"Banner Saga is no longer just the developers' creation, but also an escape for so many people..."
Banner Saga wooed RPGFan last year with its innovative take on the strategy RPG genre and storytelling. Simple, yet novel, Banner Saga breathed new life into this Varl of a genre. The second iteration doesn't depart too far from the formula, but serves as a formidable torch-bearer of this Viking-esque tale of Norse-like folklore.
The first installment opened with the statement "decisions matter." Those who experienced the first game have the luxury of knowing that the first title's closing will echo in the sequels to come. Not only do survivors matter, but reputation and other toys carry over, as well. Those who wish to start with Banner Saga 2 shouldn't worry, though: starting without a save allows players to choose a starting hero, with various levels and renown seemingly randomized across characters.
Banner Saga 2 begins with the journey toward Arberrang in full stride. Relationships built in the first game grow, but some characters clearly claim more of the spotlight than others. Fortunately, the friendships flow naturally and the dialogue is as clever and real as ever. Clearly, the writers have established a voice and most of the followers maintain distinct identities. The occasional prompts that occur during the journey still provide fascinating scenarios that present difficult choices. Somehow, the developers encourage an appreciation for shades of gray, as stubbornly adhering to one way of thinking over another will produce some boons, but also drawbacks. A true leader has to know when to make sacrifices and when to stand firm in one's thinking. In titles that attempt such critical thinking, gamers are typically routed by not being able to predict the designer's thinking when they expected a certain outcome, which creates frustration. Banner Saga's developers, however, rarely faltered in my experience, as I frequently received a believable reward or justified punishment. The believability is the key here, because many decisions leaders make have unforeseen consequences. This is a challenging feat to accomplish, and I applaud the developers for not only managing this, but also for how successful they were.
Now, without any spoilers, I have to speak about the ending, as several fans have scoffed at the conclusion – and I have to agree, though not necessarily to the degree that some have admonished the devs. While not preferable, the pacing and huge leaps of time did not ruin the entire experience or necessarily the ending. Clearly, the developers were under some sort of time constraint or had to make a sacrifice somewhere, but the important bits were there. Again, the ending is an obvious blotch on an otherwise stellar experience, but it in no way invalidates the 13 or so hours experienced beforehand.
And what about the gaming experience? Well, those who played the first title won't find much change here, but for those who haven't experienced Banner Saga, the combat takes place on a square grid. Each character moves, then completes an action. Varl are giants who take up 2x2 slots, but are powerhouses. Players have to determine whether or not they want to hit armor or strength, with the former being essential to taking out more strength (health). As characters take hits to strength, their ability to strike another character's strength diminishes. Willpower can be used to increase a character's movement or empower an attack, but this is a valuable, limited resource in each battle. Throw in a mix of somewhat novel abilities, and you've got yourself a satisfyingly simple strategy RPG. The inclusion of armor, willpower, and leveling system based on kills adds enough creativity to take the standard strategy RPG formula to the next level. Almost every battle is meaningful as it's usually triggered by a dialogue choice or some plot device coming up.
Honestly, though, while combat is incredibly fun, the best part of the game is coming across a strange scenario and having to reason out what's best for the caravan or a particular character. To this end, the entire experience is constantly fun, and I was thinking about playing Banner Saga 2 when I wasn't playing it, which is probably the highest praise I can give a game in the modern era of backlogs and choice overload. What keeps me coming back is probably the entirety of the package, including the atmosphere.
Although Banner Saga 2 primarily functions through stills and simple sounds, the quality in each cannot be understated. Similar to the first, each drawing of a character feels like someone poured their heart into a pencil or pen or brush or whatever to create these real, beautiful characters. I may not be an artist, but my eyes know what they like, and this game is gorgeous. As the caravan marches on, the background inspires awe and makes me want to be there – just without the, you know, murder bots and starvation. The animations of each character in battle are based on real movements of actors, and it shows.
As far as sound is concerned, the war chants and songs at the start of battle almost bring a tear to the eye, and it has nothing to do with the circumstances in which the skirmish occurs. It has everything to do with the passion that's gone into making this world and lore. These feel like real people with real struggles in a real place. This isn't to leave out the rest of the music, though – when a game offers a soundtrack for sale, that's a clear indication that they believe in the production value, and for good reason.
Banner Saga 2 has received harsh criticism from the community, and while I feel that's unjustified, it serves as an ample indication of how much people love this world. Banner Saga is no longer just the developers' creation, but also an escape for so many people who have fallen in love, and when those people feel like that escape has been violated, they fight back. In a sense, their complaints are the biggest compliment. Combine the combat enmeshed with the story and the sense of place – this world feels like it exists in a history book somewhere – and Banner Saga 2 deftly carries on the sigil of the first title.