Archive: Banner Saga 3 Review

(This piece appeared on Zam/ReadySet on 7/6/2018, but ReadySet has since rebranded and the archive has disappeared, so I’ve put it up here for my own nefarious purposes.)

Memento mori.

A desperate huddle of refugees scrabbles to get into the walls of Arberrang, the capital city and shining jewel of the human kingdoms. The walls, they hope, will provide shelter from the onrushing hordes of the stone-armored colossi that pursue them. They have no illusions that the walls will protect them from the darkness covering the world behind the colossi. They must know that nothing can protect them from the impossibly vast serpent that breaks the earth with its wanderings and poisons the rivers with its blood. Further to the north, a small band of mages and mercenaries wades into the darkness, trying to cut out the rot at its core, protected from the magicks that warp and twist the world around them by only a thin shimmer of light.

The world is ending, and the Saga will end with it, one way or the other.

Talking about The Banner Saga 3 as a standalone game is a bit like talking about The Return of the King as a standalone novel: you can do it, I guess, but it kind of misses the point. So, let’s get out in front of one of the ubiquitous questions with a game like this: do you have to play the first two games before you play The Banner Saga 3? Well, no, you don’t have to. I bear the good news that you don’t have to do anything, friends, and you should live your life in radical freedom: learn to bungie jump, thumb your nose at police officers, read pornography in public. But I’d certainly recommend playing the first two games first, and think it will be a better experience unless you enjoy reading your narratives inside-out and backwards. (Some people do!) Further, choices you make in the first two games can be imported into the third, Mass Effect-style, so it’s worth your while to start at the beginning.

Much like The Lord of the Rings, I think The Banner Saga trilogy is more meaningfully thought of as one game split into three pieces for publishing purposes, rather than a more traditional trilogy. Consider: although the three pieces of the Mass Effect trilogy tell one story, they also differ from one another in tone, interface, and mechanics. The pieces of The Banner Saga trilogy are not so easily differentiable — it would be hard, at first glance, to tell a screenshot from The Banner Saga 3 apart from one from the first or second game.

So the bones of the game remain the same: what’s good about previous Banner Saga games is good about this one, and what’s weaker is still weaker. By and large, that’s good, because the bones of The Banner Saga games are great, strong bones.

The Banner Saga is the Dragon Age Oregon Trail — you manage caravans of vikings, horned giants, and centaurs as they flee across the world, adjudicating their disputes, managing their supplies, and leading them into combat against other bands of people who are fleeing from the same things you are but would like to take your things in order to help them flee better. Much of the game is spent watching your caravan of people, small as ants, slowly walk in front of gorgeous landscapes. The art of The Banner Saga, explicitly inspired by the work of Eyvind Earle, has always been some of the best in the medium, and the third game continues that trend — this time, most of the landscapes are twisted, perverted versions of the mountains and caverns we’ve seen before. In this game, you split your time between the clansmen trapped in Arberrang and the mercenaries traveling into the darkness.

Combat is turn-based and grid-based, pitting your team of up to six characters against a host of enemies. Strength functions as both hit points and the amount of damage a character does on a hit, so an injured character sometimes can’t really contribute much to a fight, and simply limps around the battlefield, getting in the way, until an enemy mercifully knocks them unconscious. A unit’s Armor reduces damage to its Strength, such that you have to break chunks off of an enemy’s armor before you stand any chance of actually hurting them. Characters mostly can’t move through each others’ spaces, so positioning is everything, and careful attention to the initiative order is essential for high-level play. Allies and enemies alternate turns, regardless of how many units each side has, until there is only one unit left on a side. This means that if the enemy has only two units, and you have four, each of the enemy’s units will act twice as often as your units will.

The combat thus looks quite a bit like XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics, but actually plays out quite a bit differently. I definitely bounced off of the combat pretty hard the first time I played the first game, (It took me a while to realize my enormous, sword-wielding giants could be turned into mewling kittens just by taking a few hits) but by the third game, it felt like second nature. Accordingly, whether because of the fact that all of the characters are higher level or just because I finally understand how to play the game, I didn’t find the combat to be quite as difficult in The Banner Saga 3 as I did in previous games. I actually got through the entire game on Normal without ever losing a fight, which certainly wasn’t true of the first and second games.

