The Banner Saga 2 delivers not only beautiful, hand-drawn art and a compelling soundtrack, but also great gameplay, a solid narrative, and the feeling of true weight in responsibility of leading your nomadic tribe to safety. While it’s easy to say the game is simply beautiful, and a sequel brings with it some expectations of its own, The Banner Saga 2 hits all the right notes and makes a total experience easily worth its cost.
A friend asked me to describe The Banner Saga, and it was honestly difficult to do with just a few sentences. The best I could do was, “imagine a Nordic Oregon Trail with combat from XCOM and decisions that can help or cripple your caravan.” While that impressed him, and is fairly reductive of what makes the game work, it might turn others off too. Rest assured those that are drawn to that seemingly odd combination of ingredients will certainly find an experience worth the time and investment.
Following the events of the first entry, Banner Saga 2 finds our leader, Rook or Alette, reeling from the grief of losing a dear party member. Those that didn’t experience the emotional weight of the story from The Banner Saga will find an extremely helpful “Recap” option at the top of the menu that will fill players in without giving explicit spoilers. This recap is worth watching even for vets of the series, as it gives that necessary refresher but told in the story style that is notably ambiguous while still filling in the important details. Players are presented with a choice right from the outset, which might seem a bit inconsequential at first, but directs the entirety of the experience through the game.
Choices are what define your travels and experience in The Banner Saga 2. As the leader of a caravan your main goal is to secure safe passage to Aberrang. This won’t be an easy trip, as we enter the world after a taxing conflict in Boersgard, where our party has defeated a massive Dredge fiend, but at great cost. A reminder of the conflict between human, Varl (horned giants seen previously in the first game), and more as they also battle the scourge known as The Dredge. The Dredge, with glowing eyes and stone-like veneer represent an unknown evil who is tough to defeat, and high in numbers.
As Alette or Rook, we have important choices to make nearly all the time. Managing the amount of fighters, clansmen, and Varl you have in your party against the amount of supplies and overall morale of your party can be challenging as you attempt to make your way across the map to Aberrang. This balance of making camp, pushing through, or analyzing your surroundings is a fun challenge like those found in classic games like Oregon Trail. You’ve got to choose when you push on to the next town, risking lowering morale and having a disadvantage going into any battles (another thing you risk by pushing onward). You can also opt to make camp and rest to recover some morale, but also consume more supplies. The choices spring from every corner of Banner Saga 2 and truly put the player in control of not just their own, but all their clansmen’s destiny.
While traveling the map the camera shows your caravan traversing the landscape, stopping momentarily to show some dialog between you and another character, or observations like enemy movement in the tree line and the like. Choices come in the way of multiple option responses like “keep moving” or “investigate” and the game design is done in such a way to keep you guessing. You’ll never know if your decision to press on will lead to a battle or escaping one, and vice versa if you select investigate those strange shapes in the trees. While interesting and challenging, it definitely proves a bit of a dice roll for players as there are so many of these moments while trying to make it to Aberrang that you’ll never be going back to try to make other choices, as there are simply too many.
As Rook or Alette progress, Renown is earned. Renown serves as a pseudo gold and XP stand-in, allowing us to upgrade heroes, purchase supplies, and so on. Renown is earned by downing enemies, making good decisions, and more. The rate at which the player earns renown is also consistent with what feels right – neither too fast nor too slow, it allows a level or two to be gained by a player character per small section and serves to remind that the members of your party won’t become overpowered too quickly.
Combat is handled in a fashion not unlike the aforementioned XCOM-style of a turn-based, initiative-focused battles. Each side being lined up in a certain order and allowing the player to survey the entire battle section before making their move. The way it’s handled is once again challenging and interesting, while being fun to play. The game also sprinkles combat in a way that feels well-balanced – again neither too frequent nor sparse. While the combat is fun, somewhat random and definitely challenging – it can become a bit repetitive. If you hit a streak of repeated engagements you might find yourself clicking through a fight somewhat mindlessly to progress and see the next bit of story, because yes, it’s that engaging.
Multiple classes of units show up to join your caravan and therefore party in battle; Varl typically brandish a huge sword, axe, or pair of axes while humans have spears, bows, throwing axes or swords. Each has their pros and cons, and each have their own unique abilities to use at key times during engagements. Vital to success in combat are menders, as they’ll serve as the healing unit on the field, and forgetting to bring one into a fight might be the difference between one or more of your heroes going down. Also of note is that each hero you take into battle factors into the story. You might have them chatting you up about their family, or their desire to stop picking up more people for the caravan, or even their former lives before being uprooted by the current conflict. A small touch, but it serves to make those characters memorable, and I found myself wanting to take certain characters into battle more as we chatted in the slower times.
It should go without question that The Banner Saga 2 remains a simply gorgeous game. The hand-drawn visuals – each and every one of them could serve as a deserving desktop background, if not a framed piece. They’re absolutely stunning and never disappoint, drawing the eye to each corner of every frame. Pair that with the incredible scoring put forth by Austin Wintory in yet another stellar soundtrack and you’ve got one of the most artistically pleasing, and impressive pieces of 2016.
- Absolutely beautiful art, inspired and incredible soundtrack
- Challenging combat that makes turn-based tactical play interesting
- Narrative journey that players will want to see through
- Character and hero design creates attachment to certain members of the team
- Combat can get a bit repetitive if you happen to make the wrong decisions consecutively
The Bottom Line
The Banner Saga 2 continues the tradition set forth in the first entry. Expanding on the beautiful art and soundtrack by adding interesting new classes, races, and challenges to the mix. Stoic has done a great job of delivering another game that Banner Saga fans will enjoy, but will also bring new players into the fold. The Banner Saga 2 absolutely deserves the time of gamers looking for a narrative experience with challenging gameplay, and true gravity behind decisions made during nearly every moment of playing.