Wot I Think: The Banner Saga 2

Despite its flaws, The Banner Saga [official site] is one of the most memorable indie releases of 2014, and now the second act is here to push the story to even more desperate frontiers. But does The Banner Saga 2 improve upon its predecessor’s lackluster strategy combat while still expanding on its promising story? Here’s wot I think. (Note: there are spoilers for the first Banner Saga’s ending).

Let’s cut to the chase: The Banner Saga 2 is much better than the first one. But just as much as the heroes struggle to reconcile their place in a dying world, so too does The Banner Saga 2 sometimes struggle to reconcile its different parts. It’s still flawed, beautiful, and most of all, memorable. And whether or not you finished the first game, the improved combat alone makes The Banner Saga 2 worth coming back for.

The immortal Sundr, Bellower, is dead, and his host of dredge routed. But that victory means little as a mysterious darkness continues to spread from the north and a rampant giant serpent tries to gobble everything up. Picking up almost immediately where The Banner Saga left off, the second act is an even bleaker exploration of a dying world. You’ll pick up the story playing as either Rook, the humble hunter-turned-chieftain, or his daughter, Alette, depending on which one survived the encounter with Bellower. With the loss of their only family still fresh, there’s no time to mourn as the caravan sets off for the supposed safety of the human capital of Arberrang.

In many ways, The Banner Saga 2 is a direct extension of the first game. The formula of travelling, fighting, and decision-making has changed little between the two—at least when viewing them from a distance. Unlike other story-based trilogies, like Mass Effect, both acts of The Banner Saga could be played back-to-back as if they were one game. But looking closer, The Banner Saga 2 introduces subtle tweaks that make it a much more enjoyable experience.

Arguably the worst aspect of the first Banner Saga is the combat, which starts off promising before devolving into a samey slog as you battle the limited combinations of dredge again and again. Thankfully, The Banner Saga 2 does a much better job of living up to its strategic potential.

Playing out on a grid-based map, the turn-based combat will still challenge you to decide between attacking an enemy’s strength or armour. Since strength represents both health and how much damage a character can dish out, the temptation to go straight for blood can be strong. But playing more conservatively and chipping away at armour in order to line up some more devastating blows later can be a much more sound tactic—especially against the stone-like dredge.

The improvements to The Banner Saga 2’s combat don’t shake up its core formula but expand on it by adding a wealth of new classes and enemies. It was an excellent surprise to feel like each battle contained some new wrinkle keeping me on my toes. New enemy types range from variations of already established classes, like different types of dredge slingers, to entirely new creations. During one fight, I squared off against a group of unsettling monsters that were able to temporarily forge a link with my heroes and sap their strength. Even worse, should I attack one of them while the link was active, they would transfer the damage to whichever hero they were linked to. Considering how much the first Banner Saga reused the same foes again and again, I was shocked when I never encountered any of these monsters a second time.

The horseborn are the most prominent addition to the mix of human, giant-like varl, and dredge. The centaur-like creatures quickly became some of my favorite to use and fight against due to their ability to take a second movement action after attacking, making them deadly skirmishers. From a narrative angle, their introduction is less noteworthy, as they tend to feel like a cliche of primitive aboriginal cultures, which feels out of place next to the more subversive nuances of the varl and human societies.

Increases in the variation of enemy units and the strategies aren’t the only refinements, either. Unlike the first game, where the fights always feel distinctly separate from the story, the lines between the two have been better blurred. Choices leading up to battles have a greater impact on the outcome—for better or for worse. There’s also a much more fluid nature to combat that makes it unpredictable and often tense. Win conditions have been expanded beyond “kill everything” and are much more dynamic. In one fight, the rules changed suddenly when a new enemy stormed the field. If I could kill it, the other dredge would retreat, but doing so was a brutal gambit as more and more enemies flooded the map with each passing turn, requiring attention of their own.

Fortunately, your own strategic options have also been expanded. There’s still the same routine of levelling up heroes, increasing their stats and unlocking new abilities, but there’s plenty of new classes to play with. Many of them are more utilitarian than the rabble of warriors you had to choose from in the first game, and I loved experimenting with all of the new abilities and discovering powerful synergies. The poet is easily my favorite new addition, as his insult skill allowed me to push a specific enemy’s turn to the back of the queue, effectively preventing them from making a move.

