The Banner Saga 2 follows in the footsteps of its wildly-popular predecessor, an indie strategy title with breathtaking storytelling, artistry, and a solid if somewhat simple mechanical core. I included it among my list of top modern PC gaming narratives, and I’d argue that it is likely to be remembered as one of the more influential titles of the era, especially with further chapters yet to unfold. So reviewing its highly-anticipated sequel leads the obvious questions: does the second entry in the franchise live up to the brilliance of the first, and how does it grow upon that foundation?
Without a doubt, all the melancholic beauty of the first game is here to stay. The colorful, stylistic hand-drawn art is a testament to why high-powered HD fidelity isn’t the end-all of graphical design, and all of the game’s sections are beautiful in their own way. The caravan screens depict vast, sprawling terrains, and with far more variety than the first chapter.
We enjoy new environments, new fortified towns, new breathtaking Godstones, and new caravans. A convoy of longships sails down a river with ruined villages along the shore, while the typical column of men, varl, wagons, and other companions trek across plains, swamps, or even through underground caverns. Similarly, the dialogue art is striking as ever, giving tremendous personality to each of the characters.
In combat, the isometric sprite-based unit graphics are in the same clean style as the first game, while the backgrounds are a bit more lively: an early battle shows you fighting on the shore near your beached longship, an epic moment that plays up the game’s viking-inspired visuals. That same Norse aesthetic fills the score as well, full of melancholic dirges and moody chanting, as well as the occasional skillfully acted voiceover.
Narratively, the sequel picks up immediately from the first game and reflects your decisions there. As ever, this is one of the great strengths of the Banner Saga: choice is real, harsh, and sad. Whoever you lost in the first game is gone, and this will determine your main character (you can pick if you don’t have an old save to load).
While the main arc of the caravan’s journey will progress identically for each character, their personal stories and interaction with some key NPCs differ. Without getting too spoilery, both routes offer a real but different sense of the loss each character has suffered and how it shapes their growth as the caravan’s leader. Like in the first game. you’ll alternate with a second perspective character, a varl mercenary leader met near the end of the last game. As with Hakon and Rook in the predecessor, this storytelling device highlights difference between human and varl cultural values and leadership, though the sequel takes the contrast further. Fighting under the Raven banner means raiding villages for loot and supplies isn’t off the table. Both caravans struggle for survival, but their values and moral compasses differ completely, setting hopeful optimism against grim opportunism.
In either group, you’ll face choices as you travel, and as ever these have an impact on your caravan and future events. You can lose or gain heroes and caravan members and fight different battles depending on your decisions, culminating in the final chapter where you end up choosing sides in the emerging politics of the collapsing world. This is a choice I expect to have major consequences going forward into the third game.
There are also the usual smaller random events as your caravan travels, usually focusing on caravan leadership. As in the first game, you’ll arbitrate arguments among clansmen and make hard ethical choices about who lives and dies, who eats or starves. Most of these are colorful, but like in the first game they can occasionally feel a little too random or the ‘correct’ answer can be counter-intuitive. I would like it better if each choice always came with benefits and drawbacks, rather than some being pure guesswork. There’s also some new caravan management mechanics that can tie into these: clansmen now forage for food, so gathering innocents isn’t a total drawback, or you can train them into fighters, sacrificing supply for military might.
When it comes to the core combat gameplay, the game does a good job growing on its predecessor. If the first had an obvious flaw, it was in the simplicity of the combat. Unit variety was low (especially for the enemy) and combat could grow repetitive. The sequel does a good bit to remedy this. There are a variety of new units, including a new ‘friendly’ race, new dredge, and several animals and monsters, and you’ll have chances to square off against all of them. These new units bring interesting new mechanics into play, including stealth, hit-and-run, damage over time effects and more.
And improvements to combat aren’t strictly limited to the units themselves. Several story battles add destructible obstacles or alternate objectives that can require more interesting tactics than merely killing everything on the field. While there’s probably still room to improve here, combat definitely feels more dynamic than in the first game. High difficulty offers a satisfying challenge and while it still relies heavily on manipulating the game’s unique initiative system, new reactive abilities, stuns, and initiative modifying abilities give the player more control in this regard.
Finally, the advancement system is also expanded, allowing five more ranks of development, although growth becomes more lateral than vertical. Unit statistic caps remain what they were in the first game, an important choice that keeps the gulf in power from getting too large between low and high-renown units. Instead, heroes above rank five can unlock a second special ability from their base type (or unique abilities on the main characters and menders) or add talents linked to stats they’ve maxed. The latter provide benefits like crit chance, dodge/damage resist, or stat regen. Combined with a bunch of new items and considering the huge number of characters, there’s a ton of army customization possible.
In total, the second installment of The Banner Saga follows magnificently from its origin and sets the stage for the next chapter. Few games blend imaginative worldbuilding, personal character development and hard story choices so skillfully, and an even smaller handful make those choices count between installments in the way the Banner Saga does.
No buts about it, this is a franchise you’ll want to play from beginning to end. Each entry builds on the last as the player writes their own story, an unfolding tale represented by the physical banner each caravan carries. The Banner Saga 2 adds more to the growing lore of the world, to the nature of the dredge and the world-ending calamity that is unfolding, but it doesn’t answer these questions completely, ending on something of a cliffhanger. And while there still may be a few frustrations in event randomness or unit balance, the progress in the series’ second entry suggests that the developers won’t neglect mechanics while crafting the next chapter in their fantastic story. Needless to say, I can’t wait.
The Banner Saga 2 was reviewied on PC with a copy provided by the developer.
Publisher: Versus Evil| Developer: Stoic | Genre: Tactical RPG / Turn-based Strategy | Platform: PC, Mac | ESRB: Teen | Release Date: April 19, 2016