The Ban­ner Saga 3

A grip­ping jour­ney reaches its fi­nal des­ti­na­tion in the out­stand­ing The Bann er Saga 3.

PC GAMER (US) - - CONTENTS - By Chris Schilling

Hav­ing es­tab­lished a rep­u­ta­tion for mer­ci­less­ness, Stoic’s Norse epic was never likely to al­low its ex­hausted he­roes some respite. If any­thing, The Ban­ner Saga 3 is even more crush­ingly grim than the pre­vi­ous two episodes—though that’s only fit­ting, since this is, in ev­ery sense, the end of the line. As a small group ven­tures into the waste­lands be­yond Ar­ber­rang’s frag­ment­ing walls, look­ing for the ser­pent that’s about to de­stroy the world, you’re not just left won­der­ing if all the char­ac­ters are go­ing to make it. The more press­ing ques­tion is whether, if they do suc­ceed, there will be any­thing for them to come back to. “De­spite ev­ery­thing that’s go­ing on, it’s still mankind that wor­ries me the most,” says Rook as­tutely, mo­ments be­fore things go from bad to dis­as­trous. Ar­ber­rang was al­ready in a bit of a state upon the car­a­van’s ar­rival; now, with its king at death’s door, and ir­re­deemable bas­tard Rugga hav­ing suc­cess­fully sown di­vi­sions among the pop­u­lace, the city is a pow­der keg, wait­ing for the tini­est spark to make it ex­plode. And now here come the dredge—your former en­emy sud­denly vul­ner­a­ble and sym­pa­thetic—beg­ging to be let in, be­fore they can be con­sumed by the poi­sonous fog that has choked the rest of the world. It’s a dis­tress­ing sce­nario, even be­fore Rugga starts spout­ing off about “the will of the peo­ple”, and mak­ing pop­ulist speeches rid­dled with the kind of lies that fright­ened cit­i­zens are only too will­ing to be­lieve.

And if one pres­sure cooker en­vi­ron­ment wasn’t enough, the po­ten­tial world­savers of the piece have been forced into the un­easi­est of al­liances. Trapped within a bub­ble of light magic are one-armed varl gi­ant Iver, spell­weavers Eyvind and Juno, and the Ravens, episode two’s mer­ce­nar­ies who aren’t just mi­nus a leader, but have ef­fec­tively been tricked by a mind spell into help­ing out. Of course, when the episode be­gins, they don’t know that yet. But the penny has to drop soon.

Long story

The two-pronged ap­proach to sto­ry­telling works as well here as it has in pre­vi­ous en­tries, the plot al­ways seem­ing to switch back just as you’re get­ting anx­ious to find out what’s hap­pen­ing to the other group. How­ever, there’s one key point of dif­fer­ence that may well prove di­vi­sive. Ar­ber­rang is a sprawl­ing place, big enough that it re­quires your car­a­van to trudge from one side to the other as you deal with the var­i­ous in­ternecine con­flicts in­side the walls and to help keep out­side threats from break­ing in. But where pre­vi­ous episodes had you reg­u­larly en­coun­ter­ing new places and peo­ple, your knowl­edge of the world grow­ing with ev­ery city and vil­lage you passed through, there isn’t the same sense of jour­ney this time. Not only is half the action con­tained within a sin­gle place, but the other half of the story has you ex­plor­ing a world that lies in ru­ins. As it turns out, you’re not the only ones out there, but you shouldn’t ex­pect the cast to grow much be­yond the small hand­ful of new­com­ers in­tro­duced at the out­set. And you don’t get to gawp at the pretty scenery so much as shud­der at the fate of any­one un­for­tu­nate enough to be caught in the dark­ness. The vi­su­als are still ar­rest­ing, but more ab­stract: At times you’ll swear the abun­dance of jagged edges is go­ing to punc­ture your shim­mer­ing bub­ble, which ap­pears ever more frag­ile with ev­ery step. Which­ever group you’re cur­rently fol­low­ing, the at­mos­phere is con­sis­tently, op­pres­sively un­set­tling, the ten­sion so thick you can prac­ti­cally taste it. That’s partly thanks to some typ­i­cally mas­ter­ful use of sound: Ar­ber­rang is a re­lent­less ca­coph­ony of bassy rum­bles, cracks, and shouts, while echo­ing howls, eerie whis­tles, and dis­tant screeches are your sound­track in the world out­side. Around all this, Austin Win­tory’s score swirls and ed­dies omi­nously, with odd atonal stabs that add a dis­turb­ing note of hys­te­ria to an al­ready chaotic mix.

All of which means this fi­nal episode strikes a slightly dif­fer­ent tone to the pre­vi­ous two. And yet, some­how, it works. True, there’s noth­ing that quite matches the ex­hil­a­ra­tion of the sec­ond game’s float­ing rocks set­piece—though a se­quence where the car­a­van is forced to cross a lake of ice pro­vides one of the se­ries’ most spec­tac­u­lar mo­ments to date—but the fo­cus on char­ac­ter is ul­ti­mately the right de­ci­sion. Stoic in­vests just enough in its few new faces that you’ll care about them, but this is all about en­sur­ing a sat­is­fy­ing pay­off for those you’ve grown at­tached to over the course of two or three episodes. Not ev­ery­one gets

Austin Win­tory’s score swirls and ed­dies omi­nously

You can’t be ex­pected to make the right de­ci­sions all the time

equal time in the spot­light, but that’s in­evitable with a cast of this size. Be­sides, this wouldn’t be The Ban­ner Saga with­out a few abrupt—and some­times shock­ing—farewells. You’ll face more life-and-death de­ci­sions than in pre­vi­ous en­tries, and if some of them feel par­tic­u­larly cruel, it all adds to the in­creas­ing des­per­a­tion. Amid such con­fu­sion and dis­or­der, you can’t be ex­pected to make the right de­ci­sions all the time; here, more than ever, it’s usu­ally a choice be­tween bad and worse. As a gen­eral rule: Trust should only go so far, and though it’s tempt­ing to do the ‘right’ thing, when the world is turn­ing in on it­self, that mightn’t be the wis­est course of action.

