The Banner Saga 3 review: Forked in the road home

Source: Stoic
Source: Stoic /

After two exciting releases, The Banner Saga 3 closes Stoic’s trilogy, tying up loose ends but also revealing the limitations of a small studio.

Title: The Banner Saga 3
Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platforms: PC (version reviewed), PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release Date: July 26, 2018

All good things must end, and despite its fabled history, The Banner Saga is no exception. Stoic is determined to wrap up its series in a neat little package, crafting a story that flows from start to finish like the Viking lore it’s based on.

In many ways, it’s succeeded. The stakes in Banner Saga 3 couldn’t really be higher. It’s a true culmination of the previous games, the player leading two ragged bands as darkness slowly engulfs the world. One hunkers down in the city of Aberrang, fighting off hordes of stone-bodied Dredge at the walls while trying to keep things civil inside them. The other consists of mercenaries and powerful mages, pushing slowly through to the source of the catastrophe.

It’s riveting, and Stoic’s overarching plot is hard to criticize. The studio blends Norse legends and entirely unique concepts with the skill of the fantasy greats. It’s one of the few cases where the worldbuilding of a video game is on par with other mediums, and it’s done with surprisingly few info dumps. With the final installment, Stoic finally brings the bigger picture into focus, leaving a feeling that it was just out of reach this whole time.

Credit: Stoic
Credit: Stoic /

Simultaneously, the player is acutely aware of how far they’ve come and those lost along the way. The Banner Saga 3 lets you import the progress of previous games, carrying over levels, items, and the decisions you made. If your save didn’t survive, there’s the ability to re-play a major choice.

Like its predecessor, the game features an optional, fully-voiced recap, enough to remind returning fans without going into much detail. It’s no substitute for the complete experience, but it’s enough to get you in the mood of the mythic world.

Related Story. The 50 Best RPGs Of All Time. light

After that brief introduction, it’s almost business as usual. Combat plays out in the same, turn-based fashion. Dialogue is largely text-based with exceptions for epic moments, and the resource management aspect still adds additional depth. They’re all done with the extreme polish we’ve come to expect from this studio.

Still, it’s clear little has changed since the first game, and in any other series that would be a great shame. Thankfully, Stoic managed to get things almost perfect the first time around, and its lack of change lends itself well to the story’s episodic nature.

The Banner Saga 3 ridgehorn
Source: Stoic /

However, that’s not to say there haven’t been additions, and they’re all very good ones. As we mentioned previously, Saga 3 introduces a wave-based system that lets you fight on for additional items. The prolonged battle usually means more injuries in your roster, forcing you to waste valuable days resting if you want to be successful. As with many things in the title, it’s a careful balancing act.

Either way, though, you’ll have to finish things quickly. If you don’t defeat all enemies before the timer ends, additional ones will spawn. It’s a clear nod to community feedback and overreliance on certain tactics. Previously, players could quickly injure opponents to the point of uselessness and leave them be until bigger threats are neutralized. This change discourages that and prompts players to be more aggressive instead of turtling in their starting position.

Related Story. 50 best Xbox One games right now. light

Given the crucial role of time, it’s a canny feature and one that isn’t used too liberally. The battles where wave combat comes into play are a light sprinkling next to the rush of new playable characters, enemy types and heroic titles.

The additions put the number of characters at 40, and playable Dredge are easily the most significant. It gives players the chance to tap into powerful abilities that can be useful against the new enemies types you’ll face. Even on normal difficulty, The Banner Saga 3 can be crushingly difficult, so you’ll need all the help you can get.

Source: Stoic
Source: Stoic /

At the start of the game, battles are challenging at times, but usually obtainable. You’ll usually see a couple of injured heroes per battle, but nothing significant. As the story ramps up, though, so does the difficulty. Significantly. I found it difficult to tell if this was an intentional decision to reflect insurmountable odds, poor decisions, or acclimatizing to mechanical changes. Either way, I found myself losing several battles in a row towards the conclusion, with some seeming near-impossible.

