As hinted by the title, Banner Saga Trilogy is an epic Viking story where every choice you make directly impacts how your journey unfolds. It combines strategic turn-based combat with gripping text-based decision-making to draw you into a fictional world inspired by Norse mythology and filled with rich lore, as well as plenty of interesting characters you’ll grow fond of as your adventure progresses. This physical release collects all three chapters of the story together, although the third isn't actually on the cart.
The Banner Saga doesn’t waste any time establishing its foundations. The gods are dead and the sun has stopped moving with the world stuck in a state of eternal twilight. Humans co-exist alongside horned giants known as Varls, despite the occasional turmoil, and now an ancient enemy threat referred to as the Dredge has returned to kill every living being in sight. This backstory is used to introduce you to a convoy of characters comprised of both humans and Varl along with clansmen that travel the lands in a caravan party with their own missions at stake.
For most parts, you’ll be taking in the stunning sights of the barren but beautiful lands as you watch your group of heroes and followers traverse the harsh Nordic environments while stopping off at any villages, camps or other points of interest. Where you travel depends on the route you take on the map. Resting at encampments to pass time is vital if moral and supplies are low. High morale reduces the number of casualties in battle and affects willpower. Each time you set out on an adventure, supplies are used to sustain the journey. The same resources used to purchase much-needed supplies are also used to level-up members of your party, so it’s a bit of a balancing act between improving party member attributes while ensuring followers don’t drop off because of food shortages. Camps also provide you with the chance to upgrade allies and equip items to enhance your characters in the hero tent.
It’s the choices you make during each chapter that make this such an enjoyable experience from start to finish. For every decision there is a consequence that will alter how the story unfurls. This is most evident in the text-based sections and exchanges with various characters over the course of the game – all told from the perspective of interesting lead heroes. It’s during these scenes you’ll be required to have input in the outcome of a situation – such as how your party will approach a battle, or if they should even engage in battle in the first place. Characters can convey multiple emotions, depending on which text-based choice you select. There are rational approaches and results to situations or more hostile solutions, if this is how you prefer to operate. Certain scenarios will obviously lead you into a battle you may have been able to evade altogether, or even result in a character’s demise.
The text-based decisions made as you progress lead nicely into the strategic turn-based combat. The battles play out on a grid in a similar fashion to popular titles like Final Fantasy Tactics. There are a total of 25 playable characters and seven different classes, with certain characters, such as Varl, taking up more of the grid than others. The classes include the usual close combat types to the ranged variety. One difference in combat is the strength and armour icons. As the player, you can either choose to chip away an opponent’s armour or try and damage them directly by attacking their strength.
Like the dialogue, battles have consequences. If you find the challenge is not great enough or perhaps too difficult, you can always adjust it to an easy or harder setting. The brilliance of the actions in battle is how it rolls over to future decisions you make in and outside of battles afterwards. About the only other notable downside here is the interface at times can be a bit clunky to navigate when making selections. Apart from this, the battles do a great job at bringing the narrative to life.
The soundtrack and audio are magnificent, with a score from Grammy-nominated composer, Austin Wintory. There are satisfying sounds in battle when swords make contact with enemy armour and a great sense of atmosphere when entering a village and engaging in conversation, and then hearing background noise from townsfolk and burning campfires.
The Banner Saga 2 expands upon existing foundations laid by the first entry in a series. The focus in this outing is generally on the situation at hand rather than having to worry about contextualising the universe. That’s not to suggest characters aren’t developed or that detail is lacking, though, as important plot points and characters still get the required amount of attention. The world map also makes a return - helping to flesh out lore on the side and plot the journey ahead.
There’s a bit more variety on offer this time, with the mission objective not always being to simply kill everything in sight. There’s a mix of basic requirements like protecting an ally, and there’s even active storytelling in battles from time to time to add a greater amount of context and there are now more enemies to take on.
