Banner Saga 2 builds upon everything that made the original title promising and continues an amazing franchise with this foundation.
During the time that has passed since the first installment in The Banner Saga series, not much has changed. The cold and unforgiving world continues to fall apart and those trying to survive are left to face seemingly impossible odds and ferocious enemies – both man and monster alike. Only time will tell if these desperate heroes will defeat the approaching evil or wind up as dead as the Gods.
For those new to the series or even those wishing to start fresh, players can begin by watching a recap of the original game’s story and choose between returning protagonists Rook and Alette as their main character. Fortunately, those who played the original actually have the option to choose a saved file from the first Banner Saga and have their choices carry over into this one. This certainly adds an interesting aspect to the overarching storyline and really makes decisions feel important and lasting – however dire they might be.
Not everything is so dark and bleak however; with the hand-painted, stylistic environments and characters, The Banner Saga 2 continues to look awe-inspiring and even finds ways to add various subtle improvements from its predecessor. Dark caverns and otherworldly locales compliment the snowy mountain vistas and grassy plains this time around and they’re a welcomed addition, adding a stark and mysterious contrast to an otherwise bleak landscape.
The soundtrack is once again perfectly fitting and beautifully composed, rivaling, if not surpassing, the one before it. Often times, watching the caravan traverse the lands or the animated hand-drawn cutscenes accompanied by the boisterous voice-acting and soundtrack had me feel as though I were watching a fantasy cartoon from the 70s or 80s - and I loved every moment of it.
Along with the great art and music, the gameplay has also been polished a bit. Battles themselves feel more dynamic and interesting in The Banner Saga 2. Enemy units will sometimes wander onto the battlefield from behind trees or other areas just out of view which can, if the player isn’t always prepared, turn the tables. There was even an early moment where my band of clansmen and rag-tag warriors had to hold off an encroaching pack of Dredge. Our rookie Mender (a Wizard in this realm) attempted to summon all of his might to construct a bridge made out of the earth itself for us to escape the edge of a mountain and traverse a yawning chasm beneath.
There are many tense moments and many hard choices to be made but nothing ever feels horribly unfair and usually serves to thicken the plot or add to the challenge.
Very similar to playing the old Oregon Trail games, decisions tend to lead to surviving or losing someone you care about (or many, if food runs out). With multiple characters to play as, each faced with their own decisions and storylines, there is plenty of reason to come back and play through again to see how things might change, whether for the better or the worse.
There are plenty of subtle improvements and fresh variety but there are still a few issues that seem to have carried over from the first installment. Controllers are supported but still feel a bit like a lumbering Varl who has gotten into too much ale. Although a nice option for those who enjoy playing from their couch, the mouse/keyboard setup remains the superior choice. During combat, health and armor are displayed as banners above each unit’s head. Handy as it is, these really get in the way during densely populated battles. A slight annoyance that is fortunately easily turned on/off with a single key but even then, they can lead to issuing the wrong order or even attacking the wrong target which can sometimes lead to the difference between winning and losing a fight (especially when using the clumsy controller scheme).
Although the first Banner Saga had a fairly challenging battle system, it always felt like it lacked enough depth. The Banner Saga 2, however, builds upon it by adding new units, abilities and an interesting barrier mechanic.
These additions not only add more strategic elements but will also keep things fresh for those returning to the series. The Training Tent in camps, for example, now offers challenges for the players in which they must use preselected units to accomplish certain tasks within a practice battle. This not only adds variety but also helps players to understand how to make their units work more efficiently and, most importantly, together all while enticing the players with shiny new achievements.
Overall, The Banner Saga 2 improves on what its predecessor began with in just about every way. The new additions to units and abilities keep things feeling fresh and the strategic gameplay rewarding all while providing a sense of wonder and discovery. Although there are still some lingering issues, they pale in comparison to the beauty and rich lore of the world and are easily forgiven.
If what has been done to improve the series and move such an interesting story forward in The Banner Saga 2 is any hint of what is to come for the final installment, consider my caravan camped nearby, waiting for the signal to sail onward.