We have fond memories of The Banner Saga. The turn-based strategy/rpg/survival game captured our imagination with its enthralling story of struggle and survival. Presented in a nostalgic hand-drawn art style, supported by an epic orchestral soundtrack, the Nordic-inspired fantasy world grabbed our attention. The difficult decision-making and an interesting combination of mechanics served to make it one of our favourite games of 2014.
That said, as much as we enjoyed the original there were some things we hoped might be changed in the sequel. Combat was solid, but we felt it lacked an edge. While the artwork was great, we wanted more of it, especially in combat scenarios. As for animation, we wanted more of that too.
Thankfully, Stoic has addressed most of these concerns, ironing out some kinks and expanding upon the solid foundations they laid previously. However, not all the changes are quite as comprehensive as we would have liked.
The new journey continues soon after the climactic events of The Banner Saga. For returning players the choices made in the first game will affect who is in your party, for new players it's easy to start with a new protagonist and have default choices dictate who is alive and who is dead. Once again you lead a nomadic caravan of humans and giant-like varls away from impending doom. The same giant serpent is still breaking the world, the dredge continue to attack in huge numbers, and even friendly-seeming survivors can't be trusted. As before, it falls on you to make tough decisions that persistently threaten the death and destruction of everyone under your leadership.
For those who missed the first game the story is recapped succinctly in an enjoyable video available from the start menu. Even if you don't feel you need reminding, we recommend watching anyway. The recap is exciting and well narrated. It also reminds you who's who in this epic saga.
The Banner Saga 2 is an absolutely faithful successor. So much so that it can be difficult to see what, if any, changes have been made. Visual presentation is the ace in The Banner Saga sleeve. The art style looks classic but feels fresh. Throughout the game players travel to distinctive locations and encounter numerous colourful characters. Such as in Boersgard, where madness has spread like a virus and even the most trustworthy people can turn vicious at the slightest provocation.
It's great to see that Stoic have enhanced the visuals in minor ways throughout the sequel. Battlefields are much more varied, and destructible debris obstructs player movement. There's more animated scenes that ooze quality too. Even player movements appear to have been given a bit of attention.
Most of the story is told in visual novel style scenes. Text and dialogue provides exposition, and players can react how they see fit via the selection of dialogue options. Sometimes the purpose of a scene isn't clear, and early on it can be easy to scoff at seemingly obvious decisions, but Stoic has done a great job of providing each choice with a meaningful outcome. Suddenly those decisions are anything but obvious. Every choice affects something, there's a feeling of uncertainty because the results of decisions aren't clear until it's too late to change. The Banner Saga 2 delights in taking the player on a bumpy journey of murky grey twists and turns. Characterisation really comes to the fore here, while humans are emotional, varls are practical, and many of the difficulties faced come in deciding which of the races your personal opinions align more with.
Outside of combat and dialogue options, it's managing the caravan that is under your control that proves most challenging. Do you adopt an 'each for their own' or 'cooperation' strategy to survive? Do you try to save each and every individual you encounter or leave the meek and mild to die? As supplies dwindle, which they do persistently, these questions take a greater significance if the people of your caravan are to avoid starvation.
It doesn't take long for The Banner Saga 2 to get players fighting. Combat begins in the opening scene and is frequent throughout the campaign. While combat is exciting, it is also very familiar. Grid overlays show how far a character can move, as before movement is restricted to horizontal and vertical. Character turn-order is still pre-determined and your opponents' moves can be foreseen, which encourages some negative tactics for perceptive players. Sadly, keeping enemies alive but at low health remains an effective combat strategy.
Niggles aside the mechanics of combat can be described thusly: six player-controlled characters, which can be a combination of several classes with different special moves, strengths, and weaknesses, face off against waves of enemies that vary in difficulty depending on narrative context. Player-controlled characters need to be aware of two numbers, a blue one that represents armour and a red number representing health. The lower an enemy's health, the less powerful they are, however enemies with high armour may completely negate even your strongest attack should you not chip away at their shields first.
A willpower mechanic allows players to move further, hit harder or use special moves. Using willpower can make all the difference, but it's a limited resource so players will have to think carefully about when is the best time to utilise such an advantage.
During the journey players can stop and set-up camp. Here they can view the heroes under their command, level them up, and equip special items. Also, any character wishing to talk to you will take these opportunities to share information. Players can rest here, and in some towns a market is available where renown can be traded for supplies.
Combat tutorials are available in-camp that teach combat mechanics to new players or those in need of a reminder. Training allows for practice of some of the more complicated moves like using shield walls, threading the needle, or casting arc lightning effectively. Training is also a danger-free environment to level up fighters.
Of the most interesting additions to combat is the archer ability 'overwatch', which greatly increases the effectiveness of certain bow-wielding heroines, and the new race, horseborn. Horseborn are important both on and off the battlefield. A mysterious race of nomadic centaur-like creatures, they are very agile in combat and able to traverse arenas rapidly, opening up some interesting new tactical options. A particular favourite horseborn character specialises in throwing spears and has a very useful poison ability.
Aside from direct combat there is also a 'war system'. This happens when you encounter a huge enemy force and must protect the caravan. You choose how to deploy your fighters and what should be kept safe as a priority should the war not go your way. The result of wars impacts your casualties, your change in morale, your rewards, and how many people you save. This is one aspect that is notably improved in The Banner Saga 2. Where previously the war scenario was a bit vague and could be confusing, now it is much clearer and easier to navigate.
Particularly later in the game, where the many combat abilities, styles, and storytelling comes together, it's hard not to admire the scale of what Stoic has achieved in The Banner Saga 2. It is not a perfect game but it is a wonderful player-crafted story packed with enjoyable mechanics. Any game that forces players to consider morality from the perspective of desperation deserves to be noticed. That The Banner Saga 2 does so with such flair, so interestingly, and in such an immensely enjoyable way deserves a significant amount of respect.