As the culmination of a series that debuted back in 2014, The Banner Saga 3 feels almost as much as a reflection on the studio that has created it as it is the end to a striking and unique fantasy story. Coming from developer Stoic Studio, a small team made up of just three people when the original Banner Saga game was being developed, the studio has since expanded to take on a bigger and bolder vision with its acclaimed strategy-RPG series, and the third chapter in the series feels very much like its biggest vision yet.
With the trilogy now coming to a close later this month, The Banner Saga 3 so far looks to be delivering on bringing the studio’s debut vision to an ending that points to heartbreak, tragedy, and above all else, an epic concluding chapter.
Ahead of its release at the end of this month, I got to play a preview build from the first few chapters of The Banner Saga 3, to see where Stoic Studio is not only taking the series narratively towards its finale, but also in seeing the new gameplay features and changes that are building on the series’ foundations of strategy and storytelling. Like the prior two games before it, The Banner Saga 3 is not necessarily a complete overhaul of the series’ strategy-RPG gameplay, but it does deliver plenty of smaller refinements and some unique new gameplay mechanics that will surely keep players on their toes heading into its final hours.
As with the previous entries in the series, The Banner Saga 3 plays out as a strategy-RPG experience interspersed with segments where you have to interact with and manage your roaming caravan of fighters, Varl, and clansmen. Taking inspiration from the likes of Norse mythology, traditional fantasy settings, and a beautiful art style that feels like a breathing adaptation of early Disney animated films, The Banner Saga 3 delivers (so far) on all of the elements that have made the series so captivating, while introducing a darker tone that makes the stakes for players feel greater than ever.
Players accustomed to strategy-RPG titles like XCOM or Final Fantasy Tactics will definitely feel at home in The Banner Saga 3 but, notably, the game takes great care in blending a deep gameplay experience with storytelling and decision-making. In addition to the turn-based, top-down battles that players will engage with against numerous foes that are human, Varl, or Dredge (alongside a particularly challenging new enemy type), players also can converse with their party members between battles and build out their relationships with them. In their travels, players will also be responsible for managing their caravan and the numerous obstacles that come along the way, such as whether to engage in roadside battles or having to make tough sacrifices for the benefit of your people, whether that is the loss of supplies or clansmen themselves.
On these accounts, The Banner Saga 3 is no exception to what the previous games in the series have established, though the story’s sense of urgency and danger are heightened greatly with the fact with this is indeed the story’s conclusion, making each decision much more impactful. This sense of danger is established pretty much right from the beginning of The Banner Saga 3, as the story picks up almost immediately after the end of The Banner Saga 2 and finds the player switching between two groups of characters in very different circumstances; Rook/Alette’s caravan in the last human city of Arberrang (depending on prior decisions in the series), and Eyvind, Iver, and the remaining characters as they are making their way through the mysterious entity known as “The Darkness.”
The setup for the story in The Banner Saga 3 adds a refreshing change of pace from the last two installments given that each group is taking on wildly different circumstances. At Arberrang, Rook/Alette’s army is fighting back the constant threat of Dredge forces (which is tied to The Banner Saga 3‘s new wave-based battles), with each successive wave bringing far bigger and more dangerous threats. Meanwhile, the battles set in The Darkness with the other group adds some completely new battle dynamics and a very different visual tone and setting, helping to set the two storylines apart drastically.
Between the two divergent storylines happening simultaneously in The Banner Saga 3, there is plenty to be drawn from the game’s vast array of characters and experiencing their increasingly dire circumstances, and it certainly helps to give The Banner Saga 3 a more distinctive sense of storytelling compared to the past few games. However, gameplay-wise it also implements some intriguing new elements to its turn-based combat that provide much greater instances of having to think on your feet than ever before.
One of the biggest changes that I noticed in the two to three hours I played of the preview build of The Banner Saga 3 was a greater reliance on environmental obstacles and hazards during battles. In one of the early battles that I played, a wooden great hall that my characters were battling in was soon engulfed in flames that took up numerous tiles on the battlefield, which both limited the spaces that characters could move to and would damage units passing through the flames. While the threat of fire severely limited the range of most of my units, it also became an opportunity that I could use to my advantage by having to force enemy units to move through the flames closer to me and, in turn, take some added damage in the process.
Aside from the more subtle gameplay elements that The Banner Saga 3 introduces to its gameplay and environments, by far its most drastic combat change is the removal of The Horn, which in past games could supply players with extra Willpower points that players could add to their characters’ movement or attack power. In The Banner Saga 3, instead it has been replaced by a new item in the form of the Valka Spear, which gives players the ability to call down Arc Lightning to utilize against opponents on the battlefield that can chip away at their Health/Strength.
While it sounds like a small change, the Valka Spear provides one of the most significant changes to the series’ combat as it encourages a completely different incentive for players to think strategically. As the Spear’s Arc Lightning can ricochet between different units that are adjacent to one another, the Valka Spear can become an essential part of your strategy by forcing enemies to clump together and maximize the amount of damage you can afflict them with.
Much like the last chapter in an epic fantasy novel, The Banner Saga 3 carries a lot of weight on its shoulders in delivering an exciting final rally for fans of the series. As it threads multiple storylines and characters across a story that players have been helping to guide in their decisions and choices throughout the past two games, what I’ve played so far from The Banner Saga 3 definitely has me enthralled to see its striking story to its end. Though it may not be a drastic departure gameplay-wise from what players have experienced from the series so far, The Banner Saga 3 nevertheless seems like it will bring players to a conclusion that is profound, dark, and satisfying to the bitter end.
The Banner Saga 3 will release for PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac, iOS, and Android on July 26th, 2018. For more on the game, you can also check out our recent interview with Stoic Studio’s producer Zeb West and lead designer Matt Rhoades for their insight into the series’ final chapter.