"The Banner Saga 2 is nothing short of compelling. [...] It succeeds masterfully at putting players in the shoes of its protagonist and encouraging them to lose themselves in their role."
Whether I'm reading a book or playing a game, my ultimate goal is to be drawn in. The narrative should be so compelling that my mind can't wander off anywhere else. I should be so completely enveloped in the fictional world of the media I'm consuming that the outside world might as well not exist. Truly being able to experience something the way it was intended is rare for me, as it takes a lot to get me hooked. Maybe my standards are too high; maybe I'm too selective. So imagine my surprise when after finally taking my first break from The Banner Saga 2, I saw that over five hours had suddenly passed.
The Banner Saga 2 is nothing short of compelling. It weaves a tale so intriguing that you're too focused on the present to even wonder what's in store for the future. Characters have arcs and develop, you're forced to see things from different perspectives, and you're presented with choices that have both true benefits and true consequences. It succeeds masterfully at putting players in the shoes of its protagonist and encouraging them to lose themselves in their role. The story is epic in scale, sprinkled with moments that made me genuinely gasp aloud.
Though the game picks up mere weeks after the finale of the first game, new players such as myself are more than welcome to start their adventure with this latest installment in the series. If you've previously completed the original and have save data on your system, your choices from the first game will carry over to this one. Right out of the gate, new players are presented with a choice: Do they want to play as Rook, who just lost his child, or as his daughter Alette, who just lost her father?
This choice establishes your own canon if you don't already have one; given how interesting I found the concept of tasking a young girl with leading a troop to safety, I chose Alette, meaning that I had sacrificed her father in my canon. Regardless of who you choose to play as, the mission is the same: leading your caravan to Arberrang, the capitol for humans. Neither Rook nor Alette are responsible for a ragtag group of misfits, even though it may seem that way at a glance. No, these two are responsible for leading a whole society of people, hundreds in number, and how they choose to protect those lives lays in your hands.
A tactical RPG at heart, The Banner Saga 2 is relatively basic in nature. Each unit is placed onto a grid, and some units take up more space than others; the giant-sized varl, for example, take up a space of 2x2, while humans only take up a space of 1x1. Players can choose to attack a unit's strength, which is responsible for both health and the damage output for that unit, as well as armor, which protects strength. If you want to pack more of a punch, a limited resource called Willpower can be used, upping your damage by one point per each use of Willpower; likewise, players can use Willpower to move to additional tiles outside of their range, at the cost of one Willpower per tile. When you kill an opponent, you're rewarded with Renown, which can be used to upgrade units as well as purchase supplies and stat-boosting equipment.
It's a very easy concept to grasp, and while the simplistic nature may turn off some, I welcomed doing away with complicated gameplay mechanics. Sometimes diluting something to its purest form yields successful results. Unfortunately, there's a bit lost in translation when porting the game to console, as selecting and moving your units lacks a true sense of fluidity—it feels a little stiff and rigid. It's a small complaint, sure, but it's more noticeable given the lack of flaws the game truly has.
Outside of battle, the game functions similar to both the classic PC game Oregon Trail and a visual novel. Morale will decrease the longer you go without resting, but resting takes a single day, which results in a loss of resources. This can hinder your trek, as your caravan will dwindle in size the longer it goes without food; however, your morale level dictates your Willpower in battle, meaning you'll have to find a proper balance.
While you can socialize at camp and find out more about the game's interesting characters, it's during your trek that you'll encounter the true visual novel elements. Every so often you'll be presented with choices that will impact your journey. These choices can range from just picking what your character will say, to picking the right plan of action to tackle a dangerous situation. There's no right or wrong answer, meaning each choice is as difficult as the one before it. The game does a fantastic job of giving weight to these choices; early in the game, I had to decide if I wanted to sacrifice precious barrels of food and water in order to create barricades for a surprise battle. I did, and while the loss of resources made a big impact, it's because I utilized the barricades that I won. While it's easy to want to do what you perceive as the morally right choice, you'll sometimes have to think as a strategist, using your brain rather than your heart.
Perhaps the best part of The Banner Saga 2 is its art style. Each character, each enemy unit, and every landscape has been crafted with love and care to create the look of a hand-drawn animated movie. Indeed, the overall designs and fluidity of the animation reminded me of classic Disney movies, like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty. Simply put, it's an absolute joy to watch the action unfold before your eyes. It’s a gorgeous blend of typical high-fantasy and Viking elements.
When you're not taking in the scenery, you're being serenaded by a gorgeous soundtrack. It fits the Viking theme while also providing a sense of a true epic. The soundtrack does a wonderful job of helping absorb you into the game's wonderfully fantastical world.
Overall, The Banner Saga 2 is a pure accomplishment. It showcases the best of what independent developers are able to do. You can't help but feel like the heart of every team member went into making this game, and their hard work has resulted in complete success. Between its solid combat mechanics, interesting narrative, beautiful visuals coupled with an equally beautiful soundtrack, and the fact that it welcomes players new to the saga, I can't possibly recommend this game enough.