“Epic” is a word that tends to get thrown about with an ever increasing disregard for what it really means.
Etymologically (bear with me), it derives from the Greek word epos, which means “song” or “story”. It’s synonymous with the great oral traditions of the middle-ages, of the heroic prose and poetry coming out of Scandinavia; where trolls and dwarves and giants wage aeons-long wars and the history of races is decided in titanic clashes between heroes, or in tricksy deals sealed by moonlight.
A lot of games lay claim to epicness. They make grand statements about how their setting is “epic”, how their story is “epic” or how their combat mechanics are “epic”. What they actually mean is that they’re big or deep or… cool. That’s not epic. Epic is the story of the last remnants of a once-powerful race, fleeing for their lives across a broken and treacherous country, pursued by a ruthless and deathless force from time before time. Epic is The Banner Saga 2.
We’ve already reviewed The Banner Saga 2 for PC (and The Banner Saga, too, for that matter) but I’m coming at this from two different angles: one, I’m playing the PS4 version and two, I’m totally new to the series. For those of you who don’t know – or can’t guess from the “2” in the title – The Banner Saga 2 is the sequel to the critically acclaimed first game by Stoic Studio and follows on directly from it. If you, like me, didn’t play the original game don’t worry: Stoic have included a bite-sized summary of the plot that’ll have you caught up in just under two minutes.
I have to admit, being told the entire first game’s story in such a short space of time didn’t fill me with confidence for The Banner Saga 2 but, within just another couple of minutes, all of my fears were allayed. The Banner Saga really is an epic: telling the story of a rag-tag caravan of men and their giant varl allies fleeing before the onslaught of the terrifying dredge: a proto-robot menace from ages past who threaten to destroy everything before them. You play as the invisible hand of fate in this semi-RPG, semi-turn-based-combat-’em-up, and it’s your job to guide what’s left of the surviving humans and varl to the great city of Arberrang where, hopefully, you can finally find safety… for a while at least.
Much has already been made of The Banner Saga‘s art direction, so I won’t bore you too much with it here. I will say, though, that it’s refreshing to play something that is obviously thematically quite adult yet looks like the best work from the old school of Disney animation. Each character is lovingly crafted and full of minute detail that you’ll likely miss the first four or five times you’ve seen them. The caravan sections take place against stunning backdrops and in dramatic locations. It all works, too: even combat – it doesn’t seem at all odd to be watching varls taking swings at dredge with their huge axes, picked out in hand-painted cartoonish style. The Banner Saga 2‘s cutscenes are wonderful to watch, with brief animations depicting the wind plucking at the folds of a cloak or the shifty darting of someone’s eyes as they talk to you. The only downside is that, for some reason, voice acting is used very sparingly. Perhaps it would have been too expensive to record all of the game’s possible dialogue but it might have made more sense for Stoic not to have included any at all – that way we wouldn’t think too much about what we were missing.
Gameplay is split between managing the caravan as it traverses the ruined wold and overseeing your heroes in combat. Each character in the game is unique and falls into one of a number of different categories determining their role and starting statistics. While their role will never change, you can modify their stats by equipping items permanently upgrade them by spending renown – an in-game currency earned, primarily, thorough victory in combat – to level them up. You’ll need to be careful, though, because renown can also be spent at markets to resupply your wagons – something you’ll need to do to ensure that your followers don’t starve on the long road to Arberrang.
Seeing any promotional material for the game might lead you, like me, to believe that combat was going to be the primary concern. Well, let me disabuse you of that notion right now. For every minute of combat, I found that I spent at least twice that long trying to decide which of the options I was going to pick when faced with one of the game’s near constant barrage of choices. It’s these choices that really shape the story and, as almost every one of them has game-changing consequences, they’re not to be taken lightly. Story events occur quite frequently – sometimes more than once a day, though often a little less – and have a surprising amount of variation that keeps you on your toes and really helps to immerse you in the game world; while all of your decisions will have immediate consequences, too, a number of choices will have greater ramifications somewhere down the line.
Eventually though, something you do will lead you into battle: deciding to stop and help the villagers defend themselves from attacking dredge, choosing to hike through a treacherous forest for a chance to gather supplies or saying the wrong thing to a tetchy varl will all land you on the sharp side of someone’s spear. And not in a fun way. Combat is played out in classic turn-based style familiar to anyone who’s ever spent a few hours in their middle teens hunched over a tiny, half-painted army of plastic models: each combatant has a turn in which to move, attack or use abilities and their individual stats will determine just how useful each of those steps will be. Typically, if you’ve got more guys (or gals) left at the end of the combat than your opponent has, you’ll be the victor.
There is a lot more to it than just “go there, hit that”, though. As I said, each character belongs to a certain class – classes that determine how each character is played and, importantly, where on the initiative tracker they’re placed. Initiative determines whose turn comes next so you’ll need to be careful deciding where to place your heroes. Next, you’ll need to pay careful attention to how they attack – melee characters might need to be adjacent to the enemy in order to attack, while spearmen can be two away and archers can be many more. Finally, passive and active abilities must be taken into account. Most characters have a passive ability, determined by their class, that grants them and their allies certain boons in combat. Some have active abilities, too, which must be triggered during the battle.
Unfortunately, though combat is, in itself, quite good fun, it never really feels right when examined as part of the big picture. While overseeing your caravan, days tick along at a fairly decent pace, giving you just enough time to decide whether or not to bed down and give your followers a nice rest or spend some of your hard-won renown. During combat, though, the turn-based mechanics can reduce the game’s speed to a crawl. It’s also much more obvious that you’re not, personally, in control of any one character – you’re the guiding hand for all heroes on the board so you can feel a little aloof and that’s led to me getting careless on more than on occasion. Not that that really matters because, at worst, heroes are “wounded” and must spend a couple of days recuperating before you can use them again. Though Stoic have gone to some lengths to add in story elements to some of the battles and there are some really nice action set-pieces woven into the narrative, it’s clear that the combat is secondary to the story and serves as a feature rather than an integral mechanic.
Character interactions are far more meaningful out of combat and the big story decisions are never made on the, often quite limited, square-grid but out in the vast openness of the road. Another problem is that, while you’re being told that the humans and varl under your command are being chased across the land by a superior force, you never really feel the effects of that force. I’m not a master tactician and I’d not class myself as an accomplished turn-based-combat player, either, but I managed not to lose a single battle in The Banner Saga 2 (even the ones that you’re kind of not supposed to win) and always had two or more heroes alive at the end of them. There was never any real challenge to any of the fights and making sure that you’ve got plenty of back-up characters to replace your main crew means that you’ll never be out of fresh fighters if one gets wounded.
That being said, the combat does a great job of breaking up the caravan sections and helps you to refocus on exactly what is at stake. One final problem that is less to do with the combat itself and far more to do with the fact that this is a review of the PS4 port, concerns the controls. During combat it can be incredibly difficult to select the exact square or group of squares that you want to move your character to – using a mouse to select the exact square is all well and good but trying to navigate around them with the sticks proved rather frustrating on multiple occasions as I’d have to carefully and gingerly nudge my way into position, only to have the stick rock back and pop my cursor back where I started.
Where did I start? Oh yes, epic. While it’s got its problems, I’ll stand by calling The Banner Saga 2 an epic. For the most part it’s wonderfully well-realised: it has a compelling and moving story that really drives the game forward, along with engaging and thought-provoking gameplay from start to finish. The combat is its only real downside (and a very minor downside at that) as it feels a little out of place; but probably only does so because there’s so much story going on outside of it, and so many consequences happening in what is an otherwise excellent and, indeed, epic game.