By: Brian Gunn
The Banner Saga 2 follows up directly on the original, which was sort of a mashup of a choose-your-own adventure novel, turn-based SRPG battles and 1980’s hand-drawn animation. While the original was good, it had a few glaring issues in the combat department that the sequel wisely attempts to address.
Controls in The Banner Saga 2 are fairly standard for turn-based strategy battles, with the tried and true point-and-click method being the simplest way to do things. Some of the menus feel like they could use some work, such as ability usage. Now most characters earn a secondary ability over the course of the game, and instead of simply appending it to the normal action bars, they get shuffled into a secondary Abilities menu that seems unneeded.
Controller support is also present, though it’s often a bit slow in comparison to the mouse, and I’d only recommend using it if mouse is not an option.
The Banner Saga 2 is a fairly gorgeous game, thanks in no small part to the hand-drawn animations for nearly every element. Characters are lovingly crafted and would not feel out of place in an old Disney cartoon. The world is a dark and lonely one, and the air of desperation as your caravan trudges through it is oppressive.
My only real complaint is that there’s a decent amount of asset reuse, and it can be a bit dull to fight an army that all look the same. It’s especially glaring when fighting humans, and more unique designs could’ve helped make fights stand out more.
Music is lead by acclaimed composer Austin Wintory and is incredibly well done. The Nordic myths that inspired the game also inspire the soundtrack and are often haunting and beautiful. They are mostly reserved for story sections though, and battles opt for stark silence.
As such, the clang of steel on shield and enemies getting plucked with arrows reverberates more without the music to drown it out. There’s only a little bit of voice acting, and it’s nothing too notable, with accents that feel a bit on the thick and stereotypical side.
The Banner Saga 2 is largely an iterative sequel rather than a big leap forward. Anyone that’s played the first game will be right at home, and realistically you should play it before touching this; it’s a direct continuation that opens moments after the original.
Without spoiling the first game too much, it ended with a big choice that will determine who the main character in the sequel will be. You can import your old save data if you have it on your computer or choose from two generic world states, each offering the other protagonist.
Importing is generally the superior option if possible, as there are many characters that players could have discovered that won’t end up in the default paths, and you get to keep your items and level progress as well.
Story is still the main attraction, even if continues to keep things a bit vague and mysterious. The Banner Saga series often focuses on stellar character work rather than big plots, though the major story of the series is more prevalent in the sequel. It still has the same sort of focus, where players lead a struggling caravan through a dying world, though this time with more important goals than just survival.
As you travel, events frequently pop up. They can range from spotting a lone enemy scout and deciding to kill or follow it, or meeting strangers and deciding if you should let them join you or not. It’s hard to gauge how decisions will affect you; some offer immediate results and others linger until the right time to screw you over.
These events can gain you supplies, items to equip, caravan members, and sometimes even party members to control, though they often can take away them away with a bad choice, too.
Tactical battles return and are once again the weak point of the game. The combat and RPG systems have had frustrating oddities from the start, and some have been fixed in The Banner Saga 2. For instance, with enough leveling, nearly everyone can choose a second ability to use, which lets characters feel more like your own.
However, decisions like tying leveling up to killing blows still grate. The game encourages creating supporting classes and armor breakers, but natural play of those class types means they won’t get killing blows very often. Thus the game ends up encouraging a fair amount of meta-gaming where you keep enemies alive and at low health in order to ensure less combat-focused characters get to level up, too.
Still, there’s a load of quality of life improvements too. A lot of missions are now based around objectives like stalling for time or defeating leaders rather than just killing the entire opposing army. There’s more enemy variety as well, and the presence of obstacles on the battlefield means more battles require strategy rather than just flinging enemies against each other.
Outside of combat, your caravan members that don’t fight can now be trained to be fighters and will gather supplies automatically, making them far less of a burden. Achievements and training challenges now also offer renown, the game’s only currency, which allows for a bit more optional resource grinding when you’re low.
In the end though, the battles still only approach being solid rather than a real reason to play the game. The story and atmosphere remain the highlights, especially with the new secondary protagonists, The Ravens, who are selfish mercenaries that allow from a more brutal take on the world.
The Banner Saga 2 is a good game with an attractive story and aesthetic. However, those put off by the combat of the first game are unlikely to find the changes drastic enough, though it’s still worth putting up with for the experience.