|Release Date||April 19, 2016|
This game was reviewed using a key provided by PR
The Banner Saga 2 is a turn-based strategy adventure game, the direct continuation of the original, and the second chapter of the Banner Saga trilogy. After the events of the first game, you must lead your clan through an epic and immensely dangerous Viking-inspired fantasy world, making impossible choices to try and ensure the survival of those who have flocked to your banner.
First of all, as I noted above, The Banner Saga 2 is a continuation of the first game, rather than a direct sequel. The Banner Saga ended at Chapter 7 and this game begins at Chapter 8. If you jump into this game without playing the original, as I originally did, you’ll probably miss a lot of the impact and potential enjoyment of the game. There is an option to watch a recap of The Banner Saga, but it’s too short and doesn’t really go into enough detail about the characters, setting and events that transpired there. After playing the first chapter of this sequel as part of my hands-on preview I went back and played the original, and felt instantly more immersed here. If you missed the original, as I did, I’ll try and write this review without spoiling either game.
The Banner Saga 2 opens following the events of the first game. You take on the role of one of two characters and must lead your caravan across a world that is falling apart. Literally. The world is breaking apart, the Dredge are everywhere and death stalks your every turn. All the while the sun hangs motionless in the sky. Basically, this is the apocalypse, and it’s up to you as either Rook or Alette (depending on your choices in the first game, or at the start of the game if you’re not importing a save file) to lead your people to the last safe place in the world – Aberrang.
The choice of who leads the clan matters a great deal in The Banner Saga 2. While the overarching narrative is generally the same no matter who’s in charge, it’s a very different journey depending on who is the main character. Rook is in a bad place after what went down at the end of The Banner Saga, he’s possessed by a vengeful grief that borders on suicidal, flinging himself recklessly into battles with no regard for his own safety. Alette, meanwhile, struggles with her relative youth and lack of experience as she tries to navigate a dangerous world, wracked with doubt and struggling to be taken seriously as a woman leading this massive tribe.
The effect of this, single choice at the beginning of the game can colour the entire experience. While the main narrative still hits the same, overarching beats, the entire story itself is coloured by the choice of which character is leading the caravan. More than merely presenting different lines of dialogue, the whole game feels changed by having Rook or Alette as the main character, to the point where you’re almost watching two entire different stories unfold. Choice is a big mechanic in The Banner Saga 2, and it’s weaved into both the narrative and the gameplay wonderfully. The game promises you that your choices do matter, and then repeatedly delivers on that promise.
As Rook or Alette struggle to get their clan to Aberrang, the story splits and reveals a second protagonist early on – Bolverk, a hulking mercenary whose solely motivated by money. Where Rook and Alette are too kind hearted for the world they find themselves in, Bolverk is only interested in himself and his Ravens, the mercenary company he leads. Roughly half the story follows Bolverk, and having a dual narrative strengthens the story in The Banner Saga 2, allowing it to go in a few different directions all at the same time. Thanks to the differing natures of Rook/Alette and Bolverk, this approach to storytelling also contrasts perfectly.
It’s not just Rook/Alette and Bolverk, The Banner Saga 2 is bursting with interesting characters. There are so many characters in this game that it could potentially be very easy to get confused between them all. This really isn’t an issue in The Banner Saga 2, however, thanks to some exceptionally strong characterisation. There are tons of characters, but they’re all distinct, they all get their moments to contribute to the story in some way, and they’re all genuinely interesting. The Banner Saga 2 is wall-to-wall great writing and nowhere is this more apparent than in its great cast of characters.
While this story is equal parts compelling, epic, moving and many other words that all mean that it’s really good, it doesn’t really stand on its own. The Banner Saga 2 starts out strong, and continues well enough, but it doesn’t really feel like it has a solid end. Rather it simply feels like Stoic have been moving pieces around in preparation for the third part of the trilogy, and The Banner Saga 2 does suffer a bit from not telling its own self-contained story. Both stories are excellent, but the game doesn’t feel like it has an ending, instead it just stops, leaving you with a lot of questions and an empty feeling where the satisfaction of a good ending should go.
