July 26, 2018, will be remembered as a solemn day for devotees of the phenomenal Banner Saga. As you can guess or already know if you belong to that enlightened bunch, that was the day when the third and (as it currently seems) final installment of the series has been officially released. Now, if it sounds that I’m getting just a tad over emotional because of the whole affair, that’s because I actually am. After all, even old, road-weary, battle-hardened veterans have the right to shed one or two frugal soldier’s tears into the frozen wasteland when nobody’s looking. The long Nordic odyssey through harsh frostbitten landscapes of a crumbling word on a brink of the apocalypse is finally coming to an end. All of us who willingly traveled, suffered, hoped, rejoiced and wept for fallen friends with Alette, her father Rook and other wayfarers, will finally see what last surprise fate has in store them.
Without getting into too much detail and spoiling the fun for those who haven’t yet played the previous two games, here’s a brief outline of the general background, just to know what you’re getting yourself into if you decide to embark on this journey. The Banner Saga takes place in a mythical Viking inspired world where gods are dead and the Sun had suddenly stopped moving on its course, heralding the end of all creation. In the wake of these events, legendary stone-clad creatures known as the Dredge, thought long banished to the northernmost reaches of the world, have suddenly reappeared, destroying everything on their warpath.
The humans and Varl, a race of horned giants that resemble the Vikings of old, are forced to renew old pacts and unite in their struggle against the Dredge. As if all that wasn’t enough, a gigantic eel-like serpent destined to devour the world is literally gobbling the land as if searching for something. But then, in the midst all these troubles, a new threat appears, the one that even overshadows the great serpent itself – a strange darkness slowly starts enveloping the land bringing corruption, death, and destruction to everything it touches.
It’s obvious that the journey that led us here during the course of the previous two games was extremely eventful, to say the least. That’s why you should take the enumeration of Banner Saga with a grain of salt because this is in no way an independent title. True, the developers strived to logically and narratively define each segment as much as possible, but Banner Saga actually features one seamless and continuous storyline, divided for the sake of convenience and the apparent reasons of the production and financing into three sequels. Because of that fact, Banner Saga 3 starts with the chapter 16, at the precise time and place where we left our heroes.
One group, led by Alette or Rook (depending on the pivotal choice you’ve made in the previous game) is finally staying in one place for a change. They are situated behind the walls of the city of Arbberang, where mankind and a couple of other races joined into a brittle and uneasy alliance are preparing to make their last stand. When you take the control over this particular group, our old and much-despised acquaintance Rugga will be at the gates, trying to claim the city and the crown for himself. However, the enemy outside of Arbberang’s imposing fortifications won’t be your biggest problem – the seeds of discord sown a long time ago among the stout-hearted but fractured defenders will finally start to bear particularly ugly and poisonous fruit, threatening to destroy what little the survivors have left. Soon enough, even the fork-tongued Rugga and his bannermen will be granted a temporary clemency and allowed to take refuge in Arbberang. When the Dredge, villains from the previous two games, come fleeing before the all-devouring darkness, with a desperate plea for help, you’ll know that the events, as well the state of profound confusion, have reached the breaking point and that your chances for survival are slim to none.
At the same time, spellweavers Juno and Eyvind accompanied by Iver the Varl and the Ravens mercenary company are on the move, in a desperate attempt to stave off the emerging gloom, travelling the ravaged land enclosed in the flimsy protective sphere of magical light as some small, storm-driven firefly rushing into the very heart of darkness. But their particular quest isn’t just reduced to a long stroll towards an uncertain fate – between them and their goal will be a new kind of enemies. These so-called Warped are actually foes you’ve met before on your journeys but are now irreparably distorted by the corruptive influence of the darkness and granted new fighting abilities. Another novelty is that you’ll finally get to control Juno as a playable character and employ her powerful spells in combat.
As always, the familiar split storytelling system of Banner Saga works great. There are two seemingly independent narrative branches which will form a full circle and join at one cathartic moment. The thing that you’ll be painfully aware of from the very start of Banner Saga 3 is that time is not on your side. It’s not that the overall sense of tension will force you to feverishly pursue the game to the end (although that will certainly be true for most players), but time is an integral factor of the game – there is a literal counter ticking away, so make sure that your every action and sacrifice is as meaningful as possible. The very notion that the fate of the whole world rests on your able, but increasingly tired shoulders, and that every unduly delay can cause the death of your friends and innocent civilians, will prod you to continue as best as you can, although the enemies certainly won’t give you any quarter nor respite.
In addition to the rich narrative component, the combat makes another equally important aspect of Banner Saga 3. It essentially remained unchanged, with the same turn-based structure and attributes such as strength, armor, exertion, break, and willpower. This sounds pretty standard, but the combat system of Banner Saga series has a few interesting twists that make it rather unique. For instance, the strength here determines both the damage you deal and health, while willpower is used to fuel special attacks and abilities, as well as to deal extra damage or enable you to move a few squares further. However, willpower can’t be replenished during combat, so make every spent point count. After each successful kill, you’ll be awarded a certain number of renown points, which you’ll be able to spend to upgrade your characters. Those heroes under your command which had fainted during combat will become injured, which is something that you should avoid whenever you can. Probably the greatest innovation when it comes to the combat is the waves mechanic. Just as it sounds, you’ll get to face several waves of enemies and, if you manage to hold to the end and defeat the mini-boss, you’ll get a high-level item.
The visual presentation of Banner Saga 3 is of such distinguished quality that it deserves a separate essay. Since that isn’t really possible in this case, it will suffice to say that the designers of the game had pushed the borders of the classic artistic illustration and animation to the very limits. As you observe the delicate and precise drawing and vibrant colors that glow warmly like embers amidst all that gloom and desperation, you’ll rightly think that you can’t do much better than this. Superb design, fluid animation, and bold perspective, revealing distant vistas of great magnificence, clear-cut and sparkling, as if seen through the wintery crisp air will remind you of works of Eyvind Earle.
Finally, Austin Wintory’s music score is a fluid that binds all those spectacular narrative, gameplay, and visual components together. Sensitive, dramatic, epic or sad, his music is capable of perfectly highlighting every emotion and elevating Banner Saga 3 to the level of a true work of art.
Even more than the previous two parts, Banner Saga 3 successfully conveys the feeling that everything, including the very ground you’re walking on, is irretrievably crumbling away, and that everyone you know and care for is unavoidably heading towards some bitter end. However, this doom and gloom narrative is wonderfully interspersed with precious moments of kindness, gentleness, and love, which make all the hardships of your travel and fights if not a bit easier, than certainly more meaningful. If you haven’t played any of the Banner Saga titles yet, know that I envy you on your chance to experience it as it ideally should be: as an integral storyline, not broken by long interruptions which to a certain extent diminish the tension, suspense, and emotional involvement with the characters. If you are one of those people who like to wait until the time when the whole season of some TV show is released, and then you greedily gulp and binge it in one sitting, you have a perfect opportunity to do so with the Banner Saga series. Go for it and never look back, because of all games inspired by the Viking world, sensibility and mythology of the heroic Banner series is the only one completely deserving the noble title of the saga.