The Final Act of 'The Banner Saga' Cements Its Bleak Greatness

'The Banner Saga 3' is a powerful conclusion that elevates the entire series.

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Aug 1 2018, 8:01pm

screenshots courtesy of Versus Evil

Note: This review contains potential spoilers for The Banner Saga 3. I’ve avoided giving away details about the story, but if you want to go in completely unspoiled for this branching narrative, you should pass on this review.

In a way, I’ve been playing The Banner Saga for the last four years. Since 2014, I’ve been accompanying this small band of characters on their long odysseys through the end of the world, never quite knowing how all this was going to turn out, or who—if anyone—would make it out alive. I still think about some of the characters I lost from my own stupid decisions. Though, I must say I never lost anyone on the tactical battlefield, but instead at various inflection points in the game’s visual novel narrative layer.

I don’t resent the game for this. It made those losses more painful and more shocking. One minute everyone is alive and healthy, and the next moment a friend and companion is lost to the most cruel and arbitrary death. It’s not necessarily your fault, but it is your story, and you’ll always wonder if maybe there was something you could have done differently.

I’ve had four years to think about that too, and make my peace with my own version of Stoic’s tactical fantasy epic. But Banner Saga 3 broke me. There’s such a weight of history between me and this cast of characters that as the losses started to pile up, I just couldn’t keep watching them get snuffed out because I said the wrong thing or, to be more accurate, because I kept acting as if Banner Saga 3 were a more uplifting and optimistic game than it really is.

The Banner Saga 3 picks up only minutes or seconds after the last game ended, and continues the tactical RPG / visual novel adventures of two very different groups of characters. In the besieged human capital, on the edge of civil war, invasion, and magical apocalypse all at once, a group of refugees-turned-heroes are desperately trying to stave off collapse and the probable annihilation. Meanwhile, a hardened and semi-criminal ban of mercenaries called the Ravens have been press-ganged into a desperate mission to save the world.

While the Banner Saga games bear a superficial resemblance to XCOM, they unfold according to very different logic. It’s an order-of-operations tactics game where one side moves a character, and then the other side gets to move a character. What this means is that focus-fire doesn’t work: You want to bleed enemy units without killing them so that the enemy has to burn moves on ineffective fighters, while the heavweights are stuck waiting for their turn.

The two armies you command in this game are very, very different. While the Rook / Alette army in the human capital is packed with tanks, archers, and damage-dealers that are easy enough to lead on the battlefield, the Ravens feels far trickier to command. Their units are less straightforward, and rely on mastering a series of tricky mechanical and positional interactions to make the most of them. Instead of instantly useful RPG archetypes, the Ravens have an old bard, a growing assortment of dubiously effective magicians, a giant who was as dangerous to his friend as his enemies, and some… guy named Dytch, who is perhaps the first Rando-class character in a tactical RPG (and who provides some of the most welcome and charming comic relief in this game).

But the battlefield has never really been the scariest part of this series. It’s the visual novel-style narrative sections where you make political and personal choices that can massively affect the direction the story takes. With the stakes higher than ever before, The Banner Saga 3’s narrative likewise feels more unforgiving than ever before. Time and again I’d choose the heroic, idealistic gesture… and watch as yet another ally paid the price for my folly. And while I haven’t quite finished (I’m stuck right near the end, due to a far more consequential incident I’ll get to later), it’s become crystal clear that is not going to let me get the painless resolution I have been hoping for.

You’d think in four years I’d have realized that is not that kind of story. Everything is not going to be all right, and sometimes people you love are going to be sacrificed for the greater good… or just to chance. That was the entire point of the first game but here in the last mile of the journey, I started hoping for “happily ever after.” Characters died because of that… and that’s when I realized that Banner Saga 3 lets you reload at various auto-save locations. Death need not be the end anymore. But there remains a huge gulf between survival and salvation, and at every turn the already grim world of the series edged toward funereal, no matter how I tried to rig its narrative systems in my favor.

