In our modern times, often is heard a mournful dirge, resounding that the grand stories told across titles is dead. This narrative method kicked the bucket when Electronic Arts swallowed BioWare, much like the slimy creature in The Blob did with so many innocent fates. Yet, a few brave souls managed to escape this terrible end to start a golden era of western role-playing games, and among them Arnie Jorgenson, John Watson and Alex Thomas founded Stoic, their aim being to create their dream game. A successful Kickstarter campaign later, and the first chapter in The Banner Saga was released. Even if a little monotonous, the game stood as a symbol of creativity given freedom. Now we stand at the final release of the trilogy and, by way of introduction, there isn't much more to be said other than if you bereave BioWare's failures regarding the grand narrative and uniquely deep characters, then look no further than this series of games. Forewarning: massive spoilers incoming.
The story told across the three Banner Saga games is some of the best and most riveting - if not THE best and most riveting - we have experienced in a long while. It's not only directed by the choices out of reach for the player, the progression in the narrative, but just as much the constant choices you take as a leader on behalf of a massive clan. Early in The Banner Saga 3 we were given a decision that would decide the fate of the human capital, Arberrang. A new Sundr - one of the undying warleaders of the arch nemesis known as the dredge - had appeared on the precipice of the enshrouding darkness and attempted to take down the city walls with an anchor-like weapon. Should we sacrifice warriors and clanspeople on a quick counter-attack or sacrifice the walls to retire and plan a tactical strike instead? The Banner Saga offers a particularly well-written experience in terms of the tough choices of leadership.
Choices are in focus in the final entry of the trilogy, because everything counts. The unknown, mutating darkness has embraced almost the entire world, and nobody knows why or from whence it came. Humans, the giant race known as varls, and the underground dredge, have all been cornered, while the cast of memorable characters from both the first and second game - among them Ubin, Oddleif, Eirik, and finally Iver and Rook (or Allette, depending on how you ended the first game) - fight bravely for survival. Despite this, Stoic manages to introduce new characters in an elegant way, both early in the game, midway through, and even towards the end. Specifically, we are thinking of the witch Alfrun, and another dredge teammate called Castaway. This diversity is beautifully spun together with the gameplay elements, to such a degree that it felt like we had endless choices in terms of team composition when it came time to battle.
Because these new characters' roles and abilities are seamlessly inscribed in the game's difficulty level, combat system and so on, it is impressive how well-balanced the game is, and Stoic is highly aware that you, as the player, have mighty warriors on your team after having gone through two games already. Nothing ever feels too easy. Just as well, as this difficulty works if you roll into The Banner Saga 3 blindly. However, we don't recommend that at all. It is nigh on mandatory to have played the first and the second games, as the strength of The Banner Saga really is in the story told and the narrative experience, which does make the game come up a bit short if viewed in isolation. That, and the fact that in this third outing there are some frustrating technical defects - like, crashing and textures going missing - but these will certainly be fixed down the road.
Regarding the combat, it was probably at its worst in the first one, where the monotonous fights almost became an annoying chore to progress the story. The second game patched this up a bit with the introduction of new enemy types and obstacles on the battlefield. In the third, this escalates even further, with enemies leaving dangerous ash piles, combustible environments, a lot of different enemy types, and so on. Unfortunately, despite the inclusion of an enticing survival mode, where after specific battles you can choose to fight on or flee, the combat itself ends up being more of a distraction than something to look forward to. We must note to here that Stoic introduces a hero-title system in the game, which gives various buffs and extra abilities based on which title you choose. These are exclusive, so no two warriors can have the same title. Yet when we have spent as much time as we have in the company of Rook and Iver in this Viking-inspired world, the allocation of points and whatnot are done rather in automation than thoughtfulness, simply out of regularity.
Opposite to, for example, Octopath Traveler, we do not see this as a huge problem. Versus Evil and Stoic have been upfront from the beginning that The Banner Saga series is just as much visual novel as it is tactical roleplaying. It is the story, the narrative, that is the focus. Acquire and Square Enix were a bit vaguer about their release. The story continues, as written earlier, undaunted in this third entry, where even very developed characters evolve. It is hard to write about without delivering a dissertation about the entire story, but we're thinking specifically about Folka, Iver and Juno, who really get room to unfold.
Stoic even manages to make room for very different but coexisting narratives in this third game. The suicide mission into the darkness that has mutated the entire continent and the big, political game that plays out at the edge of apocalypse, at Arberrang. Here the gameplay suddenly takes a turn to fit directly into the flow of the story, when the capital falls to anarchy, and the amount of clansfolk, warriors, varl and other choices made along the way are collected and counted before the end. No more traveling, now a stand must be made. We had 13 days to prepare and it created this great, tense atmosphere, lighting the fire beneath the climax of Stoic's melancholic tale. The aforementioned critique of the wandering battles falls a bit flat now that the intensity surrounding the player's efforts are turned up to 11. It doesn't feel like a desperate move to inject some excitement into the game, but a well thought out choice that falls neatly into place with the narrative.
A salute needs to be sounded for Austin Wintory as well, the vastly talented songwriter and composer who has delivered the score to the entire trilogy. Without moving around too many motifs, he has managed to create a doomsday prophecy of a soundtrack, which fits perfectly with the finality of the experience we had with The Banner Saga 3. In many ways the solemn violin dives, and in general, the distressing, conclusive story echoes the escalating fiery hell that countries around the world are currently experiencing firsthand.
There is not much more to write other than that The Banner Saga is on equal terms with grand tales like Mass Effect, Lost Odyssey, and the Drakengard series. We hesitate to call it epic because it really isn't; it is melancholy, sad, desperate, and it's about the small man's fight for survival against the unknown, the strange, and the supernatural. If Stoic Studio continues with this level of quality in their future releases, we dare to (tentatively) suggest that we might have found the heir to BioWare's throne, and that makes us very happy indeed.