There’s no let-up in the game’s strate­gic com­bat ei­ther, with en­emy re­in­force­ments ar­riv­ing as soon as you’ve fin­ished a fight. The new wave-based for­mat doesn’t ap­ply to ev­ery en­counter, but more of­ten than not you’ll be given the choice be­tween flee­ing or bat­tling on. Choose to con­tinue, and you’ll be given the op­por­tu­nity to re­po­si­tion your cur­rent units—ar­rows in­di­cate from which di­rec­tion new op­po­nents will ar­rive—or bring on re­place­ments for any­one who’s taken plenty of pun­ish­ment and will be thus un­likely to last an­other round. With no op­por­tu­nity to train units this time—given the cir­cum­stances, the op­tion sim­ply wouldn’t make sense—it’s of­ten worth per­se­ver­ing un­less your very best units are in dan­ger. Be­sides, your re­wards for car­ry­ing on are twofold: Not only do you get a chance to give less-ca­pa­ble fight­ers some much-needed ex­pe­ri­ence, po­ten­tially earn­ing them a pro­mo­tion, but you’ll also be re­warded with a use­ful item af­ter de­feat­ing the boss of the fi­nal wave. You’ll col­lect oth­ers on the way, though, so you’re not overly pun­ished should you choose to take the cow­ard’s way out.

When equipped, these trin­kets of­ten give sig­nif­i­cant boosts to char­ac­ter tal­ents, which is one way to lean into an in­di­vid­ual unit’s spe­cial­i­ties. The other is to spend renown on giv­ing them a heroic ti­tle, though you’ll need to choose care­fully, since they’re unique to that char­ac­ter and can’t be re­moved. But these can be game-chang­ers. If you’ve got a de­cent ranged unit, you can dub them The For­saken, boost­ing their at­tack power as long as they’re away from their al­lies. By con­trast, The Hope­ful is handy for sup­port units, in­creas­ing the ar­mor and strength of any­one in the squares im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to them—though you may pre­fer one of the op­tions that low­ers their ag­gro in­stead. And you don’t need to think too hard to re­al­ize how to ben­e­fit from hav­ing a Death’s Mes­sen­ger on your team: Pro­mote them to the high­est rank and they’ll de­liver five points of ex­tra dam­age on con­sec­u­tive at­tacks against the same en­emy. And with items po­ten­tially push­ing abil­i­ties be­yond their nat­u­ral lim­its, you can end up with a bet­ter-than-av­er­age chance of re­sist­ing dam­age, or earn­ing a crit­i­cal hit bonus.

This some­what evens the odds against a very dif­fer­ent kind of threat. The toxic shroud be­yond Ar­ber­rang’s walls has warped ev­ery man, woman, and beast, which means you’ll face stan­dard war­riors, dredge, and even bears given oth­er­worldly pow­ers. One type of dredge can now stretch out a mass of writhing ten­ta­cles, drain­ing the strength and willpower of a sin­gle unit to em­power their own kind. A stan­dard ax­e­man, mean­while, still pos­sesses his bloody flail at­tack, but now his un­earthly en­durance means his willpower stat will ab­sorb the weight of strength at­tacks for the first cou­ple of turns. Even be­fore they ex­plode, leav­ing be­hind pud­dles of will-sap­ping goop, willpower is at a pre­mium—and only the Ar­ber­rang lot has the horn that al­lows you to re­plen­ish it. The oth­ers can call upon light­ning that spreads di­ag­o­nally to other units, though that can in­clude your own. As such, the strate­gies you use for one group should dif­fer sig­nif­i­cantly from the other, mak­ing for an en­ter­tain­ingly var­ied tac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence.

fi­nal count­down

There’s a big shift in the story, too, though to re­veal its ex­act na­ture feels a lit­tle too much of a spoiler. Suf­fice to say, for two games we’ve all grown used to the days tick­ing up­wards, but be­yond a cer­tain point, the num­ber be­comes a count­down. Sud­denly, you’re more aware of the pass­ing of time than ever, the slow trudge of your he­roes mak­ing you wish they’d get a move on, de­spite the many hard­ships they’re fac­ing.

Though it re­fuses to pull its punches through­out, this is a shorter con­clu­sion than you might ex­pect, lack­ing some of the range of its sprawl­ing pre­de­ces­sor. And it’s true that there’s per­haps not quite enough vis­i­ble ev­i­dence of Ar­ber­rang’s de­te­ri­o­ra­tion, even with the sound and mu­sic team do­ing their best to am­plify the tur­moil. But with the world fall­ing apart, it makes per­fect sense to zoom in on its peo­ple—and their wildly dif­fer­ent re­sponses to their ex­tra­or­di­nary predica­ment make for en­thralling, wrench­ing drama. The re­sult is a thrilling and af­fect­ing fi­nale that closes the book on a bleak but riv­et­ing jour­ney in fine style. It is, in short, the end­ing the saga de­serves.

ver­dict

A dar­ing, ex­cit­ing, and bleakly pow­er­ful pay­off that hand­somely re­wards your in­vest­ment in its char­ac­ters.

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