The Great Cold Distance
Trilogies never seem to turn out well, specifically video game trilogies. The movie industry has its stinkers for sure but the split between bold creative vision and cynical franchise abuse tends to be weighted far heavily with the first when this particular medium of entertainment is involved. Often such trilogies involve the most tenuous of connections between titles and bear all the hallmarks of having been made up as they went. Mass Effect is the obvious poster boy for this rot but it’s far from the only offender. In fact, very few games can ever make the argument that they require a trilogy. The only justification that strikes me is that of narrative necessity or convenience, where to put it out as one entity would lead to undue abridgement, bowdlerisation or just plain fatigue in the audience. Now whilst some games would certainly benefit from a savage edit or two, The Banner Saga stands as one of the few experiences for which a break in proceedings does it good, even if necessitated by budget rather than motivated by any artistic compunction.
That isn’t to be misconstrued as a compliment, or at least one without qualification. The Banner Saga’s most frustrating dimension is in the repetition of its turn based combat which doesn’t change or develop in any meaningful way across all three games. Had it all been released together as one standalone title it’s hard to imagine not being bored by it all, but in the context of a dozen hours each across a number of years any potential tedium is somewhat mitigated, unless of course you do tackle everything in one go at which point upon your head be it.
It should go without saying that one ought to have played the first two games before tackling the third. Failure to do so fatally undermines the nuance and detail contained within the story and more importantly in that of its characters. Whilst The Banner Saga has a set of what could be described as protagonists it is largely an ensemble cast between which the story flits. References to tapestries, to threads and weaving abound in such a way that one cannot help but interpret as allusions to Stoic’s overarching approach to the narrative; the way in which our lives interconnect with one another within the larger context of our world and its fate.
Whilst the stakes are as high as they could conceivably be in this final chapter, with the apocalypse now quite literally at the gates, what The Banner Saga does so well is in how it picks apart the oft conflicted emotions of those caught up in events and makes their personal struggles the perfect setting to discuss its larger themes, of which there are many. Ideas of conscience, justice, vengeance, racism, xenophobia all spring up yet they do so elegantly; the writing is deft and economical enough to pack an awful lot of implication into a very small space. This is a game rich in thematic substance, but doesn’t allow it to overwhelm the naturalism and personality in the dialogue.
There is certainly an overriding bleakness to events, one that has built up and now hangs over everything. The levels of brutality and desperation ratchet up where a life becomes paradoxically cheaper despite being more precious than ever. With the end now in sight your choices carry greater consequences and any emotional investment from before sits on a knife edge as lives are but a breath away from being summarily ended. That humour and charm persist within such harrowing circumstances speaks again to the quality of the writing.
And it needs to be of high quality as this is a series that doesn’t possess the depth of resources one might have hoped for, or at least it does not appear to given its latent qualities. Despite its distinct and striking art design, The Banner Saga leans more towards tell rather than show. This has shifted ever so slightly here but nevertheless much of what takes place requires the reader to imagine it, rather than have it depicted before you. It is, alas, a tension that never quite manages to be overcome as important and dramatic events play out in relatively small, static text boxes which end up feeling anti-climatic and frustrating when other, arguably less important scenes, get full animations. Budget likely is the reason for this but I can’t escape a sense of unused potential, like Amalie Bruun pre-2015.
Austin Wintory again returns to provide the soundtrack which while effective was not particularly memorable. The choral tracks tended to be the strongest but I could not hum anything or recall any standout tracks beyond the end credits. Typically in something like a movie, having a soundtrack that simply enhances the scenes is ideal as it keeps focus on what’s taking place and doesn’t distract you from it, but with so limited visual feedback here, a little more impact would have been appreciated to prevent events from feeling quite so dry and matter-of-fact at times.
The combat is similarly competent but acts more as a connective tissue to the organs of the experience. The level cap is raised a touch, a few more fighters are introduced and some added specialisation has also been brought in. The most notable addition is that following certain battles you can now continue to fight for high level item rewards with the ability to swap members of your caravan in after each round, but it is still very much the same experience from the previous games.
There really is nothing in this third instalment to entice those who were not particularly enamoured in the first place. The essential structure, gameplay and pacing all adhere to what’s gone before, but for those on board it stands as a fitting end point for one of the best stories in recent years. There are aspects that keep it from greatness, but its unique atmosphere, smart writing and amazing cast of characters give it qualities you can’t buy and which very few other titles can hope to match.