Sadly, the new potential in combat isn’t always used skillfully, especially when it matters most. During one of the final battles, the moment was ruined because, suddenly, the rules were bent to make the fight more challenging. Without explanation, damaging the boss’s armor had no effect, and I flailed around helplessly for a few turns before realising the poor attempt to usher me towards dealing with that boss in a very specific way. Given how much freedom I had in previous battles, this suddenly narrow approach to combat felt jarring. It’s also annoying that The Banner Saga 2 would so carelessly rewrite its own rules. Fortunately, these slips feel small compared to The Banner Saga 2’s larger successes.

While the combat is greatly improved, the same can’t really be said for the caravan management, which still struggles to feel necessary to the rest of the game. Like The Banner Saga, I spent long stretches watching my caravan venture forward along a two dimensional trail while occasionally pausing to rest or make choices that impacted the wellbeing of my clan. But The Banner Saga 2 struggles to make many of these decisions meaningful. Buying supplies, managing morale, and balancing how many warriors and clansmen you have feel like they could be mostly ignored without much consequence as their impact on the combat and the story is, at times, negligible.

There’s still that awkward tension between telling a somewhat linear story and giving players the freedom of managing their caravan, and too often The Banner Saga 2 sacrifices the latter to protect the former. During one nasty stretch of my trip, a series of bad decisions led to my troops having no food for almost a week. As morale dipped and clansmen and warriors died from starvation each day, there was barely any perceivable impact. Once I made it to the next village, I stocked up and replenished my ranks as if nothing bad had happened.

That isn’t to say that The Banner Saga 2 isn’t incapable of presenting interesting choices, but it does have a hard time making all of them feel like they’re not just thin illusions. Later in the story, when the stakes were higher, I was painfully aware of the mortality of the people in my party. Choosing to send one of my heroes to hold off a group of oncoming dredge was a decision that filled me with dread as I knew they might never return. When they did, I felt like a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. But that tension can be ruined when you realize that these moments are predetermined. The Banner Saga 2 can sometimes feel like playing a session of Dungeons and Dragons with a spiteful dungeon master; no matter how well thought out a decision might be, if The Banner Saga 2 wants you to bleed, you’ll bleed.

While the time spent with the caravan is the weak link in The Banner Saga’s chain, it’s failure as a system mostly feels like a missed opportunity rather than a thorn in my side. It’s easy to forget about once the story picks up steam. Early on, the narrative splits between Rook (or Alette) and Bolverk, the savage leader of the Ravens. While the shifts in perspective from the first Banner Saga don’t always feel natural, The Banner Saga 2 makes much better use of the technique to deliver two stories that throw one another into an intriguing contrast.

Rook’s journey south to the human capital of Arberrang is still just as desperate as it always was, and the pain of losing his daughter creates some tender moments that gently prod the reality of grief and responsibility. But it was the chapters following Bolverk that I truly adored, as the brutish mercenary fights between his vicious nature and a mysterious weakness. There’s enough freedom in his dialogue choices that let me shape Bolverk as a character, and I loved the way my decisions seemed to slightly melt his icy heart, making rare moments of vulnerability feel even more poignant. Bolverk also becomes central to the mystery surrounding the darkness engulfing the north, and the small teases of his relationship with a certain dredge are one of the plot threads I can’t wait to see resolved.

In our review of the first game, Adam had argued that the second half becomes a slog largely thanks to the combat, but I’m pleased to say that the same isn’t true for The Banner Saga 2. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. The second half had me so wrapped up in wanting to see what happened next that I sprinted to the end credits over a single six hour stretch, enjoying each fight along the way.

The somber worldbuilding of the first game dramatically shifts during the second half of The Banner Saga 2, and the gorgeous artistic style flexes its muscles to deliver vistas that filled me with both awe and dread. Being the second act of a trilogy, I was concerned that The Banner Saga 2 would feel inconsequential to the greater arc of the story, but I can safely say that really isn’t the case. While major revelations about the darkness that is forcing everyone south still remained unanswered, there are enough threads teased out that I’m satisfied. Most of all, the final quiet moments before the climax instill a powerful sense of distance. I was reminded of the the effect that the Lord of the Rings movies so elegantly accomplished and truly felt the many miles that had passed behind me.

The Banner Saga 2 is a beautiful sequel. There are moments where, as I watch the drama unfold in the dialogue and cutscenes, I almost forget I’m playing a game that came out in this decade. There’s an evocative sense of timelessness about the story and world that few RPGs create. And now that the combat has become a strength and not a weakness, immersing myself in the richness of The Banner Saga’s dying world is almost as enchanting as cracking open the weathered pages of my favorite fantasy novels.

The Banner Saga 2 is out today for Windows and Mac.

