The Banner Saga 2 is a follow up to one of my favorite games from 2014, The Banner Saga. Inspired by Oregon Trail, Game of Thrones, and classic strategy RPGs of old, the series puts the player into many lose/lose situations both in and out of combat, with choices feeling increasingly hopeless. While this sequel improves upon combat issues from the original in almost every way, the overall effect of the game is lessened by a scattershot character focus and overly complicated storyline. Still, this is a series worth experiencing, for far too few games play around with such dark themes. This is yet another “end of the world” story, but the characters and world itself are interesting enough, and the gameplay challenging enough, to make it stand apart.
The basic story set up from the first game is that your character, Rook, was leading a caravan of humans to a city on the opposite side of the continent in order to seek refuge from the Dredge, a mysterious race of machine/metal/stone creatures out to destroy the world. Along the way, you team up with Hakon, the new king of the Varl, a soon to be extinct race of viking giants. Throughout the first game, you’re heading west, stopping to save villagers and kill Dredge. Choice is a major component of these games, as you can choose how to attack, which people to prioritize, and sometimes, whether to save the village at all. As I said above, there is rarely a best choice; it’s always finding the least terrible option that most fits your priorities. Do you want to save everyone you come across? Do you prioritize the people already in your clan? Or do you just want to kill as many Dredge as possible before the end of the world? There is never an easy choice, and that’s part of what makes the series so special.
At the end of the first game, you’re left with the hardest choice of all. You could either sacrifice yourself in order to stop a Dredge leader, or you could let your daughter give it a shot. I elected to do the latter, as I obviously didn’t know that choice would end in her death, and wanted to give her a chance to prove herself. Boy do I regret that now, and that’s part of the point. So to start the second game, I was playing as Rook, but others would be playing as his daugter, Alette, should they have elected to have Rook sacrifice himself.
But, in order the shake things up, shortly into the story you’re introduced to another main character, Bolverk. He’s a Varl and leader of a group of mercenaries, The Ravens. He teamed up with Rook at the end of the first game in order to stop the Dredge, but now he’s ready to move on. This separates the game into two different storylines: Rook getting his people to the last remaining human capital, and Bolverk taking his Ravens on another mission, to discard the body of the fallen Dredge leader. I won’t go into much detail on how both stories play out, but there are several unexpected twists and turns, along with some new and old characters joining or leaving the caravans at will.
Part of my frustration with the first game was investing time into leveling up a character, only to have them die or leave my caravan in a story beat where I had little chance to stop it. Unfortunately, this issue remains in Banner Saga 2. To be fair, maybe there are options in the game that allow you to save everyone all the time, but that’s a near impossibility. However, the fragile nature of the characters’ lives only continues to highlight the fragile nature of the game in general. These people are mere fodder in the greater war against the Dredge, and the series does its best to remind you of that fact at every possible opportunity. It’s a fine line to toe, and Banner Saga 2 straddles that line constantly.
One of the major complaints from the first game was a lack of enemy and character variety, as everyone you came across in the first game was either a human, Varl, or Dredge. The second goes above and beyond to remedy this, with several new Dredge types and races included. The most exciting of these being the Horseborn.
This new race lives to the south, and most humans have never seen them before. They hardly speak the common tongue, but a large group of them joins with Rook in order to escape the Dredge. Other new human variations like the Kragsmen and their bear companions are a welcome change, as well. There are also plenty of new types of Dredge to fight. This was a worthwhile addition, because while I still ended up fighting plenty of the same Dredge variants from the first game, there was a new enemy type in almost every single battle. This helped keep things fresh and exciting, as well as challenging.
The combat in Banner Saga 2 functions basically the same as in the first game, with some notable improvements. Not only is there more variation in enemy type, but there’s also more variation in character class and special abilities. You still have the option of placing perk points into armor, strength, armor break, etc, but you can also specialize in a particular area to get additional effects. For example, a Varl character might have a max armor of 15 at their particular level. If you get all 15 points, you can then unlock the ability to either have a chance at dodging an attack, or allow your character to regenerate one armor point each turn. Once you select an option, the other is closed out, forcing you to consider your options before making a decision, which is a major theme throughout the game.
Special abilities and team synergy are also important aspects of combat, as the new enemy types and overwhelming odds lead to an increasing feeling of hopelessness in battle. It was extremely rare that I got through a battle without at least one of my characters falling, which leads to a punishment on effectiveness for that character until your caravan is allowed to rest. This forced me to utilize characters that I normally would have left on the sidelines, but also led to even more characters going down, since ability points were spread across more characters than I could use in any one battle. The game uses a type of currency called “renown,” which is used to level up characters, buy items, and buy food for your caravan. This creates an interesting push and pull when making decisions. Do I level up my Varl to better protect my caravan, or buy food to ensure that the people under my banner don’t starve? The issue is that the game doles out so little renown that I was almost always on the verge of starvation, and still never had enough to fully level up my characters. Some battles are skippable depending on your choices, so it’s possible that the only way to reach max level is to always kill everything. But the game goes out of its way to teach you that fighting isn’t always the best option.
Obviously, there’s a lot going on in the combat, and it can feel overwhelming at times. But this adds up to an immensely challenging combat experience that truly makes you feel accomplished when you can exit an enemy encounter unscathed. The final battles, however, aren’t as successful. Throughout the game there are a few encounters where killing everyone on the field of play isn’t the only method for success, and the game does a good job of pointing that out. In the final two battles, on the other hand, new mechanics are introduced with little to no explanation, and I was left confused as most of my team was taken out before getting lucky with a killing blow. It was a frustrating experience, to say the least, especially since I had taken so much care to design my roster around being most effective. Those two battles aside, the combat was incredibly rewarding and challenging, and I can’t wait to see what further improvements Stoic Studios is able to implement for the planned third game.
Unfortunately, I can’t speak as highly of the story in Banner Saga 2 when compared to the first game. I greatly enjoyed the twists, turns, and betrayals of Banner Saga 1. Even if you did absolutely everything right, things could still go bad for your caravan, and I appreciated that risk and realism on the part of the writers. In the second game, though, that dark nature is turned up to 11. If a character is given the opportunity to betray you, they will absolutely do it, every single time. By the end of the game, I felt like my decisions hadn’t really mattered, because the resolution was so far out of my hands. I completely respect and applaud the developers making a game that doesn’t have a happy ending, but circumstances became so dire by the end that I’m left wondering what it was all for. Why give me the option to save character X when they’re just going to die no matter what? Why choose path A over B when both choices lead to my caravan breaking up? And that’s to say nothing of how confusing things can get. There are just so many characters and places and things going on that it can be hard to keep up, or feel truly invested in the events that are unfolding. But at the end of the day, I still encourage people to try out the series. I know I’m being down on the story, and particularly its ending, but overall I still enjoyed the journey. “Enjoyed” is a weird word to use considering the subject material, but you know what I mean.
You should play Banner Saga 1, and then you should play Banner Saga 2. I’ve never experienced a game series quite like this, and despite the second game’s shortcomings, it still improves over the first in several major ways. I didn’t even have time to bring up the beautiful, hand-drawn aesthetic of the game, which is truly one of a kind. The Banner Saga 2 is full of complex characters fighting complex battles during a complex time in a complex world. You shouldn’t expect to fully understand the motivations or scope of every event that happens during the game, and I think that’s part of the point. These are just people trying to save their respective races from the end of the world as they know it. There may not be a happy ending and they may not even succeed in avoiding their doom, but I’m certainly going be there to see their tale through to the end.