Both story and characters are bolstered by The Banner Saga 2’s frankly amazing presentation. The art style, influenced by 60’s animations, looks fantastic. It fits the setting, brings its characters to life and makes the game both visually distinct and beautiful to look at. The soundtrack by BAFTA Award winning composer Austin Wintory is similarly amazing, enhancing every scene, every bit of gameplay, every section of combat – and is one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in quite some time. It’s also not bad for writing reviews to.
When you’re not watching or actively participating in the story, you’re fighting for your life in turn-based, tactical combat. The Banner Saga 2’s combat mechanics are surprisingly deep and highly improved over what was in the first game. When combat starts you select your party of six from the characters you have with you – even before the first sword is swung you’ve got a lot of decisions to make. Characters come from a variety of different races and have a variety of different classes. Crafting a complimentary party takes a bit of forethought and can be a little trial-and-error at the beginning, but once you get the hang of it you’ll be putting together powerful fighting forces in no time.
The Banner Saga 2 has some really interesting mechanics at play in its combat, some of which do wonders for shaking things up in what could have been a standard tactical RPG. The game is heavily built around giving players complete control over their own tactics by allowing players to decide what order their characters will act. Turn order will always switch between sides – you’ll always go, then the enemy, then you, and so on. So organising an effective turn order will go a long way towards helping secure victory in combat.
The combat itself takes place on an isometric grid with some fantastic level design. At the beginning of combat you need to designate your characters’ starting positions. Arenas will often come with obstacles – crevices, barricades and the like – that, along with enemy deployment, will affect who you place where. It’s all about taking everything into consideration, and making sure the right characters can get to the right places. Having your strongest warriors shield your archers and menders (The Banner Saga’s mages), for example, is generally a good tactic. Being mindful of placing smaller characters in front of the giant Varl, who take up four squares instead of one, ensures that they don’t get caught behind the tiny counterparts.
All characters come with two major stats – armour and strength (the latter of which doubles as a characters health). You can choose to attack, and be attacked in, either. The lower a characters armour the more damage you can do to strength, but the more strength a character has the more damage they can do to you. Choosing which to attack becomes a fascinating risk/reward system – do you damage an enemies armour so that other characters can deal more damage, or do smaller damage to their strength, but lessen how much damage they can do back? There’s a lot going on in The Banner Saga 2’s combat, and it all feeds into a deviously addictive gameplay loop. Fighting is deep, fun and rewarding.
It’s also very challenging, even on normal difficulty. In The Banner Saga 2, you need to be mindful of everything that’s going on in battle, or else you’ll probably get your ass thoroughly kicked. Enemies are dangerous, powerful and devious. The Banner Saga 2’s difficulty comes not just from enemies that give and take more damage at higher difficulties, but also from their intelligence and utilising sound tactical nous to really get in your face. If one of your characters falls in battle they won’t die, but they will be injured and unavailable for future combat for a period of time. If you’re defeated the game doesn’t end, but there may be grave consequences to losing.
The Banner Saga 2 is an excellent story-driven adventure game. It juggles a fair few different genres – from the tactical nature of its combat, to its RPG progression systems, survival gameplay and heavy focus on choice-and-consequence-based narrative, but it blends all of these elements extremely well. The combat is addictive and fun while also being both challenging and rewarding. While by the end of the story you feel like you’ve been playing an extended teaser for The Banner Saga 3, the journey is extremely compelling. The Banner Saga 2 is all about desperation, as you take control of a caravan that is simply trying to survive the end of the world. It’s a well woven tale with some truly epic, memorable moments. It helps that the game looks and sounds fantastic, with an amazing art style and excellent soundtrack combining to create a game that will stick with you for a long while.
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