Review: The Banner Saga 326 Jul 2018 0
Review: The Banner Saga 3
Released 26 Jul 2018
I almost remember how The Banner Saga started out as a tiny multiplayer demo on Steam. Ah, those were the days. Luckily, those days led to even better days as Banner Saga turned out to be quite the game, both in its sense of narrative and in how it played. That fine tradition was carried on into The Banner Saga 2, and now here we are at the end of the journey, reviewing The Banner Saga 3.
Previously, on The Banner Saga: the sun had stopped in the sky, the horned giants – The Varl - were dying a slow death while the gods were already dead. And then the stone-clad dredge returned in a horde that overwhelmed all defenses. Huntsman Rook, his daughter Allette and some of their friends, both human and varl, set out on the road to reach safety, adding new survivors to their convoy and flags to their banner. Then a world-shattering snake appeared, and an all-consuming wall of darkness began expanding from the north. Now, Rook (or Alette) and most surviving humans and varl are besieged in Aberrang, the last human city, while mages Juno and Eyvind, as well as legendary varl warrior Ivar, are traveling towards the heart of darkness, with Raven mercenaries of dubious loyalty in tow. The survival of everything is at stake.
So, there's a little less traveling and convoy management in this game. In past games the management of the convoy was a very serious things. You had to keep your people supplied, their morale up, and allot renown expenditure between leveling up warriors, buying them relics to use and purchasing more supplies. Well, the tiny expedition into the darkness doesn't have to worry about such things, but people in Aberrang still do.
On the other hand, you will still have plenty of dialogues to go through, although you’ll find exposition outnumbers the text-based adventure elements. The world is still interesting and colorful characters keep joining your crew, so that's not exactly a complaint, mind, and your choices still impact the game in meaningful ways.
On to combat: The Banner Saga formula is relatively simple. You have a handful of soldiers selected from your roster of available heroes. They move on a square-grid map, while initiative bids the player to move a soldier before the enemy does the same. A warrior can move and then either attack or use a special power. Attacking forfeits movement, and not moving allows a soldier to take a rest to restore willpower (and maybe more).
Willpower is used to fire abilities or boost movement or damage. What's more important is how characters are defined by armor and strength. Strength combines your health points and your damage dealing stat - so getting damaged means becoming less powerful in the fight. However, you can only damage an enemy's strength if your score is higher than their armor. So, you can direct attacks to strip armor – but that is less efficient, since it feeds off another stat. This allows for a lot of depth and challenge – if strength translated into 1:1 armor damage like it does with, well, strength, the game would be too easy.
So, combat in Banner Saga 3 is still the same tactical puzzle and the fight starts even before the actual fighting begins. You need to decide on the combination of troops that you'll take, as well as what single, level-locked relic you'll give each of them. You also need to decide the initiative order – maybe putting the slow-moving varl first isn't the best idea. On the battlefield, you need to take note of both the race and the class of your troopers. Varl like Hakon, Iver, Barsi and others are your blunt instruments, ranging from tanks to raging bruisers. Humans are weaker, but trickier – some can even call in allies, which, at the very least, gives more targets for the enemy. The mages are the trickiest of all to use, especially considering how fragile and reliant on willpower they are.
It's not that hard to boost willpower in the Aberrang part – you still get the horn that stores additional willpower from kills, which can then be given to an acting troop. However, the more mage-heavy convoy uses kills to fuel charges for arc lightning spells. And those are hard to pull off, considering that enemies have to stand diagonally (and the spell chains to friendlies, too) – made all the more difficult by the larger dredge and varl types.
Ah, but there's another new thing that feeds on your greed as a player. While most scenario battles end when you crush the enemy, some now offer waves. If you finish off the first one before the other hits, you have the option of choosing to fight on – or flee. If you stand, you have the chance of gaining more experience for your warriors, more renown... but, more importantly, a relic that a boss-ish monster will be carrying. Luckily, you can switch out soldiers between waves – some might be already out of action, others might be severely weakened. But it's a trade-off, then, between gunning for more renown and relics, and risking more wounded troops.
But whatever you do, the game will look amazing. The developers are still masters of 2D art, and their attention to detail – whether in the side-scrolling caravan sections or combat – has yet to diminish. I just love the way they set the stage for battles with the static action surrounding the field. Banner Saga 3 is just one more proof that good 2D will always trump bad or passable 3D – something more developers could try to understand. The sound isn't bad, either – the music is top notch and we're getting more voiced narrative lines than before.
All in all, The Banner Saga 3 is a fitting end of the series. New characters and new gameplay elements keeps the action fresh while you delve into the mysteries of the world. And crushing enemies with the varl that kept you company through previous games – and end game saves – never gets old. I can't wait to see what the team end up doing next.