Posted on 19 Apr 2016 by J. A. Kinghorn

The Banner Saga 2

The Defence

Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil
Genre: Indie, Role Playing, Strategy, Turn-Based
Platform: Mac, PC
Review copy: Yes
Release date: 19 Apr 2016

The Prosecution

Minimum
Recommended
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: AMD Radeon X1300 Pro
Nvidia equivalent
RAM: 2 GB
HDD: 4 GB
DirectX: 9
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Possible
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 60
OS: Windows
CPU: Intel Core i3 3.0 GHz
AMD equivalent
VGA: AMD Radeon HD 4870
Nvidia equivalent
RAM: 4 GB
HDD: 6 GB
DirectX: 9
Controller: Full
Mod Support: Possible
VR: No
FOV Slider: No
FPS Lock: 60

The Case

Two years after the beginning of the epic poem in video game form began, the next instalment in The Banner Saga has emerged. The first game looked like a gorgeous collaboration between Don Bluth and Eyvind Earle, whilst playing like a cross between a RPG and a RTS that did not skimp on either half, with a story that firmly wore its Scandinavian, mythological inspirations on its sleeve. Now, full disclosure, somehow the meteoric rise of the first game totally passed me by and I’ve yet to play it. So the question is obvious: is it welcoming to new-comers as well as veterans of the saga and does the game stand well alone?

The Trial

The short answer to my question above: yes, sort of, and yes. The Banner Saga 2 includes a few handy dandy features to bring new players up to speed. For one, the main menu gives the option to view a brief recap movie. This shows the main story beats of the first game and attempts to acquaint you with all of the major players therein. There are A LOT of names to digest here and at times it does feel a bit like rapid fire word salad but it’s definitely an effective overview of the first game and introduction to the sequel.

Choosing one kills the other.

Then, one gets to start a new game. Returning players are given the option to import their save data, carrying over the effects of their important decisions. For new-comers, you’re given the choice to play as either Rook or his daughter, Alette. Each comes with a brief bio to bring you up to speed with the character and their story in order to inform your decision. Choose wisely as whoever you don’t pick will not be making an appearance in your play through. Mechanically, there’s little between either character, both being archers. But their stories are different beyond mere cosmetics changes; though both do deal with similar themes of grief and stepping up to the plate as a leader, their execution differs. We’ll return to story later.

The game begins with the heroes coming to the aid of a besieged village. Here the game holds your hand through your first combat encounter. This tutorial introduces a lot of key mechanics in a rapid-fire manner. Some of the more complex concepts may get away from you at first but you have plenty of time to get to grips with things as even in failure you are rewarded. Yes, even if defeated in battle, the game continues and you get to keep the spoils you’ve gained from the encounter. The game acknowledges that failure is a part of learning and rewards you.

The tutorial introduces you to the combat grid and turn based battle system as well as special abilities and attack types. There are two types of basic attacks, one that breaks through armour and one that acts as a more traditional attack, targeting enemies’ health. You’ll quickly find that the vast majority of basic attacks won’t take many points off of the enemy’s health unless you’ve spent a few attacks breaking through their armour. This adds another layer of strategy to battles, to say nothing of the special abilities.

Face off against even more abundant enemy force.

Each character has their own unique special ability, either defensive or offensive. Special abilities need willpower to be used. Willpower can also be used to power up either one of the basic attacks for a more powerful blow. You start battle with a small reserve of willpower per character and can regain willpower when you kill an enemy (you can then choose which character to distribute this to by blowing a horn on their turn. It makes sense in context). Not only do the special abilities add a wealth of variety to battle, it also adds to characterisation, unifying gameplay and story in a unique and pleasing way. Characters’ special abilities often reflect their personality, making one unit not merely interchangeable for another. Because of this marrying of story and mechanics, you will become incredibly attached to each of your units.

Deciding who specifically to go into battle with adds another layer of strategy: Do you attack in a measured manner from afar with archers, using your varl shield bearers to keep the enemy at bay? Or do you go all out with brute strength and try to end the battle quickly? Or do you sidestep around the enemy with spears? There’s plenty of room within the combat system to play the way that suits you best.

An important spoil that you can gain from battle is renown. Whenever you fell an enemy, you get renown. Renown can then be used to buy things at the market, including equipment and supplies for your caravan as you travel across the map. And here’s where things get a bit The Oregon Trail. You need resources to keep up caravan morale. As you might’ve guessed, when the resources are gone your caravan will begin to starve, dropping morale, leading to unrest. However, even if you have resources, people will become restless if you’re travelling for long periods of time, dropping morale. To keep morale up, it’s a good idea to make frequent stops in order for the members of your caravan to rest, so you can’t just blast your way towards your destination. And even if you didn’t have to worry about resting your followers, there are plenty of story and combat encounters to break up the trek.

The harshness of life on the move.

Returning to story, the story itself can be described as the delicious chocolate coating that holds the game’s delectable caramel innards together. Rather than revolving around a few pivotal choices, the story is constantly seeking out your input and it does a good job of giving weight even to the seemingly smaller decisions. Whilst playing, you constantly feel engaged and invested mainly because of just how many choices the game’s story offers. So, the question remains, what path will you choose? Will you be the leader the caravan deserves? Or will you be the one they need right now?

