Banner Saga 3: A Satisfying Ending to an Epic Tale

The Banner Saga recently released the third and final installment in the epic story of refugees escaping a calamity in their Norse mythology inspired world. While the ending to the third installment has left some people frustrated, I find that it is the perfect book-end to one of the best storytelling experiences in videogames.

As you progress through the Banner Saga series, you take on the role of a certain character within a group and the story is told through this character’s point of view. However, the story is really about the banner, a giant flag that represents the history of your people, your tribe. This banner is seldom referenced but is ever present, flying above your caravan of refugees in every transition scene. The story of Banner Saga is not really of its characters, although there is development and flavour for all of them, particularly the main cast, but it is the story of a people.

The changing point of view reinforces this, as does the battle system. The Banner Saga has two main modes of play, a turn based battle system and a somewhat visual novel/choose your own adventure part in between battles. Losing battles in The Banner Saga, with a few exceptions, never results in a game over. Even losing the “boss fight” in Banner Saga 3 goes without huge consequences in terms of gameplay, but the results of these battles do change the story and do affect your resources going forward. Characters that fall on the battlefield do not die permanently, but rather become weakened which means in the next battle, they will have lower stats. Sometimes this can result in “death spirals” as your characters get weaker and weaker while facing increasingly difficult battles, unless you give them time to rest.

From a gameplay perspective, this might seem a bit counter-intuitive. Why care about the battles if it doesn’t matter if I win or lose? Because the outcome of the battle will affect your resources in maintaining your people, how many points you get to buy equipment and level up your fighters, it can also affect which options may become available later on, and can also affect which story beats in the visual novel parts happen, including the recruitment and death of certain characters. While characters that die on the battlefield stay in your roster, they may die or leave permanently depending on the choices you make in the story sections.

Since Banner Saga is a story about a people, it makes sense that it wouldn’t end because a battle was lost. A favorite warrior might have fallen, but the story of the tribe continues. You might have lost your favorite Varl because you told them to dive headfirst after a treasure cart falling down a cliff, but everyone else’s story doesn’t end with the Varl’s death. The banner will continue to grow, people will continue to add their stories to it. The sudden death is part of your people’s history, but until everyone one of them is gone, that story will continue.

Other games have made me feel the need to restore past points just to preserve a beloved character. We all have saved scummed at least once to try to save our favorite X-Com character or Jagged Alliance mercenary, because we like the character or because they are our best soldier. I never felt the need to do this in Banner Saga because my approach is to create a story of my people. I knew the game wouldn’t end because I failed, and I knew that things might get harder down the road because I lost but this was the story I was creating.

The Banner Saga takes its themes and world from Norse mythology, a mythology where things are bleak, gods are humanized for better and for worse, and a happy ending is where you get to see the sunrise tomorrow. It is not a heroic tale of stupendous deeds, where good triumphs over evil, and everyone survives and lives happily ever after. The story of The Banner Saga shares similarities with such television shows as Game of Thrones or The 100 – a diverse group of people, good. bad, and in-between, struggle to survive against the odds in desperate situations while trying to overcome their human vices, failings, and pettiness. The story isn’t so much about a single character, but a collection of them trying to survive. Every turn in The Banner Saga is another piece added to the story. With the vast number of choices and branching paths, each play-through is a unique story. Therefore, it never felt right to revert to an older save just to save a character or change a decision.

The ending of Banner Saga 3 has left some players feeling underwhelmed and unsatisfied, primarily because there is no extended epilogue sequence for all of the characters. Although this would be a bit impractical – it’s not a stretch to say that a proper epilogue sequence to the whole Banner Saga Trilogy could rival the length of Lord of the Ring’s multiple endings – it is also not thematic to the game. The important part is what happened to your people – did they survive?

The very first game starts in the small town of Skogr, which gets overrun by the coming Dredge. When the Chieftain of the village falls, Oddleif hands over the banner to Rook, one of the main point of view characters in the game. A banner is very significant in this world. Not only do they act as identifiers for a tribe, they also contain the names and deaths of the members, and the history of its people. The choices made throughout the game are woven into the banner, and when other villages and tribes join yours, they sow their banner at the end of yours.

Needless to say, the end of the Saga isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Your people may persevere but how many remain, and in what state, is dependent on your choices and your luck. It doesn’t matter what happens after, it just matters that your survived. The banner fluttering above carries the stories and memories of those who fell, even though it might not be your people’s banner anymore.

Like any survival story, its about the journey and not the end. We know that people will either make it or not, that is not the interesting thing, it is all about how the characters and the tribe get there. The Banner Saga’s delivery of a survival story is superb, constantly pushing the player forward towards an end that sometimes may be dire. Whether we save the world and survive or not, we have our banner to look back on and see how we got here. That is more satisfying than anything I could have asked for.


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