Oh no. No, no, no, no, no. This won’t do at all.
I’m aware that after 2016’s excellent Banner Saga 2 my expectations for Banner Saga 3 were somewhat high. I’m aware that it would have had a tricky time meeting them, and that it not doing so is going to inevitably cause me to come down on the game somewhat harder than I might have were it a standalone game rather than the concluding segment of a three-part trilogy. Nevertheless, The Banner Saga 3 is an intensely disappointing and frustrating game, partly as a result of Stoic being trapped by their own narrative and mechanical decisions, and partly because it’s absolutely chock-full of bugs. There is a long, long list of legitimate criticisms to be made of this game regardless of what my expectations may or may not have been, so we’ll start with those and leave the angry ranting to the end of the review. It’s more fun that way anyway.
The Banner Saga 3 picks up right where the second installment left off and uses the same conceit of having parallel storylines following two separate groups of people as they battle their way through a world that’s in the process of, quite literally, going to hell. The first is led by series protagonist Rook or Alette, depending on choices you made at the end of the first game — it’s this sort of thing that makes me think that maybe I don’t give The Banner Saga 3 quite enough credit, as most series would have found an extremely unsatisfying method of un-branching that narrative within a couple of hours of the start of The Banner Saga 2 in order to make the developers’ lives easier, but The Banner Saga sticks with it all the way to the end of the storyline. In my game it was Rook that had chivvied the original caravan all the way to the human capital of Aberrang in an attempt to escape an encroaching sphere of apocalyptic darkness; having finally reached his destination, Rook spends the entirety of Banner Saga 3 in Aberrang trying to stop the city from tearing itself apart as the darkness grows ever closer. Meanwhile erstwhile mercenary company the Ravens, now missing their berserker leader Bolverk, are following sorcerers Eyvind and Juno and the one-armed varl hero Iver into the darkness itself to try and find the source along with (presumably) a large red OFF button that they can push.
Both of these storylines are logical progressions of what was set up in Banner Saga 2 — and to be completely fair to 3, Rook’s story is admirably well-pitched from a narrative point of view. Aberrang is full of scared refugees and scheming villains who are entirely prepared to burn the entire thing down as long as they’re the ones standing on top of the ashes afterwards, and the darkness is driving a horde of stone-skinned Dredge before it who really, really want to get into Aberrang and don’t particularly care who they have to kill to do it. Rook tries to keep things together but the situation quickly spirals out of control, and his half of the storyline feels chaotic in a good way, like the situation is far bigger than one man’s ability to fix it and he might be better off just saving those he can. Unfortunately the transition from trekking across fantasy Norway to spending the entire game sitting on his ass in a city comes at a cost; the incredible vistas and backdrops that your caravan would trundle past are gone, replaced by the same three screens of a city under siege. Rook trudges from one side to the other and back again over and over, and the caravan management mechanics and the hard choices related to them barely feature, which is a huge loss for the game as it reduces the actual gameplay to some decent text-based sequences that are constantly interrupted by the interminably dull combat encounters.
It’s funny, really. The Banner Saga’s combat system — where each unit has an armour value that is directly subtracted from any strength attacks made against them meaning armour must be chipped away first in order to land any significantly damaging hits — has always seemed quite promising to me, and my opinion prior to playing 3 was that the flaws lay more in the execution than in the concept. The first game flubbed it somewhat by offering an extremely limited range of enemies to fight on an extremely limited set of flat, featureless battlefields, and by throwing far too many combat encounters at you throughout the game, but the second appeared to confirm my hypothesis about the execution as it was a little more sparing about how often it fell back to melee, on top of providing more unit variety and custom backdrops and mechanics for the battlefields that lent some weight to each encounter. I still viewed it as getting in the way of the actually good part of the game — the story — but the improvements had made it inoffensive enough that I didn’t mind that much.