Mechanically, the game is a wonderfully executed balancing act. There are lots of things to bear in mind as you play but it never feels overwhelming. If the balancing act does come to a crashing end, it feels justified and never cheap. If things get on top of you, it’s always due to you letting something slide longer than you should have. The game is definitely challenging, even on the lower difficulty settings, and is tremendous amounts of fun to play.

The Verdict

The Banner Saga 2 walks up to you with a bunch of sticks and plates, teaches you how to get a few of them spinning and then goes “Right have a few more and now make sure you keep them all going for the next few hours. Ta-ta!” It might seem a bit overwhelming at first but you quickly grasp the basics. Really mastering it takes practice. It won’t always go to plan but you keep at it because you want to get better and you’re invested in the fate of each plate. I’ve not played the first game, but I definitely will now… After all, I’ll need to before the third game comes out!

Case Review

  • Like Don Bluth and Eyvind Earle had a Baby: The presentation is gorgeous

  • Keep the Plates Spinning!: Mechanically, the game is an elaborate balancing act that you will enjoy getting the hang of and eventually mastering, even as you fail

  • An Intense Game of Chess: Combat requires a highly strategic play style, being tense and fun

  • Everything Else Matters: The story is well written, offering plenty of chances to make decisions and giving weight to even smaller choices

  • BANG! BANG! BANG!: The tutorial does an okay job of introducing the basics of combat but the finer points may prove elusive to players for a while afterwards. Concepts are introduced rapid-fire, with no chance to ask, “Sorry, one more time, please?

5 Score: 5/5
Even if you can’t keep all the plates spinning, you’re in for a treat.

Evidence

  • Options: All the settings can be found on one screens and the selection is very poor. There are no advanced graphical options nor even a resolution option, all you can do is toggle between Windowed and Fullscreen. Same goes for audio, all that can be done here is toggling the sound, music and subtitles. The rest are mostly social features with the ability to rate, share and view stats which all is done through Steam. At least you can play with a gamepad.
5 Score: 5/5

The Banner Saga is back to continue telling one of the most captivating narratives in gaming, and this time it’s pulling even fewer punches. It’s got all the thrill and storytelling of surviving in the post-apocalypse but in a tragically underused Nordic setting, and the gorgeous art direction that’s backed up by Austin Wintory’s original soundtrack never ceases to impress. The new characters are impressive in both story and design, and while somewhat less interesting from the original cast, they’re still more complex than most triple-A game protagonists.

Of course it wouldn’t be a game without gameplay, and the new life and blood isn’t just the story. The combat system is refreshed by the new classes including a bard-like poet support class, axe throwers, berserkers, and more, that each bring their own talents to the table. Some classes like the spearman still seem underpowered, but each class shines with the right party composition, and now that you can reach higher levels it’s possible to make any class beastly. Of course, with new classes also come new enemies and new maps. Dredge have double the amount of units as they did in the original, and human, varl, and now horseborn enemies bring more to the table as well. Add that to the new environmental conditions like barricades or burning tiles and combat feels almost new.

The Banner Saga was already a strong 4.5 for me thanks to its original take on combat and its enthralling narrative, but now that Stoic fixed the shortage of enemy types and added more map variety it’s just about perfect. First Dark Souls 3 and now Banner Saga 2? April has been a downright glorious month for gaming.

4.5 Score: 4.5/5

Picking up right where the first left off, The Banner Saga 2 drops you in right at the deep end. With a swift, brutal gut punch as it offers you a choice of hero, letting you decide who died right at the end of the first game and taunting you about losing them all over again. Or you can load a save file, but the very fact the option is there…immediately gets you reinvested in these peoples’ lives. Which is especially painful, because the difficulty is exactly where you left it too.

Though one can, of course, begin Saga 2 without having had any experience with the first (there’s a lengthy and rather annoying tutorial) it is most certainly not advised. Not only are you jumping into chapter eight of the story, you’re dropped right in at the deep end and asked to keep everyone alive with precious few resources and an army that is bone weary tired. For those who have played the first, gameplay remains identical. Changing absolutely nothing, though adding more characters and enemy types which help bring fresh life to an already vibrantly realised world.

The ferocious Berserk, Bolverk, who splits from your main group early on, is especially noteworthy, being able to attack twice, as well as having an ability that allows him to immediately take a second, entirely new, turn if he kills an enemy. Which can be repeated pretty much ad naueseum. Which is also good because he becomes the leader of the second caravan, with the story swapping back and forth between his group and whomever you chose, or was left alive at the end of the previous chapter. Meaning, in short, it is more of the same and does nothing to break what isn’t broken, but greatly expands on it. That opening tutorial is a tedious pain in the arse though.

Comments (2)


Posts: 325
L Coulsen
Posted 20 Apr 2016, 06:05
Why not look at the lines, and read the character art?

Posts: 1
Sawyer Scherbenske
Posted 19 Apr 2016, 17:23
It's so pretty! I can't decide weather to look at the character art or read their lines during every conversation.