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39 Comments

  1. dawnmane says:

    ” immersing myself in the richness of The Banner Saga’s dying world is almost as enchanting as cracking open the weathered pages of my favorite fantasy novels.” – I absolutely agree. I told one of my friends the other day that the Banner Saga’s world was entering into my top five of well-written fantasy worlds right along with Middle-Earth and Earthsea. Loved every minute of the sequel.

  2. Viral Frog says:

    Even with it’s wickedly repetitive combat, I loved the first game in the series. After reading this, I can’t wait to get my hands on this new addition to the series!

  3. Laurentius says:

    Arguably the worst aspect of the first Banner Saga is the combat, which starts off promising before devolving into a samey slog as you battle the limited combinations of dredge again and again.

    WHAT ? No, combat in TBS was the best part, simply there wasn’t enough of it. The moment you have your party leveled up and it would be so fun to try different tactics and team composition, game ends.

    Now, I am just worry that this game is not going to be my liking. Hope there will be demo of some sort.

    • Laurentius says:

      After reading Eurogamer review it seems that they actually kept main concepts of the combat intact, much relif.

    • Hanban says:

      I can’t argue with the reviewer about the combat being repetitive, but I have to agree with you that the combat was the best thing about the game (and I still thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere and story of the game.) The strength vs armor mechanic really cliked with me and I always enjoyed the moment to moment decisions.

    • Rumpelstiltskin says:

      I absolutely loved the combat in the first part. Back then, I didn’t even think I could still enjoy a game as much as I enjoyed TBS1.

    • b00p says:

      i also really enjoyed the combat system quite a lot! i had stayed away from the game despite being really drawn to its presentation, but hearing turn-based gamers complain about it being simplistic and repetitive (wat, no cover system?) and seeing some videos, i put it on a backburner and picked it up only recently on a sale. i was really quite immediately totally charmed by everything about it, and found the combat to be pretty unique and deeper than it looks at first glance, offering plenty of moment to moment decision-making. i enjoyed it so much that i went against my usual rule and preordered the sequel immediately. so far (only played a little bit) it was well worth it.

    • Zekiel says:

      The combat was basically fantastic, but I did feel it suffered significantly from the fact that 90% of battlefields were featureless squares, and the enemy selection was really limited. Really glad to hear this has been addressed.

    • draglikepull says:

      While I would have liked some more variety in the encounters, I too really enjoyed the combat in the first Banner Saga. The armor/health duality was really neat, and I like the idea of health doubling as attack power. The whole system produced lots of interesting decisions and trade-offs, which is exactly what I want in an RPG. It’s not often you play a tactical RPG where the combat system feels as fresh as Banner Saga’s did.

    • Loimographia says:

      I’m likewise someone who genuinely enjoyed BS1’s combat and was really worried that the changes would change it too drastically, make it overwrought or confusing. I have 100 hours in the original, so I feel I’m decently familiar with the feel of the combat. I wasn’t looking forward to having the familiar and comforting replaced by the new and confusing, especially because I don’t consider turn-based strategy my usual genre, and many of the complaints were ‘it’s not enough like other turn-based strategy games!’

      But I’m two hours into the new game and can say that I really do think they hit on just the right notes for it. The fights and mechanics feel familiar and still absolutely approachable. It’s the same bones and sinews of combat. But the tweaks they’ve added blend with the old instead of conflicting with them — like instead of just slapping a new face on top of the the body, they gave it more muscle. They took everything that was good from the old combat and embellished on it instead of throwing it away, while trimming away the weaknesses, where I think a lot of devs might’ve said ‘people don’t like the combat? Better start from scratch.’

      • geisler says:

        Not to be condescending, but how the hell did you spend so much time in the first game? Did you just play through it 50 times? Because even playing on hard (which i did), even taking your time, taking in all the conversations and story aspects (which i did), i can’t imagine spending more than 10 – 15 hours in this game.

        I love the first game by the way, but it’s pretty short, and i don’t see myself ever replaying it (it simply lacks depth or enough different gameplay choices to warrant it). I will be playing all the sequels though.

        • Hex says:

          I have I think 116 hours at last count. And this is how:

          I’ve played through the campaign 4 times to completion, to generate endings with specific characters surviving/not surviving.

          I played through twice (maybe three time?) more, getting to Bellower, and determining that I couldn’t defeat him. (Though this was back when I’d made a devastating assumption about the final battle gimmick — I thought he needed to have 0 armor at the time Rook/Alette took their magic shot. What a dunce!)

          So at say 12 hours per campaign on average, that comes up to 84 of my 116 hours.

          I really have little clue as to what the remaining 30-some hours were, though I do know I went through a spurt early on of re-starting campaigns frequently, for some reason. Also my “12 hour” average is probably generous — I tend to prevaricate a lot in difficult battles.

