Sometimes, when I’m reading a book series I particularly enjoy, I get a feeling in the pit of my stomach as the pages on the right side of the opened spine begin to shrink. There’s something warm and welcoming about the continuation of even the darkest tale, and when we become invested in characters, a happy ending can still feel like their death once there’s nothing left to read. Fantasy series, especially the ones that hit double digits in their novel count, are brutal; one moment there’s seven books and thousands of pages left to go, and suddenly there’s a chapter, a paragraph, a word.
The Banner Saga 3 is the last chapter in a series of indie darling games by Stoic Studio, and as it neared its conclusion, I couldn’t help but notice that familiar sensation creeping up my abdomen. It has been a long, hard journey for either Rook or Alette, and the game doesn’t get any less grim or challenging in its final moments. Despite it all, however, The Banner Saga 3 remains a crucial piece of gaming lore, a beautifully animated journey through harsh winter and brutal decisions that masterfully brings a well-deserved end to its world-altering struggle.
While the first Banner Saga was able to play around with its environment a little, The Banner Saga 3 is forced by its narrative to do more with less. The darkness has encroached on nearly all of civilization, and the ocean is putrid and vile. The characters, with their backs to the sea and oblivion creeping ever onward, are forced into the human capital of Arberrang as the last bastion of hope. Meanwhile, Juno, Eyvind, and Iver are making their way through the darkness in an effort to find a solution to the impending apocalypse.
As such, there isn’t a lot of exploration to be had. The story’s two parties are pinned to their locations rather tightly, but luckily, Stoic manages to create engaging environments all the same. Arberrang is full of political strife as multiple races attempt to carve their way into the future at the humans’ behest, and the darkness is weird and wonderful. Horrors roam the countryside, while familiar landmarks become twisted – not beyond recognition, but almost.
The world of The Banner Saga 3 is one that exudes bleakness, but it’s not the kind that gnaws at the ability to enjoy the game. The bleakness is heavy, but it’s a burden that feels appropriate to the task. The characters don’t get lost in the shuffle of a world-altering event, either. The game still manages to create its best moments in brief interactions between party members, and in the raw, human emotion that emerges out of the dark. Some of the party joke, as it’s all they can bring themselves to do under the crushing weight of their task, and others are frayed, ready to snap at any moment. Every decision feels like it could be the last meaningful one made by either Alette or Rook, and that responsibility makes the game compelling, as choices made in previous games and ones made in this installment begin to pile up and alter the landscape of the characters’ surroundings.
The story and characters aren’t the only calling card of the series, however, and The Banner Saga 3 also shines in its strategic gameplay. New enemies in The Warped create taxing situations on the battlefield, as they drain units’ willpower and explode into ash, just as they do when defeated. It adds a layer of complexity to the battles that is greatly appreciated as we enter the third installment of what ostensibly remains the same combat system.
If there’s a complaint to be made in the game, it’s that many of the battles feel very similar – not necessarily in execution, as the layout varies enough to keep that fresh, but in enemies and repetition. While the game is about the parts smaller bands of characters play in the salvation, or lack thereof, of the world, maintaining that comes at a cost. There’s no series of final, epic battles with villains that are overwhelmingly powerful. Instead, there are broken men and women attempting to piece their lives back together, doing it on opposite sides of the battlefield. There are antagonists, but the only ones players will see the vast majority of the time are the nameless, faceless ones. Whether they approach in waves or in one tight formation, battles can sometimes feel repetitive.
That’s not a decaying-snake-attempting-to-eat-the-planet kind of mistake, however, and the game’s intuitive combat layout and beautiful artistic designs mid-gameplay do more than enough to make ignoring those doldrums easy. I will say that the difference in difficulties is rather pronounced, so there’s not a ton of wiggle room for someone who might find normal just a little too easy. Hard is a brutal slugfest that will beat anyone who comes after it down with a viking great axe. Your mileage on difficulty may vary, but I’d say normal is more than enough of a challenge for those familiar with the first two titles. The addition of Heroic Titles, which let players further customize the playstyle of their party, also offer up some much needed and fresh variation to the tried-and-true The Banner Saga formula.
A Hero Comes Reluctantly
All good things come to an end, and the journey of The Banner Saga 3 is one of them. Without spoiling the best parts, it’s an epic tale that, depending on choice, can either be about loss or redemption; finding the good in humanity as it finds commonalities with other races, or seeing humans turn on each other and everyone different from themselves when they could’ve been so much better. The Banner Saga 3 isn’t too long, but it also doesn’t feel rushed. There’s just enough room for these characters and their decisions to breathe, but it avoids the slogging pace of the second installment, which felt very much like a game that was attempting to save its best storytelling beats for the third title. There are flaws, and it’s nowhere near the perfect game, as some characters just plain get lost in the shuffle towards the end.
Despite those hiccups, however, The Banner Saga 3 is good. Really good. Anyone who has played the first two will undoubtedly be picking this game up anyways, but for those who are unfamiliar with the series and curious as to how it all ends: do yourself a favor and pick up the trilogy whenever you get a chance. It’s not often that games are made with the kind of style and substance that The Banner Saga 3 has been, and, much like a good book, it’s nearly impossible to put down until it all comes to a close, where, inevitably, you’ll feel like a small piece of you was left with it in exchange for something new, the way all great stories make us feel.
The Banner Saga 3 review code provided by publisher. Version 1.01 reviewed on a PlayStation 4 Pro. For more information on scoring please see our review policy.