By Evan Lewis
July 26, 2018 at 09:00 AM EDT
Stoic Studio/Versus Evil

The Banner Saga, Stoic Studio’s three-part fantasy epic, presents a broken world in which a tale of dead gods and Viking ragnarok-fatalism is made vibrant by imaginative artistry and rarified levels of narrative personalization. As the culmination of the trilogy, The Banner Saga 3 remembers every choice the protagonist has made throughout the first two entries, but unlike some IPs with save import functionality, the result is much broader in its impact than an occasional reference to an old ally or optional subplot.

TBS 1 and 2 focused largely on maintaining supplies and caravan morale while keeping beleaguered clansmen alive through a country-spanning journey. TBS 3 keeps those caravan management systems in place to some extent, but, after a particular turning point, uses the decisions the player-chosen protagonist (hunter Rook or his daughter Alette) has made throughout the franchise and the resulting strength of his or her clan as a resource unto itself, designed for fending off the all-encompassing darkness that approaches and the chaos that reigns in the streets of the fortified human capital of Arberrang.

Venturing into the darkness, renowned varl (The Banner Saga’s species of horned giants) Iver leads two powerful magic users in a race to undo the damage they have caused and potentially save what remains of the world. All the while, that group is harried by a vengeful varl berserk and a world-eating serpent.

In both of these main storylines of TBS 3, the emphasis is placed firmly on narrative momentum, replacing the slower, more arduous ambiance of the previous games with white-knuckle tension. Constantly as I played, especially when the perspective would shift from one story to the other, I would wonder if I had done enough to persist through the darkness.

The overarching story of The Banner Saga is compelling enough, but it’s the smaller character moments and conversations that make the writing stand out. At one point in TBS 3, an elderly scrivener who delights in knowledge and cultural exchange explains to the protagonist that a historical record is incomplete truth if it doesn’t represent the hopes, fears, and emotions of the people involved. The Stoic team seems to have written the story of The Banner Saga with this philosophy in mind.

With so many characters in each of the series’ caravans, it’s an impressive feat that so many of them are made to be so endearing so quickly. Almost all conversations are text-based, with a few fully voice-acted exceptions, but characters are fleshed out with an admirable efficiency due to clever writing and, in no small part, their expressively illustrated visual designs.

Conversations in TBS 3, if they’re given their due time and attention, can touch on themes from sexism to coming to terms with aging, death and legacy.

A conversation I found particularly touching involved a spearman named Tryggvi, who has been depicted throughout the series mostly as a comic relief oddball. At an inopportune time, Tryggvi approaches the protagonist and asks him or her a series of labyrinthine questions, eventually leading to a request to help him find a missing necklace. The pressure to bypass Tryggvi and fortify the city is high, but if the protagonist stays until the end of the conversation, Tryggvi explains that he’s aware of his own mental illness and that the necklace helps him to manage it. It’s a moment that begins as a joke but ends as a demonstration of compassion and understanding. Given the unforgiving nature of TBS, listening to Tryggvi could have led to disaster, but hearing him out became one of the pieces of the game that most stuck with me.

The effectiveness of these character moments is part of what makes it so devastating to lose members of the team. Video games are no strangers to grit and darkness, but there are few that can truly be said to have earned the designation of tragic. Losses, even of longtime, essential allies, are abrupt and irreversible in TBS, and making the wrong decision in a conversation can alienate an entire faction or species following your banner, but the clan must continue on regardless.

One of my characters was felled during a moment of heroism by an anonymous spear thrown from an angry mob. Another was murdered by a former friend in a meaningless dispute. Both of their stories were lost to me from then on.

When I watch something like Game of Thrones, I’ll often feel a twang of resentment toward the show’s writers for making a hostile decision toward a beloved character, but with The Banner Saga, I found myself confronted with the realization that I was at fault. Rather than asking “why would the writers at Stoic do this?” I frequently found myself asking questions like, “What have I done? How could I have prevented this? Did I make the right choice?”

All the Banner Saga games, particularly the third, had me grappling with some weighty moral decisions about the type of leader I wanted to be. Throughout the game, text prompts appear at certain intervals with conflicts for the protagonist to resolve. Choosing from the available response options can lead to either boon or catastrophe, depending on the stakes, and it’s never totally clear which option will lead to what.

I found myself developing a philosophy for leadership as I played. Would I do whatever was in my power to protect the people allied to my banner? Would I continually show compassion to the helpless and accept refugees into my camp, even at great personal or political cost? Would I maintain the largest possible fighting force, despite ideological differences with certain factions in my ranks? I personally attempted to combine the second and third strategies, but occasionally disputes among my people would force me into a corner.

Stoic Studio/Versus Evil

Holding all of this storytelling together is a spine of tactical, turn-based gameplay. The strategic variety in the isometric grid battles is plentiful, with each encounter employing six fighters from the caravan whose strengths and weaknesses can complement each other in plentiful ways. TBS 2 introduced a variety of new character types, both enemy and ally, and TBS 3 deepens the RPG character customization even further.

In addition to stat points, skills, and talents, each character in TBS 3, upon reaching level 11, can be granted a heroic title. These titles, such as “The Mountain” and “The Wolf,” impart powerful bonuses that can reshape the way a character plays, but there are a finite number of titles available, and each one can only be used for a single character. If that character happens to die, the title is gone for good.

A new wave-based combat mechanic also helps to refine a system from the first two games in which the player can choose after a battle whether to retreat or continue fighting. In TBS 3, after choosing to fight another wave of enemies, the player can call in reinforcements to replace injured characters, and can reposition units within a preset section of the map. If the player’s team defeats every wave, the boss in the final wave will be guaranteed to drop a powerful item. It’s a rework that adds some much appreciated clarity to combat systems, which in previous games could be a bit opaque.

That type of occasional inscrutability may be the biggest flaw of the franchise in general and it’s not totally gone in TBS 3. Some skill and talent tooltips aren’t as clear as they could be, and that can sometimes make it difficult to discern exactly how characters will function in the game’s multi-layered combat. But that’s a minor quibble, far outweighed by the production value in other areas.

Composer Austin Wintory (Journey) returns for the third installment with another excellent score, and the hand drawn character animations and cutscenes are still colorful and unique. Every part of The Banner Saga 3 will satisfy those who have waited since 2016’s TBS 2 cliffhanger, but depending on the choices those players have made, it may also leave them profoundly sad. It’s rare for a game to be as affecting as The Banner Saga 3, especially for fans who have followed the franchise from the beginning. A-