Video games are an art form, a fact which which is disputed not only by naysayers whose purview on the topic ends at Mortal Kombat executions and Grand Theft Auto crime, but sadly also to much of the general public.
Much of this conception is due to the lack of proper exposure to the dazzling amalgamation of ideas which gaming has evolved into. To clarify, there are people (particularly older people) who see games much as the haters do: defined by the poor one-off example they saw their little nephew play, whether that be Call of Duty or Pong and therefore dismiss the entire medium as childish or not worthy of further consideration. What these individuals need is a title which transcends murder or mindlessness on a level they can appreciate.
One of the easiest and most relatable ways to do this is through narratively-focused games. There is a much wider acceptance for the other modern forms of storytelling: TV, movies and books, all of which are obviously focused on relating an engaging story to the recipient. While Pong and Mortal Kombat are not the best in this regard, in the last few years, especially in the indie PC scene, there has been a real push to make games which explore deep characters and storylines. In steps The Banner Saga 2; the perfect game for the naysayers who don’t get games as an art form.
I don’t mean this in a derogatory way. The Banner Saga 2 is a game with a lot of great qualities which make it suitable for a wide audience as well as serving as a firm argument for the artistry that games can have. The most striking feature contributing to both these points is the illustration. Long stretches of the game are experienced on expansive, detailed backdrops that have a landscape painting beauty to them. Whether it be slowly plodding through rolling hills or during one of the tense set piece moments, these visuals are immediately impressive and are no doubt the fruit of many arduous hours put in by the art team. This work extends to the characters;each are given distinct and memorable features and fluid animations (although there are a lot of characters to keep up with). That being said, the sound is something I had a bit of an issue with. While many of the swelling crescendos during set pieces are great, much of the game is played at a more subdued pace and the soundtrack sometimes draws a blank at punctuating the slower moments with something to accompany the sweeping landscapes or conversations between characters. I thought the voice acting was awesome, but it is quite sparingly used. It was a bit cruel to tease excellent voice acting in the odd moment to have me silently clicking through dialogue options the rest of the time.
The amazing backdrop the game sets isn’t limited to the visual elements, either. Richly steeped in Nordic-influenced mythology, much attention was also paid in creating a rich and interesting world and a well-written, focused plotline. There’s a fantasy-adventure flavour throughout, but it is not a fairy tale. The world you inhabit is a cruel one: the world is constantly breaking apart; there are murderous robot-like armies killing and destroying everything; and the people you lead on your grim pilgrimage are constantly being killed, starved or left behind. Not to say it’s all doom and gloom, but you could liken it to a Game of Thrones-esque atmosphere, where the good guys constantly get screwed, characters you love can drop dead in an instant and the realities of a hard world are always looming overhead. Which is a good thing; the harshness of a real world lends tension and pressure to the narrative as a disaster could be around any corner. Considering how well the wide roster of characters are also written, it’s perfect formula for a dynamic ebb and flow in the atmosphere. How everything is introduced initially is not perfect however. Even after playing The Banner Saga, I still felt thrown into the proverbial deep end so it can be a bit jarring early on.
Contributing to the ebbs and flows, one of the core mechanics of the game is making choices. You lead a caravan of followers, fleeing to a supposed haven from the various murderous entities living on this harsh land. Along the way, you are faced with choices both big and small, from deciding what to do with an unruly follower to determining whether to sacrifice a few people for the possible safety of the rest. It’s a comprehensive experience and does an excellent job of highlighting the tough choices a leader has to make. There are also divergent story lines with profoundly different leaders, meaning that you can explore different styles of leadership. These choices can have a profound effect on your experience, as characters can die as a result of your actions. There are also choices outside the explicit text prompts that are arguably more important to shaping the outcome of your gameplay, such as whether to spend your “cash” on food for your people or upgrades for your heroes.
This leads us to the second part of the game: the combat system. On numerous occasions, peace is not an option and you have to take your followers onto the neat grids of the battlefield. Each unit occupies a square as you and the computer adversary take turns positioning your characters to best bludgeon each other. The tactics of the battles themselves are sound; each unit feels unique and like they have a clearly defined role with enough room to pull some cool strategies off. I noticed the concerted effort to introduce new opponents, who also each had a distinct feel and managed to breathe some new life into the old system. However, there is an air of sterility about how things proceed. Considering the thick ambiance, the rich characterisation and the frantic tension of the story leading up to the battle, to then find yourself on a soulless grid taking turns whacking one another makes the great characters feel more like mere game pieces and acts as a bit of an unwanted interlude to the plotline. While definitely serviceable, the fact is, the fighting felt wedged in to make it feel like a game rather than an animated choose-your-own-adventure. If you needed any evidence of developer’s priorities, even on hard difficulty, any units felled in combat are merely “wounded” whilst choices in the story can and probably will kill your beloved companions off so the results of the combat feel a bit trivial.
As previously mentioned, The Banner Saga 2 is an ideal game for game-as-art deniers and an effective bridge for older generations who don’t quite understand the medium. It is unabashedly slow and beautiful, with a lot of strong storytelling elements to ease people into the unfamiliar interactivity integral to games, yet even to a seasoned gamer, there’s plenty to like. The Banner Saga 2 is far from perfect; the combat trips the flow up a bit, the pacing will have you a bit bored at times, the sound design is sub-optimal and I probably won’t be compelled enough to have a second go at it, but there’s no denying the unique charm that the game offers. If you’re looking for an atmospheric, beautifully crafted, nuanced and thoughtful narrative experience, The Banner Saga 2 is a contemporary leader in all of those fields.