I played a lot of the first Banner Saga, and while I liked it, it never really hooked me. The Banner Saga 2, however, has got its hooks in deep.
The Banner Saga, for those who I’ve already lost, is a turn-based tactics game (released in 2014) set in a fantasy land where men and giants, formerly enemies, must work together to escape (and somehow defeat) an encroaching darkness that threatens to destroy their entire world.
Its two main draws are utterly gorgeous art, which extends from the strategic sections to cutscenes and right down to the battles themselves, and a novel combat system which uses two distinct health/armour meters for combatants.
The fact I’ve been so into TBS2 when I merely liked the first game is weird, because this is not your average sequel. Developer Stoic hasn’t gone in and made any major changes. From the menus to the combat interface, this is almost exactly the same package as the first Banner Saga, making the whole thing feel more like the second chapter of a very slow episodic series than something which actually warrants the full sequel treatment in the game title.
Yet despite the lack of obvious, fundamental changes, where I found the first game’s writing a bit dull, I was on the edge of my seat from the very first mission here. Where the roguelike army management system from the first game wore you down after a while, here a single alteration (removing the need for the player to choose where to camp/rest) meant I was better able to enjoy the story-driven downtime between battles. And where combat got a bit ho-hum in The Banner Saga after a while, here the addition of a few new units (and interesting variations on the standard “kill everything” battle objectives) kept things a lot more interesting.
I...don’t know why this is. Part of me wonders whether I’ve simply been playing so many good turn-based games over the past few years that I was in a more receptive state for The Banner Saga’s particular brand of combat second time around. Another, more persuasive part wonders whether despite the changes made to the game being minor, they were the perfect nips and tucks, just the precise kind of changes the game needed to tip the scales and send me from the edge of an experience to the very heart of it.
Helping things along is the way TBS2 kicks off. The Banner Saga had to establish characters and settings, so much of the first few hours was spent on dull introductions and bar fights and introductions to lore. Here, you are dropped right in the shit, and as the world ends around you the game never once lets up. I don’t think I’ve been on the edge of my seat (in terms of a narrative) in a strategy game since, well, maybe ever. It’s wonderful stuff, your rag-tag band of soldiers and farmers — who are constantly being harried and killed by the pursuing enemy — feeling more like a medieval Battlestar Galactica than the mere caravans of the first game.
My apologies for continually framing this review with references to the first game, but you really can’t look at this as a standalone effort. I mean, technically you could buy just this game and install it and get playing (there’s even the option to arbitrarily make TBS1's monumental end-game choice over again), but that’s not the target market for TBS2. You should really finish the first game before attempting this one.
Just as the game’s presentation and systems remain almost entirely unchanged, the story here picks up right where TBS1 left off, and while there’s a short recap available to watch from the main menu, it’s geared more towards reminding returning players what’s up, rather than introducing newcomers to all that lore.
Which means anyone still reading by now is likely someone who finished, or at least dabbled in the first game and wants to know if this is now a series worth continuing with.
You’re damn right it is. Combat is as good as ever, only now its implementation is smarter. The writing is much tighter, and the characters are going weird and wonderful places that I wasn’t expecting. And the art is still the art.
About the only thing that bummed me out was that, despite the end of TBS1 falling flat, the last battle of TBS2 is somehow even worse, a weird little puzzle of a thing that’s too dependent on luck and scripting. It doesn’t ruin the entire endgame, since we still get a decent pay-off related to decisions you’ve made, but it doesn’t help the mid-trilogy feeling of emptiness that washes over you when it comes to an end just as you thought you were about to see the real action go down.
For that, we’ll have to wait for The Banner Saga 3. Which I’ll be a lot more excited for than I was The Banner Saga 2.