The Banner Saga 2 Review

By Mark Delaney, 5 months ago
The middle project of a planned trilogy has an inconsistent history spanning all types of art and entertainment. Many Star Wars fans will tell you that nothing beats The Empire Strikes Back. Tolkien readers often debate which of the Lord of the Rings books is best, with no clear answer. A still exceptional franchise like Toy Story is generally agreed to have taken a step back with its first of two sequels. This middle episode syndrome, to what some properties have fallen victim and others have evaded, is often less of an issue with video games because they're so heavily reliant on improved technology that they at least play, look, and sound better even if the story stalls between the exciting exposition and stunning conclusion that the creators have mapped out. The Banner Saga 2 is another example of the middle child in a family of three games. It picks up where the original leaves off and leaves off where the eventual finale will pick up. Defiant toward such a notion of a stalled storyline, the game's narrative is strong; so strong, in fact, that it stands as the game's best feat in an otherwise all too safe sequel.

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The Banner Saga 2 is a turn-based strategy game where tactical gridlike combat shares the spotlight with an Oregon Trail-like convoy adventure that is set in a Norse fantasy world. If there was any doubt that the game is not meant to be played before its predecessor, the fact that it begins in chapter eight can't state that fact any more clearly. Developed by ex-BioWare members, TBS2 also features the ability to carry over save data from The Banner Saga, remembering your decisions and presenting the world just as you left it. Plenty of political subplots are at stake that will no doubt have consequences unseen until the forthcoming third entry. The problem with these ongoing threads is that newcomers to the series will struggle to get acquainted with it all. The story is dense and layered for those who have been with it since its inception, never mind those who are playing catch up. A short video segment does its best to fill in the gaps, but this is a game that should absolutely be played only after its predecessor if you can help it.

If you're new to the series, you can jump in with default choices after you choose which one of the two main characters as whom you're going to play. Whoever it be - the first game's protagonist Rook or his daughter Alette - the choice has far-reaching consequences for how the characters behave toward you, how your character performs on the battlefield, and how the road ahead appears. The story is full of interesting characters, many of whom earn favor over their counterparts due to their battlefield skills, personalities, or both. When you head into battle, something you'll do around 30 times in the 12 hour story mode, you choose six heroes to take up arms. Mixing in different classes and species of fighters is most often the best course, but sometimes loading up on particular heroes like the towering Varl, new to the series Horseborn, or elusive archers can be extremely effective against the world's enemies, who are most often represented by the black armored Dredge.

Every frame, start to finish, is gorgeous.Every frame, start to finish, is gorgeous.

When your banner is blowing in the wind and you're traveling in search of refuge, micro-decisions will present themselves at a near constant rate over the roughly 100 day journey. Choices like taking in stranded clansmen as foragers, training them for battle, or simply turning a blind eye to their struggles and coldly moving on while afraid to divide up rations anymore than you are already, all provide weight to the grim world while keeping the trek an interesting and very much active portion of the gameplay. Enemies lay traps, environments crumble beneath you, and dangers lurk everywhere. You quickly come to understand that you won't always have all pertinent information and making choices that are based on your gut feeling is both necessary and, sadly, often deadly.

You'll lose many -- countless, even -- in your party, but have no choice but to continue to push forward. Stalling would often just mean more dying. Major character deaths are few and far between, however, and the lack of such outcomes reinforces the idea that this sequel is playing it very safe. Determining how to spend Renown, which is both currency and XP, is a constant inner struggle. Do you trade for food and supplies to feed the hundreds in your party in the days ahead, or do you focus on making your heroes stronger and more efficient when blood must be shed? There's almost never enough to do both, which means that the heavy choices don't pause when you pull off the road and into a settlement.

Choices big and small make up a great deal of a playthrough.Choices big and small make up a great deal of a playthrough.

The key component of the gameplay loop, the turn-based strategy, is also the greatest evidence of a sequel that didn't dare to advance its series in any major way. The addition of more classes and a race of Horseborn fighters puts new faces on the grid and obstructions like fences and debris create issues for both sides, but these improvements ultimately don't amount to a lot for the game. There's a great deal of strategy to be considered, though. The breakdown of combatant armor versus strength, special abilities, and a multi-tiered leveling system all combine to give an immense amount of player control and customization. As with any good tactical RPG, nailing a killing blow just right because you did the math is extremely satisfying. There's no denying that the game accomplishes what it tries to do.

It would be impossible to mention The Banner Saga 2 without calling attention to its spectacular visuals. Presented with retro-inspired hand drawn art, something akin to Disney's Snow White, every single frame of the game would make a lovely screenshot. No two heroes in your party look the same, each of them imbued with their own style and personality. Full motion animation scenes are few and far between, which is a shame because the few times that the game goes to that format, it's truly a sight unlike any other in games. The bulk of conversations are played out with subtitles and ambient noise only. The movie-like camera angles in conversation, the player-chosen dialogue, and the widescreen presentation worked to create a cinematic presentation so rarely seen in indie games. The hardly-there voice acting was well done but was presented so infrequently that I wondered why they used it at all. Austin Wintory won a BAFTA for his work on the first game's score and the sequel lives up to that reputation. Battle anthems provide bellowing Scandinavian chants while the game's overall feelings of having no safe harbor are intensified by the uneasy background music.

The combat offers little in the way of new elements, but it's still very well constructed.The combat offers little in the way of new elements, but it's still very well constructed.

At the time of writing, the game is free for Gold members, which means plenty of people who might have otherwise skipped it might now jump in for a peek, or for gamerscore. If you're in it for the latter, you might want to tread carefully. While the game's list isn't overly difficult, it does require a minimum of two complete playthroughs in order to unlock all it has to offer. Visiting godstones act as most of the unmissable story achievements, while several others like amassing three kills with different classes should come naturally or with only a little extra attention. Hitting certain milestones are very much dependent on how you play for much of the game and aren't doable simply in a given moment. You'll need to set yourself up for those scenarios hours in advance. Assuming that you efficiently tackle all of the achievements across your two playthroughs, you can earn a completion in about 25 hours. It won't always be simply a matter of doing, though; sometimes it'll be quite a challenge.

Summary

The Banner Saga 2 presents a story that defies the middle episode syndrome, building on the rich lore and expanding its world in new and interesting ways to give players a wholly interesting narrative experience. It comments smartly on the role of a leader and what such a position requires, while trying to beat those leaders into submission. It's a story of great scale and turmoil presented alongside a gameplay loop that does everything that it wants to do very well. It just so happens that what it wants to do is nearly identical to what it did last time. If you're returning to Stoic's Saga then it's more of what you enjoyed, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you're a fan of the genre and new to the series, The Banner Saga 2 is absolutely worth your time, just make time for its predecessor first.
4 / 5
Positives
  • Excellent storytelling
  • Stunning visuals
  • Sophisticated musical score
  • Solid tactical gameplay
Negatives
  • Fails to build on its formula in any meaningful way
Ethics Statement
The reviewer spent 12 hours en route to a safe haven that probably isn't coming, collecting 23 of 42 achievements. A digital copy of the game was provided by the publisher for the purpose of this review.
Mark Delaney
Written by Mark Delaney
Mark is a lifelong gamer and current Assistant (to the) News Manager on TA. When not playing games, he can be found cheering for a bad football team, playing Batman action figures with his son, or going to concerts with his lover. Days where he does all of those things are his favorite.