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‘The Banner Saga’ series is a beautiful journey of struggle and loss

A mysterious darkness is sweeping across the land. Long-dormant enemies are on the move. Families, villages, and entire cities are being uprooted.

What do you do?

The Banner Saga 3 was released on July 26, completing The Banner Saga trilogy in stunning fashion and bringing closure to the heart-wrenching journey that began in 2014. With the full series now available, it’s the perfect time to settle in and play through the series in its entirety.

The Banner Saga is a narrative-driven game set in a beautiful and haunting fantasy world inspired by Viking myths. Within that world, you play as a few different protagonists who are fighting against the odds to survive wave after wave of turmoil that threatens to topple you and everyone you love at every turn.

Coming upon the city of Grofheim, or what used to be Grofheim.

Coming upon the city of Grofheim, or what used to be Grofheim.

You’re thrown into a world standing at the precipice of destruction — the gods are dead, the sun has mysteriously stopped in the middle of the sky, and a race of war-mongering beings known as the dredge are tearing through humans and varl (a mostly friendly race of horned giants that were created by a god in the image of a man and an ox). 

At the center there’s the human Rook and his daughter Alette, their varl friend Iver, and further west there’s the next-in-line king of the varls Hakon. They all have huge roles in the series and are consistently meeting new and interesting characters that make the whole experience richer.

As you move yourself and your caravans across the continent and away from the dredge, you’re constantly met with choices and forced to decide who to save, when to fight, and how to keep alive the hundreds of people that follow you.

That’s where the games thrive: your interactions with others and the choices you make. In a world where you have no choice but to keep moving forward and survive, every impasse can mean life or death for a whole lot of people.

Alette and Rook, coming upon a dredge.

Alette and Rook, coming upon a dredge.

Sometimes, in a trek across snowy wastes, the goal is to outpace a shambling horde while managing to feed your caravan with whatever limited amount of supplies you have and trying to rest only when needed to keep up morale. This balance is not easy to manage, especially the first time you play through the campaign and don’t know what the future holds.

The Banner Saga is relentless at times, but the payoffs for successfully managing through a harrowing scenario, making it to a temporary destination, or just beating a particularly difficult battle, are so satisfactory. The story of The Banner Saga is masterfully woven, and although sometimes so bleak that you don’t want to keep pushing forward, it consistently delivers.

Supplies, morale, and caravan numbers are all vital to your success.

Supplies, morale, and caravan numbers are all vital to your success.

It helps that the hand-drawn world is so appealing to look at, the lore of the land so entrenching, and the soundtrack by Austin Wintory so beautiful and simple.

Meanwhile the turn-based combat takes a little getting used to as you learn the strengths and weaknesses of different characters and figure out that damaging enemies’ armor really matters before you strike at their health pool. Eventually it falls into place, and on normal difficulty it’s not too hard to go through the whole without losing a battle (but you’ll surely rack up a bunch of injuries, which require rest to heal, which drains you of supplies).

The turn-based combat is all about movement and management.

The turn-based combat is all about movement and management.

As the story unfolds, more and more is revealed. The humans and varl may be running from invading dredge, but the dredge themselves are running too. There’s a much larger evil that’s stirring them, something that threatens to consume the world. The only ones who seem to know anything about it are the witch-like menders, but their own connection to the mysterious force is a bit suspect.

Although The Banner Saga series contains within it many small victories, the broader path forward is a downward spiral that never really lets up. It’s perhaps the most narratively disheartening series I’ve ever played, but that doesn’t stop it from being wholly captivating.

Each story beat peels away just enough mystery to keep a vice grip on your attention, and with so many unforgettable moments in each of the three games, it’s hard not to pick it up and run through it again to relive it, and maybe try to make some different, less-damning decisions.

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