Like Hollywood cinema, video games have no shortage of bold auteurs who come out with ambitious, attention-grabbing pitches for an epic trilogies, only for things to irreparably fall apart after a single installment. Usually due to poor sales or a mixed critical reception. Too Human. Advent Rising. DmC. Ubisoft’s 2008 reboot of Prince of Persia. Mass Effect Andromeda. The list goes on.
Yet, in the face of that, Stoic Studio’s Banner Saga series has proved itself an unlikely success story. Sure, it’s a series more modest in its means than a lot of the triple-A fare described above but the point is that seeing a three-game arc through to a satisfying conclusion is often more said than done, and rarely still executed as well as it is here.
A turn-based tactics RPG set in a richly-conceived and compellingly-realised fantasy world, the first two installments of The Banner Saga trilogy were masterclasses in intimate storytelling, subtle worldbuilding and ingenious encounter design. Stoic struck an incredibly impressive balance between building up a setting and characters that you always wanted to know more about and providing gameplay with enough meat on its bones that you never tired of sending your viking warriors into the game’s gauntlet of combat puzzles.
More specifically, the first two Banner Saga games understood the power of tone. Across both installments, it rarely felt like even a single line of dialogue was wasted. Every character got their moment and every little piece of the puzzle played its part when it came to imbuing a sense of culture and history to the world in which these series take place. The more Stoic invested in building up that tone, the easier it was for you to do the same and the more effective the series became at relentlessly-hammering in the ever-escalating desperation faced by its core cast.
With The Banner Saga 3, all of the above continues to be the case as the series’ reaches its zenith, attempts to address its biggest mysteries and endeavors to provide a compelling conclusion to the whole affair.
An End, Once and For All
Picking up exactly as The Banner Saga 2 ends, The Banner Saga 3 is a story told in two distinct halves.
Having finally arrived in the human capital of Arberrang, a group of human, varl (*giants) and horseborn (*centaur) survivors must wrestle with both holding back an unstoppable tide of Dredge* (golemic monsters made of stone) refugees - and worse - whilst also combating the various political threats developing within the confines of the city walls. Then, within the thick of the encroaching, world-ending darkness creeping towards Arberrang, you’ll resume control of The Ravens (*a group of mercenaries introduced in the second game) as they escort a pair of enigmatic menders (*wizards) towards a literal heart of darkness under the cryptic promise that their guides have the means to set the world right again.
To go into any further detail would risk giving away key plot-points or worse: giving away some of the major moral choices you’ll inevitably have to make over the course of The Banner Saga 3.
Without hyping it up too much, The Banner Saga 3 definitely feels like the “Return of the King” to the first game’s “Fellowship of the Ring”. It’s a game full of pathos and payoff - and it all feels very well-earned by Stoic.
As with The Banner Saga 2, a lot of the bigger dramatic beats here will rely on the choices you've made in the previous games. Stoic was founded by ex-Bioware developers, so the inclusion of cross-game saves here isn’t necessarily groundbreaking. However, freed from the shackles of the AAA development process, the execution comes across as so much more compelling. You’ve already spent dozens of hours getting to know these characters - so they just go straight to the good stuff.
If you’re coming to the series fresh, you’re probably better served starting at the beginning. However, if you’re already invested in these characters and this world, The Banner Saga 3 does a superb job of leveraging that investment into phenomenally satisfying payoffs, gut-wrenching losses and smaller, more-intimate emotional beats often spaced between the two.
Basically, this is all pretty on-brand for The Banner Saga at this point. However, with the stakes as high as they are, the pace of the parallel stories being told here feels noticeably faster than previous installments. What’s more, despite the geographical divide between the two plotlines, Stoic do a great job of inevitably weaving things together through the game’s mechanics. The choices you make in Arberrang directly correlate into additional time for The Ravens’ - and unexpected setbacks or delays can prove costly.
The Circle Is Complete
In terms of the mechanics here, The Banner Saga 3 doesn’t really change the formula but it does continues the trend for the series at large. Each of the game’s chapters sees you lead a caravan of nordic adventurers across a gorgeously-rendered landscape, solving both dialogue and combat encounters along the way.
The second game in the series added more variety and better encounter design into the mix and The Banner Saga 3 opts for much the same. A handful of additional playable characters, each with their own unique skills, and new foes are brought to the table, serving up new challenges and strategic possibilities. When all is said and done, it feels like the sandbox of playstyles and mechanics here is always encouraging you to adapt and explore new styles of play in a way that previous installments didn’t always allow for.
If anything, the biggest change to the more routine encounters here is the ability to, once you’ve won a fight, play additional rounds of combat in order to earn better loot. Essentially, it’s double-or-nothing. It’s nothing necessarily-groundbreaking but it is a natural-and-neat evolution on the risk-reward dilemma at the heart of the series’ identity and an extra layer of challenge for series veterans.
There’s also a new layer of meta-strategy in the mix through the new titles system. Once they’ve gained enough renown, characters in your party can start accruing “Heroic Titles”, which add potent buffs and modifiers to nearby allies. These act as a new sink for the game’s currency system and a compelling alternative to specializations, which (were introduced in the last game and) allow for unique proc effects like bonus damage or the ability to dodge the occasional hit.
The Bottom Line
The Banner Saga 3 is a solidly thought-out and splendidly-engaging conclusion to one of the most underrated series in recent gaming history. Stoic strike a masterful balance here between confidently pushing over the trail of narrative dominoes they’ve spent years setting up and continuing to actively seek out ways of improving the robustness of the experience as a whole.
Like any great trilogy-ender, The Banner Saga 3 leaves you satisfied with a story well told and itching to start things over again from the beginning.
The Banner Saga 3 is available on PC, PS4, Xbox One, Android, iOS and Nintendo Switch.