The Banner Saga 2 is the 2016 sequel to the original 2014 game by Stoic Studio. For the uninitiated, Stoic Studio is helmed by three former BioWare employees, and it shows in their projects. Set in a Viking-inspired world caught in a seemingly never-ending war, The Banner Saga is a harrowing tale. It challenges the player’s leadership skills, often presenting situations with nothing but terrible solutions. Does The Banner Saga 2 recapture the magic of the original? Is there enough here to justify revisiting this universe?
The first thing to remember is The Banner Saga was not designed to be a standalone piece. While the original game provides some degree of closure, Rook or Alette’s story continues. The Banner Saga trilogy is closer to The Lord of the Rings than the Elder Scrolls. It is one long journey split into different chapters or episodes.
The Banner Saga ends with the user deciding whether to sacrifice Rook or Alette, as the chosen warrior takes down the Dredge’s supposedly immortal leader Bellower. If you play both games on the same device, The Banner Saga 2 transfers the save file from its predecessor. This ensures a genuine continuation rather than a new adventure. If a save file is not available, the user has the option to select between Rook and Alette.
Despite eliminating the Dredge’s figurehead, the remaining humans and Varls (giants) are not quite out of the firing line. If anything, things have only gotten worse. The scattered Dredge forces constantly attack Rook/Alette’s caravan. The story’s driving force is a march toward the capital city of Arberrang. The trek requires the caravan to travel across the continent, visiting multiple unique places along the way.
Like in the previous game, The Banner Saga 2 divides its narrative into multiple groups. When not engaging in turn-based tactical combat, players spend the majority of their time trying to keep their caravan satisfied and fed Throughout the journey, you are required to make tough choices. For example, you must decide whether to aid a group of stragglers. However, when assuming responsibility for these wayward folks will likely stretch your limited supplies beyond their limit. There is also the risk these newcomers are wolves in sheep’s clothing.
Depending on the leader’s decisions, the caravan’s morale fluctuates and very few options result in a boost in confidence. Typically, resting at camps is the only way to force a positive change, but this comes at the cost of wasting supplies while no progress is made. Crucially, expectations differ from character to character. Bolverk’s Ravens require their leader to be fierce, aggressive, and unflinching. Conversely, Rook/Alette must take a more diplomatic stance while still being willing to make some truly gut-wrenching decisions. Frankly, mistakes will happen.
The campaign requires 10 hours to complete, although this can vary depending on a person’s willingness to engage in training. Unfortunately, the story is less exhilarating than the previous chapter. The journey lacks drive for the first few hours, since the game does not introduce a central antagonist until halfway through the narrative. That said, the characters themselves are quite engaging, and the second-half builds up a considerable amount of steam. It is hard not to care about these humans and Varls, especially since the minor characters are all effectively expendable. With the exception of the main players, everyone else remains dead if they fall in battle. There is no manual save option, so actions have consequences.
Combat in The Banner Saga 2 sees a marginal improvement over its predecessor, mainly in the form of a more expansive roster of enemy types and abilities. As a tactical RPG, Stoic Studio has crafted a competent albeit unspectacular package. It is accessible but lacks much in the way of nuance. Allowing for up to six warriors to be taken into battle, combat utilizes a grid-based system, which allocates each character a certain amount of steps for their movement. Along with strength (which also serves as a character’s HP), fighters have a shield that often needs to be shattered before a significant amount of direct damage can be afflicted. A degree of strategy arrives in the form of abilities, both passive and active. Assuming the difficulty level is set to anything higher than “Easy,” these skills become crucial to achieving victory. Opponents can be quite vicious.
Rather than everyone accumulating XP, a character’s reputation improves if they happen to kill a Dredge. Consequently, planning ahead to allow a certain fighter to score the final blow becomes important. Winning fights or making popular decisions improve the caravan’s reputation, which essentially acts as a currency system. Players can use reputation to purchase supplies or items, or to upgrade a character’s stat points. Once again, The Banner Saga 2 tasks the player with compromising and accepting the consequences.
While the game includes a recap of the first chapter, players should experience The Banner Saga 2 immediately following the original game. The game brings many new faces into the mix. However, it does not give all that much development to previously introduced personas. As a sequel, The Banner Saga 2 does not feel like an improvement over the original. The combat eventually begins to wear thin, especially if played directly after the previous entry. Although a slow start somewhat dampens the experience, the narrative gradually blooms into something truly special and becomes a worthy continuation of The Banner Saga.