          I may also have left the game running overnight during an important battle that I couldn’t finish right away.

  4. king0zymandias says:

    Does the game still have that turn order issue where you were rewarded for keeping multiple enemies with low strength alive instead of finishing them off? Because if you killed the weak enemies then the remaining strong ones got extra turns.

    • Merlin the tuna says:

      I would be very surprised if that changed for the second entry, given that it’s pretty clearly intended behavior intended to echo the wearying slog of the main plot. Feature, not a bug.

    • RuySan says:

      I liked that mechanic. It felt fresh, and the battlefield compositions also felt more authentic instead of the usual “gang-up on one enemy” tactics of other games.

    • Palladian says:

      I always see this described as an ‘issue’ as though the developers hadn’t foreseen it or it’s a bug. What’s wrong with it, exactly? I don’t find it any more unrealistic than the regular method of systematically ganging up on one enemy and moving on, and it makes a nice change from that style.

      I agree The Banner Saga’s combat was not its strongest element, but I specifically found the process of weakening all enemies quite refreshing.

      • Philotic Symmetrist says:

        The part about weakening all the enemies is fine; it makes sense that a weakened enemy is largely out of the fight (it makes slightly less sense that they remain just as capable at damaging armour) so there’s no point in finishing them off but why would doing so make the enemy side stronger? Does it make sense for 4 healthy enemies to be stronger than 4 healthy enemies plus 2 weakened enemies? You could turn the scenario around as well: suppose they receive reinforcements but the reinforcements are already tired from a forced march, should the added numbers now make them weaker?

        • Rumpelstiltskin says:

          I’m pretty sure the reasons for it are purely gameplay-based, since it allows a small bunch of PC heroes to prevail against hordes of the dredge (which also reinforces the theme). It’s rather hard to come up with a solid enough “realistic” justification, but turn-based mechanics already are a pretty strong abstraction, so I don’t think this change makes it much more unrealistic.

          • Philotic Symmetrist says:

            The justification doesn’t have to be ‘realistic’ and there’s a difference between being abstract and not making sense; chess is more abstract but the mechanics also have reasonable thematic explanations (aside from castling, I can’t think of a good explanation for what’s going on there; en passant has a good explanation though).

            For me, the problem was that it felt strange enough that it seemed less like a tactical consideration and more like a gameplay exploit, like getting an enemy stuck behind a pillar would be in another game; you can do it, it is effective, and it may be an obvious option, but it’s not clear whether it’s something you’re ‘supposed’ to do.

          • Hex says:

            Chess is exactly the thing you should reference, as it was the inspiration for TBS’ turn system.

            In Chess the exact same thing occurs — players alternate taking turns, no matter how many pieces are on the board. I can have a rook and a King, and still slaughter an poorly-playing opponent who’s still fielding 3/4ths of their starting army — which incidentally, my father did to me the one time I even came close to beating him at Chess.

          • Philotic Symmetrist says:

            The difference with chess however, is that taking out a weak or irrelevant piece doesn’t make your opponent stronger. It does waste a turn, which is enough of a tactical reason to not do it, but in the majority of situations you’d rather have more pieces not less. The thought “this unit is sufficiently weakened, he’s already out of the fight so I don’t need to kill him” makes sense; the thought “I need to make sure I don’t kill this unit (even through a side-effect) because their very existence weakens their side” is a little odd. It would make sense in the context of a war, where wounded soldiers could slow an army down, but that doesn’t apply during a skirmish (also doesn’t apply here because even if they’ve been left as wounded for most of the fight, the enemies are usually all dead by the end of it).

            I realise I’m possibly coming across purely negatively because I’m only commenting on this one aspect of the mechanics. The only reason for that is that off the top of my head I don’t have any particular comments to make on the rest of the combat.

          • Rumpelstiltskin says:

            I think it almost inevitably follows from the other design decisions. With health doubling as damage, the first strike advantage is extremely strong, and so numerical superiority would give one side overwhelming odds (since it would be able to make several moves in a row). And if sides must alternate turns, there’s just no good (i.e. simple and not over-exploitable) mechanic to change the move order. Except maybe there should be an option for a unit to flee from the battlefield. Come to think of it, I kind of like it, since it can also be useful for the players who don’t want to have their wounded heroes maimed for several days, or it can even allow to make death on the battlefield permanent.

    • Rumpelstiltskin says:

      Lol, the very first fight in TBS2 almost makes fun of that mechanic.