To its credit, the game doesn’t punish you particularly hard for losing, but that’s also a mixed bag. Though you’ll have to deal with six injured characters, there aren’t huge, obvious story repercussions. As a result, it can feel cheap when you cruise past enemies despite losing, but that’s nothing new for the series.

Related Story. 50 Best PS4 Games. light

Difficulty spikes aside, there’s more than enough depth to combat to keep you invested. Each kill feels immensely satisfying thanks to superb animation and sound effects. The heroic titles give interesting passive perks if you get past level 10, and the location and layout of battles vary wildly. It’s easily the best yet, and if you can get past some frustrating difficulty, you’re sure to enjoy yourself.

A bigger concern is the game’s branching narrative. The main criticism of previous installments was a feeling that decisions didn’t have a major impact. They adjusted supplies, occasionally the life or death of characters, and that’s about it. With its finale, Stoic has hinted that it will address that, and it’s been partially successful.

Source: Stoic
Source: Stoic /

First, though, it’s worth noting that the true impact of player’s decisions in earlier games won’t be clear until the community can compare their choices and outcomes. Playing through the entire trilogy multiple times is a mammoth task that few reviewers will have time to do. If this aspect has a big impact on your purchase, you may want to wait a little longer.

…The largest difference is determined by a choice of three dialogue options at the very end of the game.

In short, though, The Banner Saga 3 has multiple endings that vary wildly. The developers weren’t lying when they implied the fate of the world rests on your shoulders. The decisions you make and the dialogue you choose have the largest consequences imaginable.

Unfortunately, though, the outcome isn’t always determined by a complex tapestry of choices. In fact, a little save scumming reveals the largest difference is determined by a choice of three dialogue options at the very end of the game. Options that are relatively easy to determine the outcome of if you’ve been paying attention.

It’s disappointing, to say the least. Perhaps things would have been different if my saves hadn’t succumbed to hard drive failure, but the ability to transparently choose the fate of the world didn’t sit right.

The Banner Saga 3
Credit: Stoic /

Thankfully, there are plenty of other aspects that are affected by longer-term decisions. The length Aberrang can hold out depends on the supplies and fighters you’ve accumulated, for example, and Stoic isn’t afraid to kill off major characters if you take too many risks. I’m sure that there are plenty more moments throughout the game that will only reveal themselves a second or third time around. There’s also a major choice in the second game that will alter large swathes of dialogue and content.

Even so, it feels like Stoic has been a little too ambitious in balancing the complexity of its story with the size of its team. Some of Saga 3’s most emotional moments are devoid of voice acting and are boiled down to a few lines of dialogue. It feels like a missed opportunity, and I can’t help but wish that more screen time was given to both those and the conclusion.

The culmination of all this is a series whose biggest strength is its journey. The quiet moments between characters after traveling and the feeling of being a cog in a massive world. With a small team, Stoic has managed to build an atmosphere that rivals many AAA titles. Austin Wintory’s soundtrack pulls you through the story masterfully, the art holds new wonders at every corner, and every major character has a unique backstory.

Next. The Banner Saga 3 concludes the series on Nintendo Switch. dark

The narrative branches weren’t as complex as I expected, but I find myself surprisingly okay with that. Banner Saga may not have the crazy web of a David Cage game, but the compromise means a sensical narrative, excellent writing, and gameplay that’s a real joy. At $60 for the whole trilogy, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better value.

8. <em>The Banner Saga 3</em> fails to deliver the complexity of choice some were hoping for, but the compromise allows for a deep narrative enhanced by intelligent combat additions, excellent art direction, and its melancholic soundtrack.. Stoic, Versus Evil. SStoic. The Banner Saga

A copy of this game was provided to App Trigger for the purpose of this review. All scores are ranked out of 10, with .5 increments. Click here to learn more about our Review Policy.