by Matt Porter
reviewed on PC
How time flies. It’s been over two years since I reviewed The Banner Saga, but it seems like only yesterday I was fighting through hordes of Dredge in the perpetual sunlight with a squad of heroes formed of humans and giant Varl. The sequel is finally here and it picks up straight where the previous game left off. The Banner Saga 2 is a dark, morose game where hope is merely a wild dream for the inhabitants of the world. Alliances will be broken, people will die and there might not be any light at the end of the tunnel to show for it.
The Banner Saga 2 drops you straight into the thick of it. The tutorial battle is as complex as one you would’ve seen towards the end of the previous game and it’s a little overwhelming. Barely any time has passed in-game, but in real life it’s been two years and my memory of intricate strategy mechanics was shaky. It took a few battles to get back up to speed.
Basically, you have a party of up to six fighters that you select from a large pool of options before each battle. The fights are turn-based and take place on a tiled grid. Each character has two meters: blue for armor and red for strength. When you attack an enemy, you deal your strength damage against its armor value and the difference is how much damage you do. So, if the enemy has a lot of armor, you might not do much damage if any at all. If your strength doesn’t beat the armor, your attack has a chance to be deflected, resulting in no damage. To combat a powerful enemy, you’ll probably instead need to attack the armor itself, which will open up higher powered attacks from your allies.
In addition, when you take damage, it not only affects how much more punishment you can take, it also damages your strength. For example, if you have a strength value of 11, and get attacked for three damage, your next attack will only do a maximum of eight. It’s a fairly unique mechanic that sets up as much interesting strategy now as it did two years ago. You can see the initiative order at the bottom of the screen, showing you which character is next to attack. If you’re feeling particularly tactical, you can order your attacks in such a way that you’re crippling the next enemy in line.
Characters also have special abilities that are either passive or active. For example standing a shieldbearer next to an ally will grant them both a defensive bonus. Meanwhile, a large Varl will be able to scare his foes into running away and will also hit them with a counterattack if they dare damage him before his next turn. Gameplay is challenging and thankfully a complaint about the previous game has been addressed. Last time, you pretty much solely fought the race of evil Dredge, but there’s a bit more variety this time. Dredge are still the main foe, but you’ll also be fighting the likes of centaur Horseborn and stalkers which turn invisible until they feel the moment is right to strike.
If you’ve got a save from the previous game on your computer, you’ll be able to import it into The Banner Saga 2. Your choices will carry over, certain characters could be dead, and the story may be affected. It’s the story and atmosphere which are the main draws of the game. It features as gorgeous artwork as ever and the Austin Wintory soundtrack is as good as you would expect from the accomplished composer. The story is told through graphic novel style cutscenes with just the slightest hint of animation to the characters. You’ll often be faced with difficult choices which can affect things in big ways. As the leader Rook (or Alette), you have an entire caravan of families to protect on your journey and your decisions can mean the difference between life and death for them.
The caravan management aspect from the previous game makes a return in the sequel, turning it into part Oregon Trail once again. Here you’ll be making sure your people are well supplied and rested and you’ll have to occasionally make camp to ensure this. There’s also a new training arena for your fighters in the camp and completing certain objectives over the course of a short battle will grant you bonuses. You’ll also sometimes come across an item shop and, rather than money, you’ll be spending your renown, which is gained from battles and performing particularly good deeds.
The Banner Saga 2 also features a different perspective on world events, as you’ll get to control a separate caravan led by the Varl Bolverk. Originally part of Rook’s group, a disagreement sees him splinter off and he takes a sizable number of people and fighters with him. Bolverk is a lot rougher and his decisions tend to be more on the aggressive side, so it offers a fresh way to play. While Rook has a lot on his mind and is focused on the well-being of the people following him, Bolverk is simply loyal to his own group and your choices are often either harsh or very harsh.
There hasn’t been much innovation from the original, but some of the complaints have been addressed. There’s more variety in combat both in the form of new enemies and new playable classes with extra abilities. The storytelling and worldbuilding is just as good as it was in the original and I actually ended up turning the difficulty down to easy so I could spend less time in combat and more time seeing what happened next. The Banner Saga 2 is a slight improvement on an already excellent game and the wait for the third game in the series is going to be even more painful than it was for the second.
Tactical combat has been improved, Wonderful, adult storytelling
Drops you in at the deep end, Now I have to wait for The Banner Saga 3