Returning to the fictitious Norse world of The Banner Saga is fraught with as much uncertainty and intensity as its predecessor. Despite the abruptness of the first instalment, you arrive at the beginning of Chapter 8, where the engrossing story once again kicks in with reckless abandon: After managing to flee the once-safe sanctuary of Boersgard on a fleet of rickety ships, a band of warriors and clansmen look to the human capital of Arberrang for sanctuary.
The Banner Saga 2 is blatantly similar to the original game, released in 2014, but the graphics that harken back to the 2D Disney animations of old still impress; it’s beautiful, unique and undeniably captivating. Open plains, mountainous blizzards and dank, dark caves make this game a pleasure to play.
However, this isn’t where newcomers will want to start. A ‘recap’ video will refresh the memories of Banner Saga veterans, but its brief length is far too convoluted to cover the myriad of plot points that occurred perviously. References to certain events and character backstories from the original Banner Saga are littered throughout this iteration, making prior experience a necessity.
Here, players can import a completed game from The Banner Saga into this game, bringing with it a cast of surviving characters – with their experience and collected items intact. With a stacked roster of Level Three-and-above characters, it’s here that I realised I couldn’t sell unwanted items at the markets. Even though your heroes can equip items that are of equal or lower rank, many of these level one and two items offer minuscule or non-existent benefits. Also, depending on previous choices, you may have saved in excess of 15 warriors – so revisiting the first Banner Saga becomes an even more viable option.
All factions from the original game return, with some new races and classes entering the fray. The wonderful Scandinavian landscapes are home to the Varl, a hulking race of horned warriors; humans; Centaurs, also known as ‘Horseborn’; Kragsmen, an isolated race of humans who populate the bogs; and the persistent stone antagonists called the Dredge. The Banner Saga 2 moves at a more frenetic pace but fails at introducing each race with the same amount of depth as before.
Knowledge about the seemingly unstoppable Dredge has spread and the momentum of this series has shifted from preparation to action. Where the original delved into how the lands’ inhabitants were coping with the onslaught of the Dredge, now, it’s about all-out survival. As the leader of a long-winding caravan of warriors and wandering survivors, the moral dilemma of assisting others for the greater good or watching over your own company has never been more polarising.
When travelling, the mechanics at play are, thankfully, still as straightforward as they were in the first Banner Saga. The Banner Saga 2’s off-the-cuff caravan scenarios remain and occur more frequently, with more bravado and with greater consequences. Do you ransack a village recently levelled by the Dredge – with ambushes highly probable – or should you waste your second last day of supplies in the hopes of finding some more allies or powerful items? The choice is yours.
The effects of group Morale have higher importance, too, buffing the amount of your characters’ action points – also known as Willpower – during tactical battles. Supplies still drain with each passing day, but opting to set up Camp is more useful. You can train your clansmen (who have a knack for foraging food) into fighters during conflict at the expense of one day, but it increases overall Morale.
Combat has remained unchanged and it’s astonishing how moreish the game can get despite being on a simple grid. Each unit has a strength and armour value, but your strength also acts as your health. Your damage output is determined by the difference you and your enemy’s strength values or, alternatively, you can hack away at their armour to make their strength more vulnerable later on; the system is certainly difficult to grasp, at first, but the point is that you’re always making decisions.
Unit positioning and the order of your roster still plays a huge part in your success, as all Varl take up for squares, whilst the archers and smaller ground forces take up a maximum of two. There’s a lot to think about: Is it best to start with an archer to whittle down an enemy’s armour or lay some traps, or is a melee assault the best approach? Whatever your chosen tactic, it’s always important to never block your own units when an advance or retreat is in order.
Bolverk, an ill-tempered Varl wearing polar bear skin as a coat – brandishing two massive axes – was my secret weapon for most encounters. He can attack two enemies at once and, when dispatching foes with his Cull of the Weak ability, grants himself an extra turn; he’s a beast.
A welcome tweak to the formula has the inclusion of special passive abilities to your roster of warriors. Each time the maximum value of a stat is reached it’ll unlock useful bonuses which, when levelled up, could increase chances of a critical hit by fifty percent or block up to five strength damage per turn; it’s a tactician’s paradise.
The nonchalant user interface allows you to make decisions quickly and with purpose. However, its out-of-combat menus, such as when visiting the markets, could do with a facelift. The Banner Saga franchise also desperately needs to integrate some camera rotation, seen in other strategy games like XCOM, to differentiate unit values and your own cursor during close-quarters battles with more ease.
There’s a lot more location variety to complement the battles now, with ravaged villages, freezing woods and battered drawbridges painting a picture of conflict and desperation. The game’s soundtrack continues to add fuel to an enthralling fire and the work from Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory is a perfect match. Its loud, thudding drums and mesmerising tribal chants pull you right in – and I never left.
There’s also a few cutscenes here and there, which opened for the door for some brief voice-acting to play out. These were fantastic and a far cry from the static, mute conversations players are used to. Unfortunately, they were few and far between and these aforementioned conversations still hurt the game for me. I’d love to see more of these scripted cutscene animations in further instalments – not only are they great but they trigger at fairly important moments.
If you’re a veteran of the original Banner Saga, you’ll feel right at home here. The Banner Saga 2 has stunning graphics and carries an engrossing plot with more at stake. For the newcomers: Do yourself a favour and play through the first Banner Saga before venturing here – you’ll be glad that you did.
Still Flying High
The Banner Saga 2 is a superior offering compared to its predecessor, but still shows room for improvement.