The conclusion to this beautiful, melancholic saga.
You wouldn’t start Lord of the Rings with The Return Of The King. And you wouldn’t start Star Wars with Return Of The Jedi. Likewise, you shouldn’t start the Banner Saga with this third and final game in the trilogy.
You’re prompted at the start to import your save file from the previous games, allowing you to continue the quest with your story choices and army of characters. For newcomers, you can watch a recap video in the main menu, but it’s all too brief.
From there, it begins with Chapter 16 and you’re thrown immediately into the midst of plot. The Banner Saga is (initially at least) a complex beast and without prior knowledge of the series, you’ll be drowning in character and place names, insurmountable story arcs, and a daunting battle system overflowing with numbers. Fans, though, will lap it up.
The series is set in a Norse-inspired world of perpetual twilight, abandoned by the gods and inhabited by men, magic-wielding Valka, giant Varl, the centaur horseborn, and an evil ancient race known as the Dredge. As is typical of Norse mythology it is apocalyptic and melancholic in tone, full of misery and death. But this low fantasy has moments of excitement too, heightened by the beautiful animated art.
In this third game, the narrative is split in two. The hunter Rook, now head of his caravan, has reached the city of Arberrang where warring factions scheme and plot. Keeping the peace is no easy feat, and soon the city is besieged by the Dredge and a surrounding darkness. Parallel to this is the Varl Iver, escorting the Valka Juno and her apprentice Eyvind on a perilous quest that could save the world.
It’s the writing that really makes The Banner Saga so gripping. It is wonderfully descriptive, adding literary details to enhance the simple graphics and creating believable characters with cloudy motives. Really, it feels like an interactive novel, the rich storytelling punctuated by battles and accompanied by an epic (if underused) score.
An optional tutorial explains the very basics of the battle system, but it’s otherwise intimidating. Fights are turn-based, with characters laid out on a grid, able to move a set number of squares and attack enemies with a range of weapons and abilities that require strategy to fully utilise. The main hook is choosing to break an enemy’s shield, or deal direct damage: breaking a shield gives you a higher likelihood of your attacks hitting, but as strength and health are tied together in the same stat you’ll want to deal heavy damage to prevent enemies from damaging you in return. It’s a smart system that’s actually quite simple to get to grips with.
In many games of this type, your characters permanently die if they fall in battle. Not so here: instead they’re merely injured for a set number of battles, lowering their stats. What’s more, there are no game over screens here. Lose a battle and the game continues regardless without offering a second chance. It’s strange and at odds with the brutal narrative, though at least the story is kept moving at a swift pace.
The game is streamlined, alternating between character conversations, battles and 2D scenes of your group trudging drearily along their path, with the odd animated scene for good measure. Though obtuse, it is a beautiful game to behold, with a likeable cast of characters and satisfying gameplay.
That said, it does eventually run out of steam. The juxtaposition of Iver’s desperate quest and Rook trapped in the city makes the latter’s story arc stall. The plot is driven by small character moments rather than sweeping set-pieces, which absolutely require investment in the previous games, or else this ending to the trilogy feels anti-climactic and sudden.
The battles, too, begin to lose their appeal. Little variety in enemy types and battle arenas mean that fights become repetitive. It’s all too easy to lose a whole string of fights, leaving your characters injured and handicapped – relentlessly losing each battle is disheartening, despite the story ploughing ahead anyway.
Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of character customisation. Each member of the party is set in their weapons, abilities and equipment, and they all have access to the same set of passive abilities. So while the writing suggests great individuality, the gameplay doesn’t follow suit.
Still, it’s the story that’s the primary reason for playing The Banner Saga trilogy. This Viking world of death and sadness is utterly captivating, thriving on its poetic writing. Just make sure you start from the very beginning.