The Banner Saga 2 is something that I have waited two years for, and when I first heard about the Kickstarter for the original game, it seemed too good to be true. An RPG/Chesslike choose your own adventure title (CYOA) with direct visual inspiration from Sleeping Beauty? How could Stoic Entertainment possibly pull that off, even if they were Bioware veterans?
Overall, while The Banner Saga was good, it also felt rushed, like it needed a few more months to cook before it was ready to be served. As such, there were three main areas of contention for the first title: combat, storytelling, and management. These three things were lacking in the first title, and will be the main areas which the rest of the review will elaborate on.
Switching gears, The Banner Saga 2's story begins as the survivors (either headed by Rook or Alette) decide to head for the human capital, where food and shelter against the 'Darkness' are assured.
Along the way, the player meets characters that provide new and exciting ways to fight and interact, which serves to pull the story in unexpected and unusual directions. This time around, two banners are being followed, and both characters directly influence the story. What is brilliant about this is that it honestly feels as though it is your story, that one's decisions matter and impact the plot. For my play through, I played Rook as someone who is grieving and dedicated to protecting those under his banner as best as he could, in memory of his fallen daughter Alette.
As a result of this, characters die and betray each other while doing their utmost to survive in a broken world that is crumbling all around them. It’s a brilliant scenario, and it goes to show that while The Banner Saga did have a few problems narratively (such as the abrupt ending) it also quite successfully laid the foundation for the future.
Most of those reading this review will have a firm idea as to what to expect from The Banner Saga 2’s gameplay. For those that don’t, it’s somewhat difficult to explain adequately. As stated before, its combat is a mixture of Chess and Final Fantasy on a grid board, but it's more than that. Each player usually has around six units they can place on the battlefield, and each battle can be different based on which units you decide to bring. They can range from the massive Varl that takes up four spaces to a Human’s one, or a Human Hunter that shoots enemies from afar. The archetypes are all here and established, from the Archer mentioned above to the slippery rogue-esque class, but it’s their abilities that make the combat interesting. The skills are sometimes unique to a character or just strictly relegated to a class, but all can be useful given the right scenario. For instance, Rook has an ability which causes all of his fellow fighters to attack a delegated foe that is beside them. A huge Varl with a lot of health could easily take one or two hits, but three or four? Even the mightiest of foes will find themselves sundered.
Each round of combat switches from one side to the other, so players must put that into account as they arrange their forces across the board. Should you put Rook close to an enemy that could easily one-shot him if he so chooses to attack him? Should you keep him back and in reserve? It’s a rabbit hole in regards to decisions, and The Banner Saga 2 punishes foolish decision making in a manner that is sometimes reminiscent of the Souls series: harsh but fair.
Essentially, for those that have played the first Banner Saga, not much has changed. However, new additions such as training (which is useful for both remembering how to play and learning the game in general) and barriers, help to make Banner Saga 2 feel fresh and new all over again. Stoic Entertainment should be congratulated for their efforts, as the issue of fighting the same battles over and over again has been all but negated in The Banner Saga 2.
Like the first game, the graphics and audio look and sound incredible. Disney's Sleeping Beauty directly influenced The Banner Saga's visuals, and it shows. Even for those who devoured the first title like myself will be shocked at who beautiful it looks. Honestly, a lot of the backgrounds look so good that they could easily hang on someone’s wall in a frame, which for this game is the highest of compliments that I can give. The actual characters look nearly as good, with the only caveat to this being if one decides to zoom in on the character’s mid-combat, it looks as though if someone zoomed in on a sprite. Besides this one quibble, the graphics of Banner Saga 2 does an excellent job of immersing one into its world.
Audio wise, there is nothing to complain about in the slightest. The music, which was composed by Austin Wintory, sounds fantastic, to the point where I have already bought it to add to my (rapidly growing) gaming OST collection. Besides the music, the sound design seems like more of the same from the first title, which is fine. Stoic nailed the ‘Viking’ aesthetic and sound design the first time around, and as such there was little need to innovate.
While on the visual and audio design is just about perfect, there are some parts that are not. For instance, while the recap is appreciated, it barely suffices as a, well, recap for what occurred in the first game. Given that I hadn’t played the first title in almost two years, a lot of the secondary characters were little more than faces to me, and it took a while for me to remember a few characters’ story arcs and the general idea of what was going on. While not unforgivable, a more comprehensive recap would be appreciated the next time around, as this is such a story-intensive title that it demands such diligence.
The management was vastly improved, although it is startling to see how few changes this update needed. For instance, your clan members can now forage for food, which is a small change that made the overall campaign so much more enjoyable. It makes sense, (why wouldn't people used to surviving outdoors not hunt?) and it fixes the issue of having one's clan starving to death that plagued the first title.
The addition of training tents was an excellent idea as well, as it solves two problems: not having enough renown and giving the player agency. What I mean by this is that when the player completes training objectives, they learn to play their characters and earn Renown. As Renown is useful for buying supplies and upgrading units, it gives the player more to do when they are not traveling. Being able to upgrade more characters is great, as it helps to both give a more personal stamp on them and help the player become more invested in the performance of their characters.
While so far there has been nothing but praise for The Banner Saga 2, there are still a few minor quibbles. A few spelling errors pop up here and there, which is nothing critical but something that should also have been caught, as it is a heavily text-based game. Nothing takes you out of the well-built world quicker than seeing an obviously misspelled sentence that should have been caught before launch.
An interesting bug also occurred during my playthrough, which caused characters to shimmer on the screen. It only appeared once during my playthrough, but it made the game all but unplayable as I could barely select and move a character, let alone utilize any of the abilities. I'm not sure if this is fixed yet, but it's quite annoying and something that Stoic should be looking into.
Overall, The Banner Saga 2 is perhaps what the first one should have been to begin with, but it’s a welcome addition to its own little genre all the same. For those interested in anything to do with Chess, Final Fantasy, or RPG’s, you could do little better.
The Banner Saga 2 was reviewed on Steam using a code provided by the publisher.
The Banner Saga 2 is a worthy sequel and succeeds in propelling the series to new heights.