent. In short, the game's tone is fully realized: the dark mood is relentless and definitely puts you in the shoes of a doomed group travelers fighting for the salvation of the world.
However, while I enjoyed the sound effects, I wasn't so enthused with the game's music. While the orchestral suite can often feel grandiose, music is often recycled (particularly in battles), and obvious loop points get annoying after a while.
Music was a high point in the previous two games, and I wish that feeling carried over to The Banner Saga 3 -- but it just didn't strike me as much as other orchestral game soundtracks.
Telling a Story That Keeps You Invested
My favorite part of TBS3 would hands down be the story. The scope is huge and the characters are engaging and unique. The game's many dialogue choices and action options make the game feel as though you are truly directing this caravan of refugees on their journey. With plenty of twists and turns, it's heartening that the game's big plot twists aren't obvious.
However, while the story keeps you entertained, it can be a little obtuse if you haven't played the first two games. Honestly, I wish it was a little more ingratiating and perhaps contained a glossary with important terms and histories that could easily help both the newcomer and the veteran catch up on before diving in.
Without giving anything away, the amount of choice I had in the game's ending was much more than I thought it would be. Everything that happens makes you feel as though you are impacting the climax in a meaningful and demonstrable way. Not all of the game's choices are clear-cut, and although it sometimes feels unfair being penalized by a "bad" choice, your choices carry substantial weight, making things all the more interesting.
The Banner Saga 3 is one of the few games that truly gives the impression that what happens at the end of its story is because of you, even if some of its story elements can feel a bit long-winded and in some places, generic.
Moving Men (And Women)
Despite having such a strong story, The Banner Saga 3 struggles a little bit when it comes to its gameplay. The usual mix of RPG-style stats and upgrades and turn-based strategy gameplay is present here, and it's mostly unchanged from the previous two games. Small touches, like asking for confirmation when moving, acting, and ending a turn, are really helpful; they make the relatively difficult combat feel a little more forgiving.
However, this game is clearly not meant for newcomers, and that shows in the combat. The tutorial is effective but not comprehensive, and there are few explanations as to how to use items and techniques effectively. In other words, unless you want to be a wee bit lost, you really need to play the first two games before playing this one.
One helpful aspect of The Banner Saga 3 dulls that throw-you-in-the-deep-end feeling: the game continues even if you lose a battle, which ensures that you never get bogged down or stuck. That doesn’t mean there aren’t repercussions for losing — your units are all injured and you don’t get as much renown — but as someone who gets frustrated easily when stuck in games, it’s a welcome feature.
The maps themselves are interesting, and many have unique layouts and situations, while environmental hazards add a strategic layer to battles and contribute to the dark atmosphere (it often felt as though the map itself was after my party). In the darkness chapters, environmental hazards can also help the enemy, adding yet another layer of challenge.
The one big new addition is waves combat, which is a sort of quasi-endless battle mode. As the name implies, enemies come in waves and you choose whether you want to stay and fight another wave or flee with what you have. Fighting through all the waves earns you more renown (the game's currency) and a rare item. Waves combat really exemplifies the risk vs reward philosophy of the series, and I enjoyed deciding when to fight and when to flee.
Besides its endless mode, there aren’t a lot of totally new features in TBS3. There's little doubt focus was placed on making an effective conclusion to the trilogy and including fans’ favorite aspects of the series.
Even playing on Normal, this game is tough. Though the AI sometimes ignores an obvious move (particularly during the Arberrang chapters). the combat is unforgiving. You have to use everything at your disposal to emerge with minimal losses. In many ways, the combat steers clear of hero or power fantasies. In fact, his is exactly the opposite, a simulation in a complete lack of power.
There’s a difficulty spike in the chapters that focus on the journey into the darkness, and it’s really apparent. I know it’s done to emphasize the difference between the game's two groups, but it feels a little unfair at times. I didn’t like feeling like I was set up to fail in a battle.
Because of this, the hopelessness of the story bleeds into the mechanics, which is both a positive and a negative. It makes the game's atmosphere feel very cohesive, but it also leads to frustration when you know the game is hard just to make you lose faith in your party.
The difficulty gets enhanced by the game's innate unit control, which can get a little shaky at times as some units get hidden behind others, making it difficult to accurately command them. I wish there was an option to rotate the battlefield or reduce the opacity of enemy units to enable easier movement. On top of that, I would have also like to see more quality of life changes, like the option to toggle an overlay with all enemies’ available move and action areas highlighted, similar to Fire Emblem.
The Banner Saga 3 is a great game. I loved the game's art, sound effects, and story, all of which contributed to a beautiful package. The game is very effective as a dramatic conclusion to the trilogy, and any fan who loved the two previous games will find a lot to love here.
However, I wasn't impressed with the combat; it could have used a little bit of difficulty tweaking and polish. I also wish there was more to help newcomers, though I understand that they aren't the target audience of this game.
The Banner Saga 3 told a story that I won't soon forget, and I can't wait to see what Stoic does next.
The Banner Saga 3 is available for PC/Mac, Xbox One, PS4, and Nintendo Switch, with a mobile version coming at a later date.
[Note: The developer provided the copy of The Banner Saga 3 used in this preview.]