SAN FRANCISCO – If you've played the first two Banner Saga games, you already know that the series doesn't do anything by halves. Although the series began life as a Kickstarter project with a relatively small staff, that didn't prevent it from featuring gorgeous artwork, strategic gameplay and a tight story where your choices really matter. But, like the Norse myths that inspired it, The Banner Saga must come to an end, and The Banner Saga 3 will ensure that it does so with a bang.
I got an early look at The Banner Saga 3 at GDC 2018, and it does exactly what a good sequel should do. The game doesn't reinvent the wheel, instead iterating on some of the best features of the previous two installments, while moving the story forward toward a (hopefully) satisfying conclusion.
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As in previous games, gameplay consists of controlling two caravans of adventurers on parallel quests. The first has journeyed to the edge of the known world to confront the Darkness: a mysterious, eldritch force that twists everything it touches into nightmarish Lovecraftian horrors. This has storyline consequences, to be sure, but it also makes combat a bit more unpredictable than before.
For those who have never played a Banner Saga game, combat takes place on a square grid, where you move and attack enemies with a variety of special skills. Combatants can reduce each other's' health, of course, but they can also attack willpower, which determines a character's attack power. Neutralizing a character's offensive power can often be just as effective as killing him or her outright.
While combat isn't drastically different from previous Banner Saga entries, it's easy to see just how far the series has come. Depending on your choices, you can now access more than 40 heroes, and deck them out with more than 100 equippable items. These options should prove useful against The Banner Saga 3's new enemies: ordinary soldiers, corrupted by the Darkness. After each round of combat, the Darkness will send reinforcements, and players can choose to flee for safety, or fight on for additional rewards.
There are a handful of other battle enhancements, including some unusual new playable characters: Juno, a magician who can travel around the battlefield as a ghost if she dies; and a member of the antagonistic Dredge, who joins your party in opposition to their race. You can also call down chain lightning on your foes periodically – although it can hit your own party members, if you're not careful.
The other major party in The Banner Saga 3 must defend the city of Arberrang: the last line of defense against the Dredge. You'll face the Dredge in tactical combat, and make important narrative decisions between rounds, which could change Arberrang's appearance considerably. If nothing else, the stage seems set for a suitably epic finale.
The gameplay and story decisions in The Banner Saga 3 all seem logical, and will hopefully satisfy longtime fans of the series. I did learn one surprising thing, however: the gorgeous, hand-drawn art style was not initially channeling Ralph Bakshi, as many fans (including me) guessed. The developers wanted The Banner Saga to look like classic Disney films, but the art came back with much more angular lines and harder edges. In retrospect, it's probably a more fitting look. The game will be out this summer to all major systems, including the Nintendo Switch.