The most ambitious storytelling franchise since Mass Effect finally comes to a conclusion and only you can decide what happens.
Its four years now since developer Stoic, who count many BioWare veterans amongst their number, embarked upon their epic Viking-inspired adventure. The games themselves have changed little in that time but the story and characters have evolved greatly, as the full weight and horror of their situation becomes clear. It is possible to get a happy ending out of The Banner Saga but the odds are against you, and the only way to find out how it ends is to play it yourself.
Although The Banner Saga has little in common with BioWare games in terms of gameplay mechanics there is a clear connection with Mass Effect, in the way that it uses the saves from the previous games in the new ones – so that all the decisions youve made before (and permadeath characters youve killed) are carried through the whole story.
But unlike Mass Effect these arent really separate games but merely chapters of a single story. You can start by playing The Banner Saga 3 and ignore the others but its not something wed advise. Not only will you have barely any idea whats going on (theres a recap at the start but its really only for people that have forgotten what happened last time, rather than new players) but seeing your decisions affect the final outcome is the main draw of the series.
Since this is the third game were going to have to be careful about spoilers, although we confess were not entirely sure which elements of the story are set in stone and which a consequence of previous actions. But the basic set-up is a spin on Nordic folklore, that takes place in a semi-fantastical version of Scandinavia where the land has been cast into a perpetual twilight. The tone is more melancholic than most BioWare games, and moments of humour are rare.
Although there are many sub-factions ordinary humans mix with horned giants called Varl, as they flee from golem-like monsters called the Dredge. In the previous games your primary concern was protecting refugees and building up both your supplies and your cadre of warriors. But all that is over in the third game, as neatly underlined by the fact that the timer which used to show the passing days and weeks is now counting down towards the end of the world.
As such, the plot has two focuses: the main group of survivors who are under siege by the Dredge in the last safe castle in the land, and a smaller team of mercenaries who are attempting to prevent the end of everything by getting to the source of the evil.
The gameplay in all three games has only varied a little and beyond the story-based and strategic decision-making, the majority of your time is spent in a turn-based tactical battle system not dissimilar to Final Fantasy Tactics et al.
Moving around on an isometric grid is reminiscent of everything from Disgaea to XCOM, although one of the main differences is that each combatant has a separate rating for strength and armour, the former determining not only how much damage they can do but also acting as their health points. This means the more injured a character is the less effective they are at fighting, which is not only more realistic but creates an interesting tactical dilemma when deciding where to focus your attacks and when to finish someone off. Especially considering every character is subject to permadeath.
There are new elements unique to the third game though, including the fact that you can now control Dredge characters. But the most significant difference is that enemies will now attack in waves and if you dont clear one before the next arrives youre in serious trouble. In this way the game reemphasis the fact that time is always against you, especially as you face off against new types of mutated enemies that explode when theyre defeated.
The combat is enjoyable and interesting but in truth its never seemed quite engaging enough to support a whole trilogy of games. Except for the inflexible isometric camera angles its perfectly entertaining, but the storytelling is the real appeal. Anyone thats been playing since the first game will (hopefully) have several characters that have lasted the entire story and finding out what happens to them, or losing them in the final hours, creates a wonderful mix of tension and dread.
However, the question arises, as it always does with narrative-branching games, as to how much your decisions are really affecting the overall story. Characters can live and die, and how much resources youve accrued is certainly important, but it does seem as if some of the decisions you make right at the end of this sequel have far more effect on the various alternative endings than anything that happened before.
And considering the story is key the games punishingly hard difficult doesnt really make much sense and feels unnecessarily frustrating. As does the sparse voice-acting, which really undercuts some of the most dramatic moments. Thats presumably a budgetary restraint, and yet the beautiful hand-drawn artwork and haunting soundtrack feels like its had no expense spared, which is peculiar.
But all these are flaws that have been obvious, to one extent or the other, throughout the series and in most regards this is still a very satisfying finale. To anyone new to the series wed certainly recommend the trilogy set, which is currently selling for £39.99 or less, and we look forward to whatever Stoic do next. But we do hope its something a little more flexible, in terms of both gameplay and tone.
The Banner Saga 3
In Short: Not a good standalone game but a fine ending to the trilogy, that manages to make three games feel like one.
Pros: Stunning art design and the nuanced decision-making is some of the most compelling in all gaming. Despite its problems the battle system has some interesting ideas.
Cons: Battle system is still too repetitive and insubstantial. Unnecessary difficult and the lack of voice-acting hurts the storytelling. New players should really start from the beginning.
Formats: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, PlayStation 4, and Nintendo Switch
Publisher: Versus Evil
Release Date: 26th July 2018
Age Rating: 16