Trilogies are a dime a dozen when it comes to video games. However, franchises are rarely envisioned that way from the outset and, as a result, there are remarkably few developers who really seize upon the storytelling potential of the form. Bioware’s Mass Effect trilogy comes to mind as one of the few and while Stoic’s viking strategy RPG The Banner Saga comes from more humble origins, it’s well poised to do the same.
With The Banner Saga 2, developer Stoic continue the story they started in the first game while also refining the combat mechanics that bind it together. The characters are just as compelling, the combat just as engaging and the rich world just as fun to discover. As a follow-up to the first, it’s everything it needs to be and Stoic have done a great job on building on the series’ strengths.Set in a Scandinavian-inspired world of humans and giant-like Varl at the end of the world, the first Banner Saga saw you take up the mantle of Rook, a human reluctantly charged with leading his people to safety when hordes of the stone-skinned Dredge declare war.
The world of The Banner Saga 2 is dripping with detail, mood and mystery. It picks up pretty seamlessly from where the first game left off and there’s a cool elasticity to story’s appeal. If you’re coming to the game for epic battles and cryptic prophecies, you’ll find those things – but there’s also plenty of smaller more personal stories and relationships in the mix.Depending on how the ending of the first game went down, The Banner Saga 2 will either see you continue Rook’s journey south to the human capital of Arberrang or shift the perspective to that of his young daughter Allete as she tries to do the same. Though the overall shape of the story isn’t changed too much by this deviation, the changes made are pretty significant in terms of the thematic trajectory the narrative follows.
Plenty of loose-elements set up in the first game land, and the story eventually ends up splitting between Rook/Allette and the Varl mercenary Bolverk introduced during the final stretch of the first game. Perhaps as expected, The Banner Saga 2 does end on a pretty grand cliffhanger but the story in the game felt substantial and satisfying enough that it left more more excited about the promise of the third game than disappointed I would have to wait for it.On paper, there’s not a whole lot separating the presentation of The Banner Saga 2 from that of first one. It runs in the same engine and uses a lot of the same music and animations. However, in practice, the game is still jaw-droppingly beautiful to behold in motion.
Cutscenes are still reminiscent of classic Disney animations and the aesthetic is Nordic to the bone in a way that’s hard not to be impressed by. Every aspect of the presentation here is glowing with both polish and personal touches, from the lush landscapes to the map screen – which, as a fantasy fan, is one of the coolest maps I’ve ever encountered in a video game.Austin Wintory’s orchestral soundtrack returns to deliver a score that runs the gamut from somber to sanguine and it works well in tandem with the game’s voiceover narration to set the mood of your journey. The original Banner Saga included included a little bit of voiceover narration but it felt like there was a lot more here. Every level had, at the very least, a moment where things slowed down and you got to hear your character reflect.As with the first game, your time in The Banner Saga 2 is split between talking to the characters in your troupe, fighting turn-based battles and making decisions as you traverse the land in the series’ Oregon Trail-inspired travel sequences.
Don’t get me wrong – the story elements of The Banner Saga 2 are where the meat of the game is. However, the game’s combat is definitely the bones that hold it together. You control a squad of up to six fighters of varying sizes and abilities and have to balance chipping away at the armor and strength of enemy units to defeat them – the former tracking how much damage will be blocked when you hit them while the latter representing how much they’ll hit you for, as well as their health.
It was a great, approachable system in the first game and it’s every bit as ‘easy-to-learn, hard-to-master, here – though that’s not to say Stoic haven’t made improvements or significant additions. You can now sacrifice supplies to build barricades and use cover to play out battles from a more defensive position.Menders can create runes which provide temporary attribute buffs to characters who collect and there are even new stealth units like Dytch and the Dredge Skulkers who bring new possibilities to the battlefield. Bolverk’s double-strike passive ability deserves a nod as it both made him incredibly fun to use and tied well to the story around his character.
The biggest addition to the combat comes in the form of the ‘Horseborn’, who are more agile than your Varl and human characters and also allowed to move after making an attack. There’s a little bit of a learning curve to these centaur warriors but once you wrap your mind around the best way to deploy them in battle, they can prove devastatingly effective – and they definitely don’t help with The Banner Saga’s ongoing problem of presenting you with too many cool characters and too few party slots.Similar expansions have been made to the aspects of the game that fill the time between battles. The clansmen in your caravan to forage for food but are at a greater risk during battles if you don’t have enough soldiers to protect them. There are also new challenge rooms that test your knowledge of specific combat mechanics and character combinations, which you can complete while your party rests for additional renown (used to upgrade your units and buy items and supplies).
If you’re importing your save from the first game (and you should be), all the experience and items you accrued carryover. The level cap gets raised accordingly and you can now invest skill points on new, more specific talents once you max out a character’s stats. It’s a small touch goes a long way, making your higher-level characters feel like they carry more weight with them and making their untimely deaths all the more gut-wrenching.
Life in the world of The Banner Saga is fragile and unpredictable. Characters can split from the safety of the caravan – sometimes without warning, sometimes as a result of a decision you’ve made – and end up dying as a result. Barely a minute goes by when the game doesn’t present you with a decision as the leader of your caravan and barely a decision goes by when you’re not dwelling on the consequences.It’d be easy to write off The Banner Saga 2 as an careless extension of the first but that’s just it – Stoic have taken great care to build on what worked about the first game and address what didn’t. With the developer’s grandiose story now approaching its home stretch, there’s never been a better time to jump onboard the most compelling trilogy in gaming since Mass Effect.
The PC version of The Banner Saga 2 was primarily tested for the purpose of this review.