  5. Scelous says:

    You mention that the developers tease the story and that you can’t wait to see where the story goes. Does that mean that a third Banner Saga is a foregone conclusion? Does this second one end on a cliffhanger or something? I’m unclear as to whether Banner Saga 2 is supposed to be part of a larger series of games or if it’s a more conclusive experience.

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    DelrueOfDetroit says:

    Could a person play this having not played the first?

    • b00p says:

      you can, and the game gives you the option to do so, but as the original is on sale pretty regularly for under $5, it’d be kind of silly to do so, imo. and because it plops you in the middle of an ongoing narrative, it’d be a bit like watching empire strikes back before a new hope. better to get the first game cheap and see if you enjoy it then go from there, i’d think.

      • Premium User Badge

        DelrueOfDetroit says:

        Yeah, I have thought about getting it a few times but the mixed reviews always steered me away. I noticed it’s actually only about 10-15 hours long, I thought it would be a bigger game. Back to the Wishlist with ye!!

      • Benkyo says:

        It’s not about the money for me, it’s the time investment. I know I won’t complete the first game if the combat is as much of a slog as reviewers have said it is, so I’d rather not buy it if the second is better.
        If, as you say, you should play the first game first, that just discourages me from picking up the second.

        • geisler says:

          I think the combat is pretty bad but i endured it for everything else the game has to offer (i.e. the exceptional art and story). The combat is not really a “slog” in my opinion, it’s just very simplistic to anyone that has ever played a turn based strategy/RPG game.

        • Hex says:

          I strongly encourage you (and DelrueOfDetroit) to check out the free “The Banner Saga: Factions” on Steam.

          It’s a stand-alone client that pits players against each-other in head-to-head matches. It’s a great free way to familiarize yourself with the basics of TBS combat — the combat in the single-player games is pretty much the same as in TBS:F, with the exception that the game offers NPC enemies that function a little differently.

          Reviewers seem to be pretty universal in their taste for the games’ combat, but many (MANY) fans feel that it’s fantastic, and one of the key selling points of the series. It’s best to see for yourself.

  7. Zekiel says:

    I’m in the frustrating position of having almost finished the first on iOS, which is a real slog because the load times are insane and you can’t save-and-exit anywhere – so you’re stuck with having to continue playing until you get to the next save point (usually at least 30 minutes away) – which doesn’t really fit with being a parent of young kids. So I’m interested to get the sequel on PC but simultaneously annoyed that I won’t have any of my choices preserved. But I don’t like the 1st game enough to replay it on PC (even though its very cheap). Ah well.

  8. Zekiel says:

    One thing I don’t think this article addressed is that the choices in the first game were sometimes very frustrating in not giving you information that your character should really have. I’m absolutely fine with having choices turn out bad due to stuff you had no way of knowing about (or really could have guessed). Its annoying when you decide to check an abandoned building and it turns out to take an entire day (therefore wasting a day’s supplies) – when the game gives you no indication that this will be the case. Grrr.

    • Frank says:

      Yeah, I’m a big fan of the combat system, but the story choices were poor in TBS1. If we don’t know what the tradeoff is or even what it might be, it hardly makes for an interesting choice. And too many times it wasn’t a tradeoff at all but an A to win, B to lose sort of thing… which would be fine if this were King of Dragon Pass or FTL with a randomization and a large variety of events, but doesn’t really work in a (nearly) linear sequence of choices.

      • geisler says:

        Seems like you like the illusion of choice (bet you love Bioware games). By knowing the outcome beforehand, the choice is pure fluff, and usually has no real consequence. Just like in real life, choices should have real (and potentially dire, game-ending) consequences. Otherwise, why have choice at all?

        • Zekiel says:

          No, what I said (and Frank seems to be agreeing with) was that TBS1 sometimes forced you to make decisions while withholding information that your character would know (like roughly how long it will take to do something). I’m really happy with choices where you don’t know the outcome (and where sometimes the outcome is nasty). I’m not happy with blind choices where I really should have more information than I do. In real life you usually have (incomplete) information with which to weigh choices, rather than being a complete guess. Sometimes TBS1 gave you that information, but sometimes it withheld it for no good reason. If the consequence is fluff that doesn’t really matter; but if its potentially losing the hero you’ve spent ages building up, its understandably very frustrating.

  9. itmo says:

    This game is such a poor example of modern gaming. It pretends all the way along to give the player choice when in fact, everything has been predetermined. I lost the last battle and got exactly the same outcome, same ending as winning the last battle. So what was the point of even having the last battle, and why give people choice when it doesn’t make any difference at all? The new barricade feature is absolutely stupid, it just makes combat longer, you spend 2-3 turns moving around the bloody things.