The Banner Saga 3 Review

Eschalon: Book II

Publisher:Independent
Developer:Stoic
Release Date:2018-07-24
Genre:
  • Role-Playing,Strategy
Theme: Perspective:
  • Third-Person
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Introduction

The Banner Saga 3 is the conclusion to Stoic Studio's tactical RPG trilogy, which began with The Banner Saga (2014) and continued with The Banner Saga 2 (2016).  It picks up right where the previous game ended, with an unnatural darkness spreading over the land (think The Mist, if you're a Stephen King fan), and a giant serpent lurking around.

You're in control of two groups of characters: one is holed up at the human capital, just trying to survive, while the other is venturing through the darkness trying to put things to rights.  The question soon becomes: can your second group cleanse the world quickly enough to save the first?  Unlike The Banner Saga 2, where almost nobody died (and you had to try hard, even for that), characters can die left and right in the finale, so there's lots of tension, especially at the end when a timer starts ticking down.

Nicely, The Banner Saga 3 is a true conclusion to the trilogy.  It doesn't leave a lot of hooks and unanswered questions hanging around (except for what happened to Vognir at the start of the trilogy).  It wraps everything up and deals with the darkness -- or not; there are bad endings, too -- and it provides a good stopping point if Stoic wants to move on to a different world or a different kind of game.

As was the case in The Banner Saga 2, you can either import a save when starting The Banner Saga 3, or you can decide who between Rook and Alette survived at the end of The Banner Saga, and leave everything else to the "canon" version of the world.  Importing is much better since your characters, equipment, renown, and the state of the world are carried over, and any character who didn't reach level 8 is advanced to that level.  Plus, starting a game from scratch and only being allowed to make one decision from the first two titles is just strange (considering that you make dozens of decisions in each game).  It's sort of like Stoic is saying, "Hey, doofus, the first two games are really short; just re-play them," and they decided not to put any effort into the playing-from-scratch option (unlike, say, Obsidian Entertainment with Pillars of Eternity II).

Characters

In The Banner Saga 3, you don't create your own character.  Instead, you make decisions for the main characters of the story as events unfold, and you also control them in battle.  That means all of the characters are defined by a regular collection of RPG stats and abilities.  For stats, they have Strength (which determines the amount of damage they do and also acts as their health), Armor (which protects them from Strength attacks), Break (which can be used to damage Armor), Exertion (which can be added to skills or attacks for extra damage), and Willpower (which powers skills and Exertion).

Along with the stats, characters also have multiple abilities.  They start with one active and passive ability, and they gain a second active ability at level 6.  Some of the abilities include Insult (which sends an enemy to the end of the initiative queue), Mend (which restores Armor), and Pig Sticker (which increases a character's critical chance with the more adjacent allies there are).  Depending on your decisions during the trilogy, you might have two dozen or more characters available, giving you lots of abilities to choose between when picking out the six characters who participate in battles for you.  This sort of versatility and freedom of choice is always welcome.


Characters receive improvement points when they gain levels, which you can spend on their attributes, or on passive talents they gain access to once you've maxed out one of their attributes.  This is the same system that was in place for The Banner Saga 2, except that now characters can reach level 15, and when they reach level 11 they can choose a title.  Titles give passive bonuses, and they can be advanced five ranks by spending renown, the game's only currency.  Interestingly, each title can only be used once, and there are only about a dozen of them available, which means you have to be careful how you parcel them out.  An example of a title is "The Wolf," which gives a character +2 movement, +2 damage, and "much less" aggro at rank 5.

Sometimes from battles, sometimes from events, and sometimes from shops, you can buy or otherwise acquire equipment for your characters.  Characters are only allowed to wear one item at a time, and these items can give passive bonuses to stats, talents, and more.  For example, the Brass Ocarina (a level 15 item) gives +2 movement, +3 Break, +2 Armor and Willpower regeneration, +3 aggro, and the ability to move after attacking, making it pretty powerful.  Like with characters and abilities, you find lots of items during the course of the trilogy, giving you a multitude of ways to mix and match items with characters, and fine-tune your fighting parties.

Campaign

As was the case in the first two games of the trilogy, the campaign in The Banner Saga 3 revolves around three core areas: resource management, where you try to keep your clan happy and fed; combat, where you battle a variety of enemies, including new "warped" creatures; and story elements, where you have conversations, deal with the environment, and decide things for your clan.  I'll cover each of these areas in turn.

Resource management in The Banner Saga 3 is almost a complete non-issue.  In The Banner Saga, it seemed like I never had enough food, which meant I had to be careful with my story decisions (to keep my clan moving quickly and to pick up as much food as possible), and I had to minimize resting (which heals injured characters and increases morale, but costs food).  Then in The Banner Saga 2, your clansmen started scavenging for food during your travels, making it much easier to come by -- and also minimizing the importance of it.

