The Banner Saga 3 Review
Get excited to unfurl your banner one more time. The Banner Saga is back, and it’s pretty much the same as it’s always been. And you know what? That’s a very good thing. The last entry in this tactical RPG trilogy doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it tightens up the already excellent gameplay and brings the story to a cacophonous conclusion.
For the uninitiated: The Banner Saga is a unique trilogy of story-driven strategy games. You will make choices, and they will matter. You will command troops on a grid a la Final Fantasy Tactics or XCom. And you will feel your breath taken away by the stylish old-school animation style. The third and final entry in the trilogy picks up immediately where the last one left off, it incorporates your choices from your previous save files and it takes you to the end. You shouldn’t start with part three, but you should definitely play it. There’s nothing quite like it.
Things will feel pretty familiar if you have played the story up until this point. The heroes are still split into three groups, and you will find your parties exactly where you left them. Even though the cast of characters is flooded with memorable faces (too many to deploy in one playthrough), you will still be introduced to a slew of new heroes and villains. Some of them are even pretty cool.
The beautiful graphics are still beautiful. The obvious touchstone is Ralph Bakshi, who made the Lord of the Rings animated films of the 70s, which you might have caught on Cartoon Network in the 90s. Some corners have been tightened up, but otherwise, you are jumping right back into the same quality graphics, the same style. My only big regret is that there wasn’t more of it. Infrequently, you will be treated to brief cutscenes. These are always a treat and rarely last for more than fifteen seconds. While they clearly take a lot to produce, I found myself greedily wanting more.
The sound is also familiar. In fact, it’s pretty much the same. What voice acting there is sounds a bit awkward as if English is not the first language of the actors. That’s OK though. If anything it adds to the authenticity of the world. You want to be humming the soundtrack any time soon, but it’s atmospheric and hauntingly beautiful. Otherwise expect the same metallic clashes, battle cries, and war horns you heard in the last two games.
So is The Banner Saga 3 a total rehash of the previous two games? Not exactly. The level design of the combat encounters has been cranked up. The tactical combat of the previous two games sometimes through some interesting enemies at you, but otherwise usually followed the same rules. Here that’s not the case. Every battle adds a fun gimmick that you’ll have to tactically consider. Maybe fire is spreading across the battlefield. Maybe you need to time a retreat and consider the cost-benefit of continuing to fight. Whatever it is, you will rarely be matching up against similar forces. Fights almost always include an extra variable, which really pushes your tactical mind to consider everything.
The level design is the most attentive the game gets. This isn’t a walking simulator, but a deliberately designed tactical RPG. You will be challenged, and that’s a very good thing. This strategic challenge doesn’t necessarily extend to the more story-driven half of the game, but you’ll still find yourself considering hard choices.
The Banner Saga Has Never Been Better
Your caravan stats are always close at hand. You’re constantly being reminded of your civilian, warrior, and Varl population, as well as your food stocks and morale. These are just numbers, but try not to sweat as that food number ticks towards zero. It’s especially painful when you know it’s your fault. You’re frequently offered choices to make as the leader of this clan, and sometimes there are no good options.
Will you remain loyal to your horseborn allies? Even if it will cost you favor with the human nobility? What will you do when an act of kindness is perceived as weakness? You may want to take on a gang of refugees to gain access to a cool new fighter to use in battle, but his people will start eating your supplies, which will lower morale for your civilians and warriors alike. This cause and effect is mostly represented in dialogue boxes and animated numbers ticking by, but the overall style of the game never lets you pretend these choices are just ones and zeroes. You feel the emotions of your clan, their disapproval.
While lots of people will remember and talk about the big choices the game throws at them, I’d argue that the constant stream of smaller choices is more effective. Games like Frostpunk try to make you feel for the digital lives of your charges, but I often find myself thinking of my score in the abstract. When my civilian population tells me twenty people have died because I didn’t want to risk my archer Oddlief getting injured in combat, the pang of loss was real.
The Banner Saga 3 is a proud continuation of the games that came before it. You’re probably thrilled to hear that; you cared enough to read through this review! Well good news friend: while it doesn’t reinvent much about the series, the third entry in The Banner Saga pushes everything as far as it can go. Tougher strategies, higher stakes, and high production values are the order of the day. By the time the Saga is coming to a close, you’ll look back and feel your growth in an epic warlord.
***A PC code was provided by the publisher***
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