Introduced early on in the sequel are obstacles, requiring you to occasionally rethink your strategies depending on how the battlefield is laid out. In the worst case scenario, you can always plow through an obstacle if required. If you’re struggling to reach your target zone, 'willpower' makes a return as a limited resource - enabling heroes to boost actions and movement - with the exertion stat also needed to be taken into account. The special abilities are again varied with some that assist fellow party members, allowing them to deal damage on multiple adjacent tiles. Pilage mode means you can increase your attacks on sole enemies remaining. If battles do become too much, you can always change the difficulty on the fly. Unfortunately, the control system is unchanged from the first game making menus clunky to navigate - especially in battle.
When you’re not fighting your way out of a tight spot in conversation or battle, you’ll no doubt be soaking up the stunning and varied environments. Compared to the harsher landscape featured in the original game, there are a lot more colourful scenes on display in the sequel - with the magnificent hand-drawn artwork and characters still present. The cutscenes are just as stunning, with the graphics ripped straight out of a Disney cartoon; it’s just a pity the voice acting is limited to a few lines and the occasional grunt in battle.
As immediate as the first two games were to establish the scene, The Banner Saga 3 manages to further streamline the experience, making the assumption that the player has finished the previous games. With both the battle and dialogue being somewhat refined in the second entry, the tutorial has now been reduced to a single option in the main menu of the game with no more handholding in sight. This is a smart move by developer Stoic, rather than attempting to shoehorn it into the main game, reducing the immersive nature of the storyline. As a result, the journey kicks off right away with multiple battles in succession.
What sets the third game apart from the existing two is the conclusiveness of the story. You’re here to decide the world and characters’ fate, and the themes from the beginning of the third chapter continually remind you of the hopeless odds your caravan party and the general remaining populous of the world are up against. The bleak reality of the situation has hit humanity and all other species like never before, and this is very much reflected by the turmoil that unfolds within this entry. Every decision and battle is tied to themes of hopelessness, where characters’ mental and physical strength will be tested.
The text-based conversations will challenge you, with solutions not always possible and dire outcomes unavoidable. This aligns perfectly with the finality of the third entry, and actively illustrates how the fate of the caravan and the surrounding world has perhaps already been decided. The pacing only adds to this, with the amount of decision-making required making you feel uneasy as you move one step closer towards the end.
The battles in the third game, like conversations, have much more weight this time around with the clock ticking. For the most part, each one has a greater sense of importance, with the story convincing you that the stakes are higher than ever before. The battles still could be considered the weaker aspect of the game, though. With no real apparent refinement to the tactical fights, if you didn’t necessarily enjoy this aspect of the title in the previous editions, or felt battles lacked depth somewhat despite the second game’s enhancements, don’t expect the core idea to change in your favour.
While there are more gripping moments and enemies to take down - with a nice sense of reward when you do defeat or out-strategise a tough foe - some fights overstay their welcome due to wave-based objectives (fortunately you can eventually flee), and the A.I. itself can still be a bit too predictable from time to time. At the very least, there are some new enemies posing unique threats in battle and even unexpected allies. Due to the scale of the situation in the final game, additional characters can be called upon in battle - encouraging you to experiment with team chemistry rather than stick with a fixed party.
Visually speaking, for a game based on the world’s demise, it still couldn’t look any more beautiful. The stunning landscapes and hand-drawn characters return. The character animations during dialogue exchanges remain subtle but somehow add so much life to each scene.
Collectively, all of this adds up for a great conclusion to a saga that makes sense to be packaged as one. As detailed in our conversation with the team, though, the first two games are included on the cart but the third and a variety of patches and fixes must be downloaded separately meaning you'll need over 4GB of space on your Switch or Micro SD card. It's not the end of the world, but it's a shame that the entire experience couldn't have come on the cartridge.
If you happen to love Norse mythology or epic fantasy stories full of consequence and deft storytelling, then look no further than Banner Saga Trilogy. This is a beautifully crafted trio of games that use their intriguing cast, gripping tale and absolutely stunning artwork and soundtrack to transport you to a world filled with plenty of danger and surprises. The turn-based strategic battles might not be equally as thrilling to everyone who plays this, and the interface can be a bit clunky at times, but this doesn’t detract too much from the collective offering. This series is about the journey to a destination in both a literal and figurative sense, and having the entire saga together (plus the obligatory download) makes eminent sense. Now all that's left is for you to decide whether or not the series is for you, much like the many choices present within the games themselves.