The red banner flowing above a convoy of Viking tall ships or caravans set against a Nordic landscape has become an iconic image for The Banner Saga. It’s a striking visual that drew me to the original, and cemented my love for the series in this second entry. The second game in the trilogy feels grander than ever, but also more personal as you journey and fight along the way. It’s a triumph of tactical turn-based games, complementing its strong combat with stunning visuals and sound.
First and foremost, The Banner Saga is a sequel, and one that relies heavily on players having experienced the first game. Kicking off at Chapter 8 it offers new players a short visual recap and the chance to make the pivotal choice from the end of Chapter 7, this will do little for newcomers. The decisions, lore and world building from the original are all assumed knowledge. It’s like jumping into Game of Thrones at season two – eventually things will click but a lot of the set up a newcomer might desire won’t be found here.Returning players can import their save from the first, carrying with it the characters who survived your playthrough and the decisions you made. This is the ideal way to play, and after finishing the sequel I had a strong desire to go back, make new choices and replay both titles.This desire stems from the rarely seen narrative design of The Banner Saga 2. It plays like reading a mythological epic – a personal tale of survival and leadership packed with gods, immense odds and all manner of dangerous foes. It’s also full of hard choices that determine how many of your people and allies survive the encroaching darkness that threatens the world.
The world never lets up and rarely lets you breathe. Early on while sailing down a wide river you’ll be fed minor choices every minute or so. The boats you’re travelling are hurriedly built and taking on water – do you sacrifice supplies, stop for repairs or abandon the ship and crowd your others? Do you stop to help others while your supplies and morale drop?All of these decisions will have consequences on both a grand scale and with the other characters on your journey. Stopping to make camp gives a brief respite from the dangers of the road, but provide your Varl and human companions a chance to voice their fears, disapproval or support. Navigating these conversations works like it does in some of the best role playing games, giving you a variety of options to play compassionate, harsh or however you see fit.
These softer moments of conversation and even laughter dot the battles excellently. The combat is where you’ll spend majority of your time while playing, mainly because of how challenging and tactical it is. It’s less about how hard you can hit and more about how you use your abilities and positioning to gain victory, as flat out brute force often results in failure.
Before entering a scenario you’ll have the option to choose the deployment positions of your forces. Pairing heavy hitters with shieldbearers for defence and archers in range means you’ll be able to maximise the different classes strengths, providing an almost puzzle like challenge before the fight kicks off.
Once you begin, all of your forces and the enemies have an armor and health bar, with how much armor they have determining how much damage you can do. This adds a different level of strategy to encounters, and miscalculating your attacks can lead to quick deaths for your forces.All this is fairly staple for The Banner Saga games, the core of this iteration remains very similar to the first. New abilities and some smoother systems are all very welcome, but a few niggling issues from the original remain. Camera orientation can be a pain when there’s several characters in close proximity and it can cause delayed enemy abilities to go unnoticed, but thankfully these issues only popped up very rarely.
The way all these systems feed into one experience is the game’s most powerful attribute. Each battle, decision and step takes a toll on you, keeping you invested in the world and characters Stoic have crafted. The masterful soundtrack work from Austin Wintory ties off the art design perfectly, with music soaring in triumph and growing menacing before a clash. The Banner Saga continues to deliver a stunningly polished package that’s a delight to simply watch, and I can’t wait to see how they close out the tale in the third instalment.
The Banner Saga 2 is an exceptional second act for Stoic’s trilogy. The plot thickens, quickens and develops, leaving us hungry for the last part of this epic trilogy. While not a lot has changed from the original, a game that is almost certainly required to play before 2, Stoic have delivered a memorable, beautiful and memorable experience here.
Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil