STORYBanner Saga 2’s story picks up shortly after the conclusion of the first game. This is not a game that jumps two or three years into the future to focus on different characters or perspectives. It has a direct narrative continuation. While managing to become grander and at times darker in scale, it never loses the immensely personal focus of BS1. That laserpoint focus was one of the major successes of the initial entry, and so to see it return was a relief. Many times, sequels seem to believe they must have bigger maps and more party members and bigger explosions for the sake of being “better” than the original. Spoiler alert, those things rarely make a game better, and instead distract the developer from actually focusing on going deeper into the fascinating stories and characters that made the first game good to begin with. Banner Saga 2 balances the newness of a sequel without losing the heart of what made the original amazing. One of those areas is with characters. In this story, characters are always at the forefront of every turn in the road, regardless of being POV characters or not.
Speaking of POV characters, they introduce a new one here that carries you through half of the story. BS2 cleans up the perspectives this time around by making it clear and consistent from the beginning who you will control for the entirety. In Banner Saga 1, you control Ubin for the first chapter but then never play as him again. You then play Rook for the second chapter, Hakon for the third chapter, and then Rook for the rest of the five chapters. While that setup didn’t keep me from growing attached to the characters or the story, the way perspective works in Banner Saga 2 is superior. From the outset, the story alternates perspective by chapter, providing a structural expectation and sticking to it. Each time a chapter ends, I know exactly where the story will jump next. It makes the whole experience feel clean and concise.
The choices are just as difficult, if not more so here than before. And yes, the character deaths return and bring a weighted punch. There was a single moment toward the middle of the plot that made me sick to my stomach for a moment because of a consequence for one of my decisions. Did I think about loading an earlier save? Yes. Did I? No. For the purity of my first playthrough, I lived with the tragedy of my selection, and it still haunts me as I write this. That’s the type of impact this story makes - it’s lasting.
PRESENTATIONThe look of the game itself has not changed from Banner Saga 1, and to be honest, that’s a good thing. Its gorgeous, hand drawn aesthetic did not need overhauling, looking like a timeless animated film. What did change, however, were the variety in locations and environmental themes throughout the world. As the story moves toward a greater magical emphasis, the look and feel of the game reflects that, allowing for both beautiful and captivating presentation.
One of the most impressive aspects to this game is that there are two major points that easily make you want to play it twice. The first is a choice right from the title screen. The first game ends with a player choice that forces you to choose to play either as one character or the other. The developer took the time to create fully fleshed scenarios for either character to be present, an impressive feat. For this type of gameplay (choices spanning multiple games, storylines and dialogue written contextually based upon what character you choose to play at the beginning) to be coming from a small independent team instead of huge studio as we would expect truly makes my heart glad. The second point in the game that makes me want to play it again is actually the situation I referred to earlier. Remember the trauma I went through? Had I made a different decision there, my game experience would have changed (I watched someone else’s playthrough after my own mistakes, so I’m speaking from experience). Once again, I cannot speak highly enough of the care and precision with which a story and world like this is presented, especially coming from a team of its size.
If you remember me saying I wish there had been more VO work in Banner Saga 1, that sentiment still stands here. It’s hard for me to tell if there is actually more or less, but regardless, I wish much more of this game were voiced. And I only say that because of the quality of the VO that’s in the game already. At certain points, characters will speak over important cutscenes. It adds yet another level of flavor to the feeling of the atmosphere and the lore.
COMBATWhen I first saw the art for Banner Saga 2 and saw that the story was a continuation of the first game, I immediately assumed this entry would serve more like DLC than a sequel (an addition to the original content while at the same time being a carbon copy of its elements). I could not have been more wrong. While the changes in the art are subtle and discovered through careful study, the changes in combat are quite apparent very early on. The mechanics from BS1 that made battles fun, challenging, and exciting are all there: the ever-present debate whether to attack armor or strength, the management of finite willpower, and the sweet temptation to load your party with varl. It’s all there. But enemy reinforcements have become a prevalent feature here. Whereas in the first game, certain dredge units could sacrifice a few of their turns to summon comrades, the reinforcements in BS2 can just show up when they want to. This element brings another level of intensity as these units come onto the field fresh when you could have been scraping through an encounter.
Renown acquisition is back, and your quest to not run out before you feed your caravan, level your party member, and provide them with much-needed items still hangs over your head. Leveling up your party, however, feels a little bit different in BS2. The level cap in BS1 was 5, and this game allows you to go beyond that with some interesting results. At level 6, you get to choose a second special ability for your unit, fleshing out their playstyle and making them much more of a best on the battlefield. Maybe you loved one of the abilities from a different character, but he was severely underleveled? No problem, now you can add that ability to your favorite unit as long as they share the same class. Since you’re making your units stronger than they were in BS1, whole new options open up to you that while they existed in the first game definitely shine in this one. Once you max out a character’s stat (for this example, we’ll use willpower), you can click on the stat’s icon to find talents you could invest points in to give your character specific willpower-related aspects. Not only does this make your character more useful, but it also allows you to change the taste of one character compared to another, even of the same weapon-type. You could take two archers down two separate talent trees in willpower and wind up with characters that feel and react differently on the battlefield.
One area I felt lacked a bit in BS1 was the training tent. It would allow you to test strategies by facing no-stake battles that resulted in no deaths and no renown (kills did count toward promotion, which was nice). In my BS1 review, I also stated a wish that there were other ways to obtain renown as the scripted battles made it a scarce commodity. Thankfully, BS2 addresses both of these points by tweaking the way the training tents work. First of all, you can now train clansmen into fighters, giving you something else to manage. But the second addition to the training tent comes in the form of challenge events, battle scenarios with very specific objectives. While I wasn’t a huge fan at just how particular some of the objectives were, I do appreciate the fact that you obtain renown upon completion of all objectives. The renown you gain here could be the difference in being able to promote one of your units or not and was a welcome bonus to the training tent.
MUSICAustin Wintory does not disappoint with Banner Saga 2’s soundtrack. At times subdued, at times cranked to the max, the score further establishes the stark, harsh tone of the world. Throw in mystery and magic? He’s got more than a dash of that in here too. Once again, I will not try to put into words what his notes can say for themselves. This specific track plays while your caravan stressfully crosses over the sundered earth as I mentioned earlier:
CONCLUSIONOne of the best things I could say about a game is that I would play it again. For Banner Saga 2, upon completing it, I immediately started the first game from the beginning just so I could experience Banner Saga 2 again in its entirety. For me, Banner Saga 2 somehow takes one of my favorite game I’ve played in recent memory and improves upon it. It adds so many small elements of management that the culmination makes it feel vastly different from the first game. The battles feel fiercer, the choices are just as agonizing, and the characters feel more complex than ever.
Much like the first, Banner Saga 2 gives me a game that I have thought about after finishing almost as much as I actually played it. Yes, I want to experience it again (will indeed experience it again), and like I said, that’s one of the biggest compliments I can give to a game in this time of my life.
Great: Must Play.
Good: Worth your time.
OK: Some notable flaws.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.
About Phillip Pinyan
Moderator. Podcaster. Facebook Page Manager. I enjoy playing video games and talking about them. I game primarily on Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, and PC.
Nintendo Switch Friend Code: SW-5164-7484-7610 / Twitter: @PhillipNineNine
July 6, 2018 08:29:48 PM
|Amazing review! Well done|
July 5, 2018 11:47:47 PM
|Great review, thanks!|
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