When it hit the Steam store back in 2014, The Banner Saga was a godsend to so many RPG fanatics. Breaking away from many modern trends and refusing to pull its punches, it offered a mature and dynamic Game of Thrones level Nordic saga and paired it up with punishing, story driven choices on the player’s part. Bleak, beautiful and with an animated aesthetic rarely seen today, it was torturous to watch its developer Stoic caught up in two major lawsuits, the first being the infamous King lawsuit, and the second surrounding the much reviled AFM Agreement. It’s no small wonder that the second part of this trilogy has taken two years to finally see the light of day, but the wait has been well worth it.
Catching up with the heroes merely hours after the harrowing finale to the first game, the few surviving humans and varl march onwards to escape the varl onslaught. Taking to the rivers, they begin the long journey towards the human capital, hoping to find respite from the continued onslaught and perhaps even the answer to why the dredge have launched this massive invasion.
The storytelling here is top notch, but with two former Bioware employees at the helm that goes without saying. Perfectly capturing the grim nature and immensity of tales about Vikings facing the world’s end, dead gods and serpents consuming the earth, it manages to resonate on both a grand and personal level. It never fails to balance out the Ragnarok level threat the heroes face without losing sight of the fact you’re leading a band of very frightened, starving refugees to safety, and can all too easily lose everything to a poor choice. Choice really does matter here as, while the bulk of the story will remain the same, saying the wrong thing or making the wrong choice will have long standing consequences. Risk fording a river? Chances are you’ll lose a lot of people if it goes wrong. Risk sending a character to distract a bigger army? They may well end up permanently dead.
The risky nature and harsh realities you face are aptly reflected in the mechanics, as losing someone in combat isn’t simply a wrist-slap. If you have someone fall fighting a powerful foe, they’ll be wounded and fighting at a fraction of their strength for days afterwards. Recovering will take time and supplies you can rarely afford to waste, meaning you might starve between towns. Oh, and even if you get to those towns? If you spend renown from your battles to upgrade your warriors, you might only get a fraction of the food you need. There’s never a feeling of safety or security offered at any turn, and always a sense that your story can end at the hands of a very big, very nasty threat hiding just around the next corner.
The actual combat mechanics themselves are outstanding, rewarding intelligence and clear planning over brute strength or spamming favoured units. Sending half a dozen of your characters into the fray, you fight your way across a grid based system in turn based combat. While this might sound like Final Fantasy Tactics with more Vikings, it carries greater depth by seriously mixing up the class based system and the actual stats themselves. There’s no MP you can spam spells with, only a very limited amount of willpower points for special abilities, and none of the usual knight, white mage and thief options you’d expect. It requires serious trial and error and a cautious approach on the player’s part to learn each and every one, and with new classes arising unheralded as you progress you can’t simply rely upon past experience.
However, there are a number of problems which sadly holds the game back. For starters, there are a few too many times where the game will throw an idea at you without any opportunity to prepare for it. Many choices and options have some degree of luck to them, but you can usually predict their outcome with some basic common sense. However, many others also keep throwing out curve balls or changing the rules on a whim, meaning you end up losing no matter what you do. This can become especially frustrating when certain scenarios seem to withhold details from you, or force the player to advance based upon very limited information. It’s one thing to lose because you did something stupid or when you’re facing down a legitimate no win scenario but it’s another entirely when the smallest thing causes you to lose half of your stores. Such moments were in the original game admittedly, but they’re far more frequent and infinitely more infuriating here.
What’s more, certain sections keep throwing new ideas or concepts into combat with barely any explanation or even a general warning. A gauntlet of fights in a mineshaft will likely cause more than a few players to rage quit if not repeatedly reload saves until they nail a certain fight, especially once new foes unveil some very nasty special abilities.
Finally, the game is very reliant upon players being familiar with past events. Its many numerous characters go unremarked upon until certain points in the game and few indeed are re-introduced to the story at any point. Certain characters can go chapters without saying a thing only to abruptly become important, and many others comment upon past events from the previous game with little context. For a game so heavily story driven as this one, this remains a severe limitation which harms player immersion and engagement.
Despite a few failings however, The Banner Saga 2 is a definite success and a true modern classic. There are few games released today which can match the sheer depth of its storytelling, impact of its decisions and an atmosphere so thick you could grind an axe on it. While infuriating at times and offering more than a few moments where you’ll be pressed to give up entirely, it only makes seeing the credits roll all the more satisfying and leaves you hungering to see this trilogy close out. Definitely nab this one at the earliest opportunity, but if you’re not familiar with the series be sure to start with the original game before progressing into this one.
BANNER SAGA 2 / DEVELOPER: STOIC / PUBLISHER: VERSUS EVIL / PLATFORM: PC, XBOX ONE, PLAYSTATION 4, OS X / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW