Originally Written On August 12, 2016
With The Banner Saga 2, Stoic did not set out to dramatically change what they had going with the first game. The sequel is meant to be the second part of the trilogy, and Stoic has expressed interest in wanting the games to flow seamlessly together. That means that all the characters you didn’t get killed return, the story picks up right where the previous left off, and very little has changed. While I often like developers trying new things with sequels, I think what Stoic is going for works in this instance. The Banner Saga 2 feels like a continuation of the first game, but it never feels like a complete retread.
This means that the incredible presentation from the first game is back in full force. Austin Wintory is back to do the soundtrack, and it has the same incredible viking feel that the first game had. The beautiful landscapes your caravan travels across are back and more varied this time around. The character art and battle animations are as good as they were in the first game. The storybook style dialogue that describes the characters actions instead of showing them is just as charming as it always was. Some improvements are seen such as the implementation of more cutscenes, but ultimately the presentation invokes the same incredible mood that its predecessor did two years ago.
A little more disappointing is the return of the same technical problems. I played both games on the Xbox One so I don’t know how the PC originals are, but the Xbox One port is not very good. Long loading plagues both games, which wouldn’t be an issue if the game didn’t need to load so often. Every time is switches from one scene to the next it loads. At points this can really kill the pacing. But a big problem the second game has that the first one didn’t is crashes. The game crashed on me five times when I played, twice in the same place. Considering that the game saves fairly infrequently, I lost significant progress every time this happened. I was still able to enjoy my experience, but the technical issues were very disappointing.
But on a more positive note, the story in The Banner Saga 2 really delivers. It is a direct sequel, picking up less than a week after the first game and following mostly the same characters with a few newcomers. This means that at this point if you have not played the first game you should do so before reading this review or playing this game. You will be spoiled.
The game picks up with you playing as either Rook or Alette, depending on who survives the first game. For my game I had Rook, and I was pleasantly surprised that they didn’t just kill him off quickly in order to avoid having to write dialogue for two main characters. At first, everybody from the first game who is still alive will be in your caravan with a split that comes at the end of the first chapter. The split occurs when a now playable Bolverk and the Ravens decide to leave. You spend the rest of the game switching back and forth between the two groups. The game does a good job of making both of these stories interesting and choosing good times to switch.
Most of the returning cast is used well. While the focus is obviously on Rook, Iver, Juno, Hakon, and a few others, almost everybody gets a moment to shine. It would have been nice for some of them to be fleshed out a little more, but I was always happy to see a conversation pop up with somebody I hadn’t talked to in a while. The only exception to this is Bersi, a character whose only motivation in the first game was to protect Prince Ludin and leaves to join the Ravens without any mention of why. For a game that is so good about consistency, consequences, and clear character motivations, the lack of explanation here bugged me a lot.
The new characters are a bit more of a mixed bag. Aleo, the leader of a village Rook saves at the start of the game, is the standout. The poet is a great addition to lineup, and I always looked forward to the stories he would tell every time I reached a godstone. Bolverk’s crew was a disappointment. The Varl himself had an interesting story despite me not really liking the actual character, but most of the people following him are forgettable. They pop up as little as a lot of the returning cast, but the latter at least have a full game of introduction to build upon. Ask me anything about Dytch or Bak other than that the former disappears and the latter talks to his sword. I won’t be able to answer. The only three important characters that travel with Bolverk are Folka, his second in command; Zefr, a valka with a hatred for Juno; and Nikels, a mender with a lifelong affinity for the Ravens. They all serve their purpose, but Nikels was the only one I came to care about in any meaningful way. Back in Rook’s caravan, the annoying governor Rugga works as somebody you love to hate, and the new race of Horseborn provide interesting insight into the world and show a lot of promise but don’t get enough screen time to truly make an impact in this game.
But moving away from the characters, the plot itself is great. It ends in the same annoying spot that every second chapter of a trilogy ends, but there is no questioning the fact that I want to see how everything wraps up next game. And while the story clearly isn’t over, both caravans do reach the places they were trying to get to. Throughout, there is a great sense of constant tension. Great set pieces and smaller conflicts provide short term objectives that keep you on your toes while a consistent end goal provides motivation to keep moving forward. The Banner Saga 2 also gives us a much greater sense of the world the game takes place in. The introduction of Horseborn makes the world feel much larger and unexplored, more detailed godstone dialogues give better insight into some of the Gods, and the introduction of Zefr as well as Juno’s story give us much more information on the latter’s background and the Mender Council as a whole. Ultimately, the story in The Banner Saga 2 works despite not being completely satisfying. I still care about these characters and want to see how everything wraps up.
On the most basic level, The Banner Saga 2 plays the same way the first game did. It is a turn based strategy game where you take a group of six fighters onto a grid. All of your characters come back with the stats they had in the first game and can now add a second ability and secondary stats. There are also plenty of new classes, all of which serve a clear purpose. But what improves the battles the most are the unique battlefield layouts, story-driven fights, and alternate win conditions. Having to navigate around large rocks or destructible barricades adds a layer of strategy to the game while having to settle a dispute between Hakon and Bolverk or clear a bunch of snow blocking your way makes the fights seem like they matter. The combat in The Banner Saga 2 is in every way better or as good as it was in the first game. Also, and most importantly, Eirik can now call a bear to help you fight.
The caravan aspect of the game has seen much more minor upgrades. The UI is slightly improved in places such as showing you the supply loss and morale decline every night and placing a skull icon above the rest tent if a party member is injured. Small stuff like this is not game changing but is more than welcome. A more substantive difference is the ability to train clansmen to be fighters. This will help keep your caravan safe, but you lose the clansmen’s new ability to scrounge for food, a commodity that I never ran out of but was also trying very hard not to run out of. This introduces another hard choice that you have to make. I probably lost some people by not training more fighters, but for me it was worth it to make sure nobody starved to death. The caravan aspect still feels like an afterthought, but it is nice to see Stoic trying to give it more meaning.
Something truly commendable are the decisions that you have to make along the way, either during larger moments or impromptu scenes while travelling. There were plenty of times that I had to think really hard about what I wanted to do and oftentimes felt like I made the wrong decision afterwards. The game doesn’t let you live them down either, really hammering home the fact that there are consequences to your actions. The first game seemed to play out in a way that made doing the right thing the smarter option, but The Banner Saga 2 doesn’t always work like that. If you make the humanitarian choices early on, the game tosses both the player and Rook on their backs and makes you much more paranoid going forward.
The final criticism I have of the game is that the first few hours are obnoxious about tutorials. For a game that is so heavily designed for people who played the first one, the amount of hand holding is absurd. Maybe this was uniquely irritating for me because I played the games in a short succession, but I imagine that even people who took a two year hiatus didn’t need to be reintroduced to the basics of combat. I found myself frustrated a lot early on, and I perceived this as Stoic being friendly to newcomers in a game that is otherwise not. I’m all for accessibility in games, but literally no other part of this game is accessible. People jumping in will have no reference point for the story, world, or characters and will be turned off or inspired to play the first game long before the tutorials are over. The fact that there isn’t even an option to turn them off is incredibly annoying.
Grievances aside, I was consistently entertained by and engrossed in The Banner Saga 2. It had me on the edge of my seat often, and I loved the quieter moments with my party members. I enjoyed seeing the progression of Rook and the world around him, and I can’t wait to see what the third entry has in store. If the ending of this saga delivers, then Stoic will have produced one of the best trilogies in gaming.
Final Score: 4 Stars