The Banner Saga 3 Review

By Mark Delaney, 4 months ago
While the film industry has had its fair share of trilogies, games have had far fewer, and probably a poorer success rate of making them three complete and worthwhile parts. There are a few, sure. Mass Effect and Gears of War come to mind, among a small handful of others. Few, however, have been as consistent as Stoic's Norse fantasy, The Banner Saga. With its final installment, the indie studio concludes a journey that began over half a decade ago when its founders left BioWare. Paced urgently while delivering tough choices and memorable character closure, The Banner Saga 3 is a finale worthy of all that came before it. It's a game, and truly a trilogy, not to be missed.


The Banner Saga 3 doesn't change a whole lot from its predecessors. Like the sequel, it mostly returns the same tactical, grid-based combat you seen in the debut from 2014. New this time are some wretched enemies unique to the suicide mission setting of one half of your party. They bring a slight new strategic wrinkle to the battlefield as their remains will do you harm should you pass over them. Also, new this time is an optional wave-based approach to combat scenarios that reward you with powerful items should you decide to stick it out to the bitter end of some fights rather than flee after the first wave.

It's a welcome addition, but otherwise, the combat is more of the same and that's okay. The combat system has always felt great in this series. Its approach of tying damage output and health to the same stat makes for some real battles of attrition, especially as you go on and the enemies really pile on in both volume and strength. One issue that does pop up one final time is the UI. With so much information to get across at any one time, it can all often get in the way, quite often literally. It won't just be that stats, descriptions, and other key info often fills the screen, but they can overlap at times. This is usually fixable thanks to some player inputs that can minimize what you're seeing and how you're seeing it, but it's still a blemish and a legacy one at that.

Aside from those visual blemishes, the rest of the game is downright gorgeous. Handcrafted with a classic Disney style, the series has always been astounding in this respect. Full-motion animations feel like epic scenes from a great animated film, but even in dialogue when the characters are more stationary, subtle movements make them come alive. This is aided by more fantastic writing for which the series has been known. The Banner Saga 3 maintains the great tabletop RPG quality to the series, and all the reading the game has you do feels like a truly special gamemaster is leading the way. These narrations are excellent at setting the scene, and it's always aided by less-is-more audio design creating a game dripping with atmosphere. Austin Wintory also returns as the game's composer and once again it's apparent this series may be his finest work. In nearly every way, the game is an audiovisual masterpiece.

Visually, the series has always been stunning.Visually, the series has always been stunning.

Of course, anyone who is playing The Banner Saga 3 is doing so for one very important reason above all others: the story. It can be tough to stick the landing in a trilogy and we can point to a dozen examples of stories failing to do so. The Banner Saga is no such case. This third installment is a bit shorter than the others, but not at any great cost. It's paced urgently, in a way not dissimilar to Mass Effect 3. We spent two games setting up all these dominoes, with a fair few falling on the way, but here is where they all begin to rapidly collapse. Not everyone will make it to the end credits, and knowing that's always been the case with this series, it makes this finale feel like anything goes.

The game still satisfyingly makes time for character moments, the likes of which its predecessors did as well, and virtually all characters in your party get a fair sendoff in some form, even as for several of them, the results may be so varied per player. A few more characters are even introduced here in these late stages, and they manage to leave their mark in the series' home stretch nonetheless. A few character moments intended for levity end up feeling like misplaced comic relief, but these are the exception to the otherwise stellar plot and pacing. To say the story is wrapped up neatly doesn't seem fitting, as it's deliberately messy, what with all the political turmoil and world-saving going on, but it's done so with great care and makes for a conclusion so satisfying no matter which of the several endings you receive when it's all done.

Some jokes were poorly timed, but I did appreciate this one.Some jokes were poorly timed, but I did appreciate this one.

The Banner Saga is certainly a story about the journey more than the destination, but that's not said in the way that often comes off as a copout. It's a fantastic final chapter. As I sat down for what I sensed would be my last session before I finished the game, I actually grew nervous about what I would have to do, about how it would all turn out, about who would be left alive to see it happen. As fun and engaging as the turn-based tactical combat is, The Banner Saga has always been a series about its narrative. It feels so good to see it close out so remarkably.

The achievements will demand multiple playthroughs and careful plotting of decisions. Some achievements exist in direct conflict with others, but there are still many that can be picked up on your first run. Like before, you'll again need to beat the game on hard difficulty and to do so never losing a single battle. For those who have played before, it'll come as the last challenge from a series that has thrown it at them before.

Check out our Best Xbox RPGs Available in 2017 article for a compilation of other great games in this genre.

Summary

It's true that from an innovation standpoint, The Banner Saga 3 doesn't do a lot different than its predecessors, but that also means the same great tactical RPG system that has been in place since the beginning makes one final push for the endgame. That endgame is what really makes the game so worthwhile. With heavy decisions to be made and fantastic character closure, The Banner Saga 3 is the most riveting and remarkable the series has ever been, and it establishes the trilogy as one of the greats in gaming.
4.5 / 5
The Banner Saga 3
Positives
  • A memorable sendoff to one a gaming's great trilogies
  • Satisfying character conclusions
  • Very difficult choices
  • Well paced, it feels like everything is coming to its dramatic end
Negatives
  • A few poorly timed jokes get in the way of the mood
  • Legacy UI issues remain
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent eight hours closing out the story of The Banner Saga, often nervously awaiting what would happen next and to whom. He gathered 20 achievements for 355 gamerscore. A review copy was provided by the publisher.
Please read our Review and Ethics Statement for more information.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a Boston native now living in Portland, Oregon. He's the Editorial Manager on TA, loves story-first games, and is the host of the community game club TA Playlist. Outside of games he likes biking, sci-fi, the NFL, and spending time with his family. He almost never writes in the third person.