When the first installment of The Banner Saga was released, there were a number of enticing features that prompted my purchase.
Art was a huge part of that equation, as anyone with so much as a cursory glance at the beautiful, expansive landscapes which your tiny caravan of travellers slowly traversed can certainly attest to. This stood in stark contrast with the bleakness of the lives of the people who lived there. The concept was also an interesting: a Norse-flavored Oregon Trail of sorts, where you played the leader of a travelling band of refugees who needed to make tough choices at the expense of those around you. It all contributed to a dark, sprawling trip across exquisitely detailed backdrops to find some sanctuary for you and yours.
To that end, the game delivered what was advertised and looks like The Banner Saga 2 will continue that legacy and more. The striking artistry is back and the game looks just as good as before. I’m also pleased to see more animations, encounters, fluidity and striking set pieces during the short snippet of campaign preview. The world was finely crafted in the first game but felt a bit too much like painting too often instead of a living scene/game. Little additions like more dynamic and moving parts on every given screen makes for more visual engagement. I was also surprised at the inclusion of more voice-overs, although those moments made me wish that the entire game was voiced. While some may appreciate the book-like quality of the game, fully voiced characters would add an immeasurable deal in my opinion. But it looks as though there’s more going on in terms of events at least. More choices out of combat are a welcome addition as it makes me feel more like a leader and less like a bystander. I like how the scope of these choices have also remained varied, as the smaller, more intimate and insignificant decisions you make not only break up the spectating phases, but lend gravitas to the more meaningful paths you are forced to choose.
Speaking of choices, one of my biggest gripes with the last game has been addressed in a clever way. The way I like to play these games is not by doing what I would do in these situations, but how I thought the characters I controlled would react. This speaks to the strength of characterisation, but also left me a bit limited in what I would reasonably do. I always found myself playing as the kindly father-figure character, and while the game offered chances to play the proverbial dick, I never went that way and ended up following a somewhat linear path. Without giving too much away, I was pleased to learn that I came to control of another faction entirely which served as a foil to the other group I had been in control of. This multi-headed narrative expands the world immensely and I’m overjoyed I can finally indulge my Machiavellian side.
There are some issues I had with the first instalment of The Banner Saga that were a bit less addressed. Mainly this is referring to the combat system, which is largely the same as before. In contrast to the huge natural feel of the rest of the game, the fights in the game have you on a grid, sterilely moving your pieces into boxes. It works well enough mechanically, but I wish there was a more exciting or interesting method to engage your foes. The pace and urgency which the narrative does excellently to frame your robotic foes is undercut entirely by grinding turn-based grid combat. Adding to this sense of removal from the world is my cheesy strategy of mortally wounding all the enemies so they waste turns swatting at your armor. It is just as effective as last time, which seems like a pretty strange method to go about handling a horde of murder robots. To be fair, enemy design is well handled and The Banner Saga 2 makes a concerted effort to at least sprinkle some new friends and foes for you to mess around with, to mixed effect. One of these, a weak invisible bug creature could have been interesting, but it’s main power source comes when your units lose a turn when they hit the square they are on. I’m not sure why my giant axe wielding warrior would not just step on it and get on with his life, so that was a bit weird. Foes also pop up unprompted out of nowhere checking off one of my most hated mechanics in these types of games (see Fire Emblem).
Despite my hangups, The Banner Saga 2 seems a wholly improved experience from the last installment. Everything that made the first game enjoyable is back in force. The visual and sound design create an even more immersive and impressive setting than ever, I’m really excited to see how the branching story threads are handled and effort has been made to spruce up the combat system a bit. The Banner Saga 2 looks to be a refreshing breath in the visual storytelling genre, a branch of the gaming family tree which is in sore need of some life.