Now in The Banner Saga 3, for most of the game there aren't resources at all.  Your clan doesn't consume food, and your morale doesn't change, so there isn't anything to worry about.  I can only guess that Stoic Studio didn't really like resource management, and that's why they phased it out of the trilogy.  But for me, this was an odd decision.  Why evolve a strategy game to have less strategy?  Shouldn't it go the other way -- that once people learn how to play the game, you make it a little more complex and challenging?

Then we come to combat.  Combat in The Banner Saga 3 is roughly the same as it was in the first two games.  You pick out up to six characters to participate in a fight, and then the battle proceeds with your characters and your enemies alternating turns, until one side or the other only has one character left, and then each remaining character gets one turn per round.

This system is fun because it requires different strategies than other turn-based games.  For example, instead of ganging up on enemies and killing them one at a time, you're better off leaving weak and wounded enemies around so they take a turn and can't do much with it.  You also have to make decisions about whether you want to attack an enemy's Strength (so they deal less damage) or Armor (so future Strength attacks against them are more effective).  It's always good to have a unique and interesting combat system, and The Banner Saga games have that in spades.


Of course, Stoic Studio added a couple of new wrinkles to the combat engine for The Banner Saga 3.  This mostly occurs for your characters who are traveling through the darkness.  The battles there are against "warped" versions of other creatures, which is fun in itself, but warped creatures get lots of new abilities, like being able to use their Willpower to absorb damage.  This adds extra complexity to the battles, because you have to decide if you want to attack a creature and only damage its Willpower -- which might leave it at full strength but prevent it from using skills -- or go after an enemy where you can reduce its Strength or Armor.  Also, while in regular combat killing an enemy gives you a point of Willpower that you can assign to any of your characters, in darkness battles you get charges of a chain lightning spell that you can use against enemies without costing you a turn.  So the darkness battles, which are about half of the game, play differently than regular battles, which keeps the game feeling fresh and new.

Lots of battles also proceed in waves.  Unlike the first two games, where one battle sometimes followed another, and you had to use the same characters both times -- and they'd start the second battle in whatever shape they ended the first -- in The Banner Saga 3 there are waved battles, where a timer starts at the beginning of each wave.  If you defeat the enemies in that wave quickly enough, then you're allowed to flee or call in reinforcements.  Reinforcements can be any characters in your arsenal, and you can use them to replace characters who got knocked out, or who used up all of their Willpower, or who you just don't want to use in the next wave.  Reinforcements make waved battles easier than the continuation battles from before, but they're also fairer, and they reward you for having numerous characters ready to fight.

Sort of strangely though, while The Banner Saga 2 introduced Survival Mode (a combat-only mode where you have to survive 40 consecutive battles) and trainer challenges (where you have to use combat abilities in a certain way with specific characters), neither of these additions made it into the base version of The Banner Saga 3.  However, Stoic Studio plans to add replacements in the future, and apparently for free.  It's just a surprise that Survival Mode didn't make it in right away given that they already had a template to work from.  But in any case, future versions of The Banner Saga 3 will give you more options for fighting enemies and putting your battle prowess to the test.

Finally, we come to the story events.  These include things like having conversations with your party members, dealing with obstacles that turn up in your path, and rescuing people who are in need of help -- or not, and leaving them to their fate.  The outcomes of these events are completely arbitrary, which can be frustrating at times, but it's probably a good thing since it means that no one way of playing will see you through the game unscathed.  For example, you might want to play as a good guy and help as many people as possible, but while this can earn you some nice rewards sometimes, at other times it leads to needless battles or allows thieves easy access to your supplies.

As an example of a story event, at one point one of your groups of characters discovers a dredge being harassed by some humans.  Dredge were your primary enemy during the first two games, so do you help the humans kill the dredge and accept their reward, or do you come to the aid of the dredge and hope that your clan will be able to work with it -- and that it won't end up sabotaging you in some way?  Most answers aren't obvious, so you have to play the game a couple of times to work out the "right" ways to respond.

As for the story itself, I was a little disappointed.  Just about everything that happens in the campaign was heavily telegraphed in The Banner Saga 2, and without any surprises or unexpected detours, I found the trip to the ending to be a little bit boring.  Luckily, the characters are well-written, and they're properly motivated, so you don't get anybody being a bad guy (or a good guy) just because the game needs somebody in that role.  Characters act in a way that makes sense given their situation, and you might find that you have a rooting interest in who survives or dies.

Conclusion

Overall, The Banner Saga 3 -- and the trilogy as a whole -- gives a nice playing experience.  The storyline is a little bleak, as the world is in a bad place and there aren't any easy answers for survival, but the game offers an intriguing blend of role-playing elements and turn-based combat, and its 15-hour campaign can be played multiple times to see everything and try out different combat parties and strategies.  So if you enjoy story-driven games and turn-based strategy, The Banner Saga 3 is definitely a title you should consider.