Now, 3’s combat does much the same thing as 2 - in fact, almost exactly the same thing as 2. It uses the same range of enemies — humans, varl, horseborn, dredge — except in this case they’re mostly palette-swapped to make clear that they’ve been “warped” by the darkness. These warped variants have some new abilities but the combat is mostly business as usual on top of battlefields that look like they’ve been custom-drawn to fit the occasion, except because one group is staying in the same place the whole time and the other is wandering through an area that’s entirely drawn in shades of purple it’s difficult to really tell for sure. However, Banner Saga 3 makes the fateful decision to have your heroes hit an effective level cap about an hour into the game, instead switching to a set of talents and unique prestige classes that, while moderately impactful, do not represent the raw improvement that bulking an additional five points onto armour or strength would. The enemies you fight, on the other hand, appear to be under no such restrictions; towards the end of the game my archers had 9/9 armour and strength and had been stuck on 9/9 armour and strength for the last 7 hours, while the basic warped slingers I was fighting were walking around with 15/14. Having such high innate strength values on all of the enemies means that they can just blow past the armour of anyone who isn’t a shield-clutching colossus made out of stone without having to spend time breaking it, and consequently that fielding any class that doesn’t have their own innately high armour and stat values just gets them one-shot out of the combat.
This is what pisses me off about Banner Saga 3’s combat, really; the new talents and heroic classes and the items are all actually pretty good, and it would have been interesting to fight opponents who had access to the same abilities. Instead the game settles for increasing difficulty by making most of the enemies gigantic sacks of hitpoints in exactly the same way a bad first-person shooter would, and it makes combat an unutterably tedious affair as you painstakingly chip away at the armour and strength pools of another wave of five warped dredge colossi. I’m not doing anything different to beat these enemies. I’m doing exactly the same thing I was doing at the start of the game. It’s just that I’m having to do it for longer, and since this got old about a quarter of the way in it meant that by the end of the storyline I was literally screaming at the combat because it was so fucking boring. I mean it: the final battle, the crescendo of this thirty-hour trilogy, is fighting three waves of the same enemies you’ve been fighting all game, but with +50% armour and health each, in a battle that took nearly half an hour, and despite knowing that I was close to the end I still almost gave up because I couldn’t face having to burn down the final wave.
Anyway, now that we’ve talked about why the combat doesn’t work, let’s go back to talking about the caravan management — or the total lack of it. This has been possibly the defining feature of The Banner Saga series, and it’s barely paid lip service here. The Ravens don’t have any supplies or clansmen or fighters to keep track of, just a morale value that’s trivially easy to keep high just by talking to people when the opportunity arises. Rook does have caravan stats for the first half of the game, but it’s not woven into the narrative events anywhere near as deeply as the previous two games did. My impression that Stoic were having trouble thinking of good ways to use it were confirmed around the halfway point, when the caravan supplies and personnel were tossed out of the window entirely by being abstractly converted into a sort of Doomsday Clock; the choices I’d made up until that point in preserving 600 clansmen (or whatever) had bought me an additional 23 days of holding back the darkness from the walls of Aberrang while waiting for the Ravens to save the world. In other circumstances, I might have said that making the choices in one narrative strand have impact in the other like this is a good idea. There’s plenty of points in the Ravens’ journey where you’re given the chance to have a rest, or to take a slower, more cautious route around an obstacle — at the expense of some of that time that Rook is spending hitting nightmares from the beyond in the face with his axe. It’s a nice risk/reward mechanic, with just one tiny flaw.
It is utter bollocks.
I was suspicious of this Doomsday Clock mechanic from the get-go — I had managed to build up quite a lot of time, but then I’d gotten quite good outcomes on a lot of events; somebody less fortunate might have wound up with half the time (or less). The game gives you a flat amount of time (I think it’s around 10-ish days) as a baseline, with the bonus from your caravan stats being added onto the top, so it’s reasonable to assume the lower end of the time you can get here is 12-13 days. Whatever they give you to do in the Ravens storyline must be achievable in this timespan, with additional time simply giving you slightly more wiggle room to fuck up some of your decisions or combats. Sure enough, 13 days into this part of the game I hit a scripted event that decremented the counter from the remaining 10 days all the way down to 0, blowing away all of that time that my choices up until this point had supposedly bought. Far from being a tangible consequence of my actions, this simply emphasised that sacrificing the caravan upkeep mechanics in favour of the Doomsday Clock was entirely inconsequential, as all that happens when it reaches 0 is that you play the next part of Rook’s storyline, get a bit more time (and this time around the amount you get is completely static and equals exactly the amount of time required to get to the end of the game) and finally the action flips back to the Ravens for the end of the story.
