The Banner Saga is a beloved series that is emblematic of what Kickstarter can do not only for developers with a dream, but for all gamers. Noted for its artistry, music, and deep viking vibes, the third installment carries the torch ably. What it lacks in novelty, it more than makes up for in consistency. Irrefutably, fans of the prior entries will find an excruciating, beautiful tale to seal the trilogy.
Sequels sometimes define predecessors in how they challenge players to remember what happened months, a year, or several years ago. Since The Banner Saga 2’s 2016 release, I waited with baited breath for the next game. I replayed my prior choices over and over in my head, waiting to see how the series closes. Sure enough, once I hopped back in, many of the details came rushing back. The character portraits and stills swept me up in nostalgia until my initial excitement was replaced with gritted teeth and anxiety as I settled back into several conflicts. So yeah, glee-based excitement replaced with stoic-based excitement.
As satisfying as The Banner Saga’s conclusion is, the final episode’s story falters in some ways. Given that player decisions seem to matter in how the plot is carried out, some players might be left wondering how thread x concludes or what happened to person y. In my opinion, this is a strength because decisions should have consequences, and sometimes those consequences mean that the protagonists’ attention is drawn elsewhere. For this reason, The Banner Saga 3 boasts replayability, though I have to admit that I am so satisfied with my bittersweet journey, and all its flaws and successes, that I want my story to remain my own; dabbling in other possibilities would lessen the authenticity of my experience, but I suspect others will want to try their hands at alternative outcomes.
For those unfamiliar with The Banner Saga’s combat, it flows like other strategy RPGs in that units take turns walking around a square-based grid, slashing and prodding one another. Armor doesn’t directly sustain a character’s life, but it certainly buffers against physical blows, so players have the option of striking at health or armor, which is sometimes a matter of character strengths. Most units have unique abilities pertaining to their race or class, making most of the characters viable depending on what the player prefers. Using said abilities or buffing attacks eats up a finite stat called willpower. Other details remain, but these are the essentials.
While combat doesn’t have much sway in how the story progresses, the other aspect of gameplay contributes significantly: that is, management. Players are frequently confronted with dilemmas that may or may not have a best outcome. Sometimes the outcomes are a mishmash of pros and cons, while others have unanticipated consequences down the road. One could say that the developers’ whims are hard to predict, making results appear random, but I’d argue that they make sense if one pays attention to the lore, personalities, and situation. Although I played my typical magnanimous self, I was confronted with challenging situations where a small, sincere amount of charity could have great consequences. I occasionally found myself saying, “Look, I want to spare some food, but we have to get to the other end of town,” or “I’d love to take more clansmen on, but we’re already risking starvation.” What I found most satisfying was not trying to meta the game, but rather playing my authentic self, which is likely what the developers intended.
Of course, when one looks at screenshots or videos, the first thing observed is the art style. While The Banner Saga has something akin to a 70s or 80s animated style to it, the aesthetic flows so naturally with modern technology and sensibilities that it doesn’t feel old. The music matches the vibe well, with viking songs and instrumentation throughout. Battles are not only intense in their challenge, but also in their use of epic tunes. Bouncing my leg up and down and leaning in, I sometimes bit my nails in anticipation of the next turn, something I may not have done if the music didn’t carry the tension so capably.
The Banner Saga is the series we need in this time of lackluster sequels, ho-hum prequels, and imitation games throughout. This is a tight trilogy with so few slow parts that I could barely tell I had sunk 13 hours into the third episode by the time I was finished with it. I could easily see myself returning to the series at episode one just to experience the story from an entirely new perspective. If you’ve played the first two games, I have to wonder why you’re reading this. Quickly, save the world from the dark! Or you know, some other choice betwixt saving the world and desolation.