There are differences (or, more properly, additions) to the combat. Most importantly, many of the battles now come in waves, which start ticking down from the moment the fight begins. If you manage to kill all the enemies in the first wave before the second arrives, you have a choice: either retreat, or stay and fight the second wave. Choosing to fight the second wave gives you more Renown (which functions as both XP and gold) and more cool accessory items.

Further, the party traveling through the Darkness differs from the Arberrang party in one key respect: rather than the Willpower Horn in the previous games, which allows your characters to gain extra energy for each kill they make in combat, this party gets a Valka spear, allowing each character to throw lightning bolts at enemies. This change is small, but fundamentally alters the way the two parties behave in combat, and makes a certain amount of thematic sense, too: the party traveling through the expanding darkness probably doesn’t have a ton of extra morale to spare.

Lastly, leveling up your characters now gives you the ability to assign Heroic Titles — these are stock fantastical phrases like “The Mountain” or “The Twice-Born,” and each comes with a mechanical benefit. In a fun twist, each title can only be awarded once, so you’ll have to think about which of your characters would most benefit from being named The Mountain. (And later, when that character inevitably dies due to an unwise decision, the title is gone forever.)

Because, look: people die in this game. The clansmen you’re sworn to protect will starve, and almost none of the playable characters are protected by plot armor. The game’s moral choices remain grim, unrelenting, and unrelentingly grim. While other games are often about making the player feel powerful, even in dire circumstances, The Banner Saga 3 would like you to feel inadequate and terrible about most of your choices. There are consequences to your actions, and, just like in real life, not all of them are immediately predictable. Taking in clanless strangers under your banner may help everyone involved, or it may just ensure that your people starve to death more quickly. Maybe you’d like to give your mercenaries a rest — they are tired, and fraying at the edges, and need some time to sleep. But the more time your mercenaries up north delay, the worse things get back in Arberrang. Here at the end of the world, there are no good choices.

As with the first two games, there remains some tonal oddness in the dialogue, which I’m ambivalent about. On the one hand, the fact that the dialogue mostly avoids Grandiose Verbiage is nice — it reminds you that these people are people, not archetypes. On the other hand, hearing a Viking shieldmaiden warn her band of mercenaries that a fight with warped, betentacled giants is “gonna suck” is, well, jarring.

Some of the characters and subplots get pretty short shrift, too. To be fair, many of the playable characters are really just collections of statistics brought along to pad out the party, shaped with a few broad characteristics in order to keep them distinct in your brain. So while it’s understandable that we don’t learn a lot about Bak, whose whole deal is that he talks to his spear because his wife is dead, it’s a bit frustrating when characters who ought to have a more important role in the plot just don’t. In my game, the Prince of the human kingdoms, Ludin, is in Arberrang, but generally stays out of the plot. This is presumably because he can die earlier in the trilogy, and writing him into the plot only for those players who kept him alive would be a tremendous expenditure of resources for little gain, but his reticence remains frustrating.

So it’s hardly perfect — a bit more time with some of the characters would be good, and there are whole subplots from previous games that are more or less abandoned by the end of this one. Generally, I found the portions of the story focusing on the party traveling into the Darkness to be better-executed than the portions concerned with the refugees in Arberrang. The Banner Saga structure doesn’t quite fit with Arberrang, which sees relatively little travel (walking through the city is not quite as evocative as walking through the blasted heath) and focuses largely on the dialogue-box decisions. It’s the mages-and-mercenaries party that interacts more with the overarching plot and sees the more varied landscapes and enemies. I miss the second game’s Survival Mode, which allowed you to really dig into the combat in a series of rapid-fire recountings of all the game’s battles, but wasn’t brought into the third.

But by Jove, when it works, it worksThe Banner Saga games have given us some of the most beautiful moments in recent videogames, and the third game is no exception. I cared about these characters: Rook, the hunter thrust into leadership he neither wanted nor was particularly suited for; Iver, the legendary warrior whose fame fills him with shame; Oddleif, trying to help everyone, and suffering the consequences; Hakon, the last king of a dying race. There are villains in this game, but most of your antagonists are just people, panicked and desperate, fighting over scraps of bread in the shadow of armageddon. I agonized over the choices, thought hard about the combat (losing a battle usually doesn’t end the game, and you usually have to live with the consequences of your failures), and teared up at the end, listening to Austin Wintory’s beautiful soundtrack over the credits.

It’s good stuff. Of our bones, the hills.

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