This ensures that, in stark contrast to parts 1 and 2, The Banner Saga 3 comes across as a far more heavily scripted experience, like I was running down some plot rails towards an inevitable conclusion whether I liked it or not. And this is a shame, because it’s still a far more reactive game than your average Bioware RPG; it shows a willingness to stick with choices you made two games ago and has the courage to saddle you with some unbelievably significant consequences to your decisions that I really did not think would happen. It’s just that this time around it feels far more random because it’s based entirely on picking the right (or wrong) option in the text-based narrative segments rather than your choices in getting the caravan to that point, and for some of those choices it’s impossible to really tell what the outcome is going to be until you’ve made them. You might as well be flipping coins to decide who lives and dies for all the actual control you have over that happening.
There’s also something I touched on earlier: ditching the caravan mechanics not only robs the decision-making of much of its meaning and heft, it also cripples one of the series’ major strengths in the gorgeous stylised backdrops that set the scene for your travels across the world. Rook, as covered, spends the game in Aberrang, and while Stoic are by no means phoning in the Aberrang backdrops there’s only so much of Aberrang to go around; it gets quite passe the third or fourth time you walk past the same set of ruined walls. Meanwhile the Ravens are actually going somewhere, but the interior of the darkness they’re travelling through is not that dissimilar from the inside of a toilet, albeit one rendered in The Banner Saga’s signature style. Much like the combat, the terrain the Ravens travel through never changes and there’s nothing here to spice things up like the incredible bit in 2 where Eyvind raises up a rock bridge that the caravan can use to traverse a chasm. They spend the entire game trudging from left to right through this purple wasteland and that’s basically it for them. What art there is here is fine but there’s nothing for the artists to really work with, and it results in a much duller game than its predecessors.
Finally, the bugs, because oh my word there are a lot of them. Certainly I do not recall Banner Saga 2 being anywhere near this bug-infested, and they pushed what was already a very wobbly experience into being an actively frustrating one. In my eight hours with Banner Saga 3 I encountered:
- Two crashes to desktop after finishing a battle. Because the game only usually saves after a battle, and because it crashed before it got the chance to do this, this necessitated having to replay the last 15 minutes to get back to the point where it crashed.
- Juno got killed in a battle and went to the spirit world, which is her gimmick, except her inability to interact with physical objects apparently also extended to the game’s UI as I was unable to click on anything to issue orders. I had to quit out and restart — which, again, meant I had to redo the last 10-15 minutes.
- I ran into an enemy that dodged every single attack made against him with no explanation as to why. I eventually had to wear him down with the guaranteed hit morale power, which chips away 1 HP at a time. In this time he KOed three of my party.
- Party members who get KOed are injured. They show up in the party screen afterwards with a big “INJURED: 3 DAYS” or similar, which I assumed meant that they were injured and that they’d take 3 days to heal. Imagine my surprise when 10 days pass, I get to the next combat and it still says “INJURED: 3 DAYS”. It turns out you can only heal injury through resting and that the 3 actually refers to the strength penalty they get for being injured. I don’t know why the DAYS is there; I think it might be a leftover from part 2 that they haven’t changed, but this is a wilfully goddamn misleading UI.
- Many of your units’ special abilities travel on diagonals. I have yet to figure out what Stoic mean by this, because it isn’t the same as my definition of diagonal, which is “on a diagonal, i.e. out through the corners of the tile” — sometimes the ability would do this, but most of the time it would not. I could not predict how these ability effects would travel and the game does nothing to help you, so I gave up using them.
Stoic are an indie studio with limited resources and I would have been prepared to cut them significantly more slack here if the rest of the game had been good. It isn’t, though, so I won’t.
I know I said I’d leave the angry ranting to the end of the review, but now that I’ve gotten here I just feel a bit sad. Banner Saga 3 is certainly not devoid of merit; there could definitely stand to be a few more games that attempt to communicate the general atmosphere of grim helplessness that it does, of being swept up in events too large to control and having to make the best of it that you can instead of trying to save everyone. Its ongoing dedication to its branching narrative is also something to be admired, even if to get the most out of it I suspect you’d have to replay the entire trilogy. It’s just that of the three games, I feel it’s the one that fails hardest at actually being a game — something where the interactive component adds to what it’s trying to do instead of detracting from it quite as thoroughly as The Banner Saga 3’s mechanical missteps do here. True, it had quite a lot to live up to in my mind, but after 30 years (mis)spent playing videogames I’ve also learned to live with disappointment. All it really had to do was not fuck up too much and stick the landing in a vaguely satisfying fashion, and yet it’s turned out The Banner Saga 3 can’t even do that. A real shame.