'The Banner Saga 3' Review: A Picture-Perfect Ending

10/10 (PC)

The culmination of a six-year journey that began on Kickstarter and ended this week, The Banner Saga 3 is the final installment of a trilogy from Stoic Studio that delivers an experience gamers always seem to want: a single-player campaign with a branching narrative full of real consequences, carry-over saves between titles (this review was on an Xbox One retail version not linked to my PC saves), a unique aesthetic and deep gameplay devoid of grinding and loot boxes. I am reluctant to call a game perfect, but if I go mining for flaws The Banner Saga 3 offers virtually none.

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Cutscenes that appear drawn straight from a silver-era Disney film are just part of The Banner Saga 3's charm. Stoic Studios

Note: Because this game is the third part of a trilogy we've embedded videos designed to explain some of the basics of the game for readers who have not played the previous two. This review is spoiler-free.

For the uninitiated, The Banner Saga 3 wraps up a Norse-themed trilogy about, what else, the end of the world. The sun has stopped moving in the sky and an ancient race of monstrous metal men called The Dredge has begun raiding the countryside, so it's up to you to lead a band of survivors to safety. As the games progress, you discover safety is a relative term, and the climaxes of both The Banner Saga and The Banner Saga 2 offered more uncertainty than hope. And while it is not required you play the previous two games to enjoy this one, it is highly recommended.

As in prior installments, Banner Saga 3 excels at establishing mood, and its aesthetics are impossible to overpraise. Inspired by legendary painter and animator Eyvind Earle, the style of Banner Saga evokes classic Disney-era visuals. This is particularly true in cutscenes. Don't be surprised if someone enters the room and asks what movie you're watching.

Austin Wintory's impeccable score brims with despondent orchestral swells, pairing nicely with the game's overall mood of bitter despair and grim determination. One of the assumptions often made about immersive gameplay is that it involves trickery, some sort of magic to make you feel like you're "in the game." Banner Saga 3 immerses you in detail and drama; the world falls away alongside it.

Aesthetics are only pixel-deep. What drives this game is a balanced, fundamentally solid turn-based combat system that manages to be accessible and innovative at the same time. RPG fans are no strangers to this kind of gameplay, but that also makes us hard to impress. Essentially, players assemble a party of heroes for battle each with an armor rating, a strength rating, willpower and some specialized skills. Battles are a tense give-and-take, and losses, like so many other things, can affect difficulty and narrative going forward.

Returning fans will find new surprises on the battlefield. Heroic titles are awarded to party members who hit rank 10, and offer a selection of character buffs to augment your strategy. Playable Dredge can join your ranks as well, each accompanied by another layer to add to the complex plot. You will need a beefy roster; as in previous games, no one is safe.

And by no one, I mean NO ONE. Among the many things I loved about this game, the sudden and brutal loss of major characters sits at the top. Those moments typify everything this game does right. Virtually all involve special animation or dialogue (or both), pulled together by a wonderful score. But before you feel sad, you feel panic. You immediately calculate how many battles he or she has played a key role in winning, or how many of the finite Renown points you've spent on levelling or gear (or both). And you contemplate save scumming, because in Banner Saga 3 choices matter, and maybe you shouldn't have tried to cross that frozen lake after all. I caution against reloading the save though; in those moments I simply reminded myself that I'm going to play this series again.

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A stunning diorama style makes even 2D scenes feel vivid and alive. Stoic Studios

That is perhaps the highest praise I can give a game in this era. Apart from professional responsibility, curiosity alone compels me to play SO MANY GAMES. Rarely do I have time to look back and re-commit another 30+ hours to something. I probably re-read books with a greater frequency than I replay games. But the genius of The Banner Saga is how your story manages to be both rich and incomplete. What initially seem to be innocuous moments evolve into dynamic changes. Spread across three games when you start wondering "what if I had done X instead of Y?" your mind will twist into a pretzel as it chases the tail of your story. You need another playthrough to re-examine everything, and you'll remember decisions big and small that turn your second (or third) path into unexpected places.

If I were to levy just one teeny-tiny little criticism against The Banner Saga 3, it would be that it goes light on the caravan management strategy compared to previous entries. The Oregon Trail -style portions, where you had to manage the morale and rations of hundreds of soldiers and survivors, were an important part of the formula. So many of those roadside decisions — to help a group of strangers or honor the shrine of an ancient god — shaped the game for players. The Banner Saga 3 is a journey nearing its end, so it does make sense that there's less travelogue in a game with less travel. I still missed it, though.

The Banner Saga is a classic. It will withstand the test of time in a way so many modern games simply cannot. Its breathtaking, distinct visual style is not susceptible to overwrought FPS-driven fidelity arguments. Rock-solid fundamentals always age well ( Tetris, anyone?). And because it is an offline single-player experience, it guarantees to be as playable in 20 years as it is right now.

And right now it is perfect.

Banner Saga 3 Player
Rocco Marrongelli / Newsweek