The Banner Saga 3 is bleak, but also an immensely satisfying and consistent finale that pays off on Stoic’s work to date. While fully half of this final installment is concerned with a do-or-die mission to save the world, this is emphatically not a conventional “band of plucky heroes saves the world” fantasy story.

The slow-rolling apocalypse that’s unfolded across the last two games, and which reaches its zenith in this last one, remains in the backdrop to better highlight the game’s ambivalent exploration of humanity and ethics. If you want this to be a story where decency triumphs, where love is always redeeming, and people of good will can set aside their differences for the larger cause, you’re very likely to be disappointed. And maybe it’s the very fact that so many of us expect and even feel entitled to a happy ending that gets us into these messes.

I write all that, and admire the way The Banner Saga 3 brings it all into focus… but then I reach for the reload button. It’s the end of the world and entire civilizations are perishing, but my pal Rook has been through enough. Maybe we both have.

Actually, it’s not just sentiment that has me trying to undo some of the plot. This series has always run into problems with balancing its Renown system—the resource you earn via combat and important story beats that doubles as character XP and currency for the shops you encounter in settlements—against the inevitability that characters can perish abruptly and take all the resources you spent developing them to their grave. In Banner Saga 3, I lost one such character and instantly saw half of the campaign become crushingly difficult.

Because the game splits its focus between two vastly different parties, I definitely cultivated a few MVPs for each group and built my strategies around them. But it’s the Ravens who definitely have the tougher job in this game. While the refugee party in the human capital is capable of buzz-sawing through anyone stupid enough to challenge it (which makes for a pretty cool opening sequence, I must say), the Ravens’ trip into hostile territory pits them against some of the most difficult enemies in the series.

And just before things really started to escalate for them, I lost the linchpin of their lineup: Folka, the only character who can really soak damage and effectively protect allies, died at a pivotal moment in the story. Without her, the Ravens’ half of the campaign turned into a dispiriting slog that left me increasingly unable to tackle each challenge, because my fighters were coming into every fight already wounded. I am sure the answer is just getting better at commanding the Ravens in Folka’s absence, and making effective use of their spellcasters. But the challenge escalates so swiftly in the last act of The Banner Saga 3 that it felt like I’d run out of runway for learning to command such an unusual array of characters.

I wish that Banner Saga 3 gave you a little more time and space to play around with these characters and unit compositions. While you can always do practice matches in camp, it’s just not quite the same as fighting for real stakes on the battlefield. And Banner Saga 3 has some of the best battles and best ideas in the whole series.

In particular, some battles have a great “push your luck” aspect where, after defeating the first array of enemies, you have the option of fighting additional waves of reinforcements. You can also tag out weakened units for fresh soldiers from your bench. It’s pretty suspenseful when you’re facing down the third wave with a patchwork lineup of exhausted A-team members and oddball C-team hopefuls, and I was pushed to sort of invent and adapt to new tactical situations on the fly. If you fight through each wave, you typically get a nice piece of loot in addition to extra Renown. It’s an idea that I wish could be retrofitted to every earlier game, and that honestly doesn’t get used enough even in Banner Saga 3.

But considering my complaints and reservations about The Banner Saga 3, I think a lot them come down to wanting a little more time and a few more chances to get things right. Which is fitting, because that’s the central motivation of almost every character you meet, villain or hero.

While there are a couple of places where it feels like the difficulty ramps up too quickly, or where major plots twists unfold with barely a moment to react or comment, my fundamental reaction to The Banner Saga 3 is one of vindication. It turns out this was a journey worth taking, and a world worth keeping in my heart for the last few years. In the end it has justified its stylistic and narrative choices, and surpassed the hopes I had for it back when I played the first part of the trilogy. This final act may not offer a comfortable or easy resolution but then again, that was never really in the cards. Like I said before, it’s not that kind of story. And wishing it were otherwise only makes things worse.

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