Review: The Banner Saga 2

The gods have abandoned the world. The sun has frozen in the sky. Food is growing scarce. Ancient grudges simmer beneath a tense peace. Armies of stone creatures rise from cracks in the earth. Cracks caused by a monstrous serpent so massive it can strangle mountains. This is the world of The Banner Saga 2. A game of beautiful art and animation, subtly intricate combat, and desperate survival.

Enough cannot be said about the design, art and animation of The Banner Saga 2. Much like the previous game the style of The Banner Saga 2 could be described as a throwback to the rotoscoped animation style of the 1970’s era of Disney animated films. The Banner Saga 2 transcends its inspiration with the originality of the game’s world and tone, though. Another standout factor in the design of The Banner Saga 2 is the excellent score by Austin Wintory.

The Banner Saga 2 is, of course, a game so no matter how beautiful the presentation is, it must be in support of the gameplay. Of the three gameplay related aspects of The Banner Saga 2  the combat is the one with which players will spend the most time. The turn-based combat shares the same core mechanics with the first game where characters possess three basic stat types: strength (health and attack power), armor (a basic defensive stat) and willpower (energy used to cast abilities). The way that over the course of a battle these stats become depleted gives the combat a grueling, pitiless feeling befitting to the overall somber tone of the series.

Players will spend a lot of time fighting on chessboard like maps like this.

Players will spend a lot of time fighting on chessboard like maps like this.

Most of the innovation in the combat of the Banner Saga 2 comes from new character classes which add a lot to learn. Bard characters, who focus on buffing and de-buffing characters over direct attacks, are one such addition which adds a new layer of depth to the combat. Another new addition id destructable environmental cover which helps to add some variation to the battle maps.

People familiar with the original Banner Saga game will recall that the central plot revolves around a band of refugees fleeing Oregon Trail style from an invasion of fantastical stone creatures. In the new game these sequences are both more interesting and more manageable. More interesting because as these refugees situation has worsened some of these sequences become incredibly tense tight wire balancing acts with severe in game consequences for bad decisions. These sequences definitely seem more manageable in The Banner Saga 2, though it is unclear if that is due to changes made to the game or because players have learned to manage them in the first game.

That tiny strip of red in the distance is the titular Banner at the head of the caravan.

That tiny strip of red in the distance is the titular Banner at the head of the caravan.

The storytelling in The Banner Saga 2 suffers somewhat from being the middle chapter of a three chapter series. Dialog trees could be confusing to people who haven't played the first game and are unfamiliar with the returning characters and their motivations. But even experienced players may get a bit confused by the way the game throws new characters at you right up until the end. The importance of some of these new characters to the story doesn’t really become apparent until after an endgame twist. This aspect of the game does work well with the overall brutalist, grim atmosphere of the game in which most characters are not motivated by their better natures to say the least.

Hakon isn't wrong. Most of the luck in  The Banner Saga 2   is bad luck.

Hakon isn't wrong. Most of the luck in The Banner Saga 2  is bad luck.

In a similar fashion to the first The Banner Saga the ending of this game feels compressed. Events come flying at players at a pace much faster than the more sedate early game. As episodic games become more common the question the best way to pace such games may become clearer but in the case of The Banner Saga 2  the sprint up to a cliffhanger ending feels a bit rushed.

The Banner Saga 2 does almost everything a good sequel should do. The game builds on the foundation of the previous game, adding new features, fixing some, but not all, problematic issues and continuing the story of the first game in interesting ways. If not for a few pacing issues it is a game that would be great for anyone. But the game does not quite overcome all the problems that come with being the middle chapter of a story making it great for fans of the first game or of the turn based strategy genre, but probably not for everyone.