The Banner Saga 2 might end up being the most surprising game I play in 2016. My reaction to the first was decidedly mixed, and somewhat tepid even in the best of places, so I’m downright astounded that the sequel has leapt straight onto my list of contenders for Game Of The Year.
I doubt the problems I had with the first Banner Saga were entirely unique to me. Repetitive combat and a baffling decision to split the narrative so that you a) spent altogether too much time in that combat, and b) couldn’t get a good track on what was going on plot-wise, ensured that the game added up to far less than the sum of its parts. In retrospect I also think the world-ending threat was kept far too vague – your caravan of refugees is supposed to be fleeing it, but ultimately what you’re really fleeing is the encroachment of the stone-armoured Dredge, who are hacked down in their hundreds over the course of the game and consequently pose almost no threat at all. There’s some stuff with a giant serpent that’s breaking the world, but it’s given little explanation and mostly just exists in the background; as far as you the caravan leader are concerned your primary threat is the decidedly mundane Dredge. The personal trials of getting the caravan to its destination without everyone dying was engaging enough, however I couldn’t help but finish The Banner Saga feeling a little bit disappointed – like the game could have been so much more if just a few key design decisions had gone the other way.
Playing The Banner Saga 2 feels like it’s the answer to all of those criticisms. It addresses every single part of the first game that felt weak from the combat to the overplot, cuts in some places, streamlines in others, and adds in yet more to produce a far more well-rounded experience. It did this despite my initial experience with the game being a fairly negative one; you can import your save from The Banner Saga for true continuity in who is alive, who is dead, how many people are in your caravan and how many supplies you have, except I couldn’t find my save despite retaining all of the data from my old hard drive. This meant I had to start a standard new game – fortunately it does let you choose how you made the decision at the very end of The Banner Saga since this has huge game-changing consequences, but everything else in my playthrough of The Banner Saga 2 was stock. Luckily I had almost completely forgotten what happened in the first game and most of the characters were pretty unmemorable in the long run, so while there were a few convenient resurrections I didn’t really notice the difference.
What’s notable about this is that despite my initial indifference The Banner Saga 2 still succeeded in pulling me in incredibly quickly. It’s learned from the first game’s mistake of starting you off with Hakon and giving you nothing but battles to fight for the first two hours; instead you’re thrown straight in at the deep end of caravan management with Rook and his clansmen, who are now trying to get to the human capital of Aberrang after the Varl cities turned out to be a bust.The multiple-choice dialogues and resource management of the first game are back, and here they’re played up even more successfully than they were in The Banner Saga; this time there’s a real sense that everyone is running from something awful, even the Dredge (who you still fight every now and then), and this lends your actions an additional sense of desperation, especially when supplies run low and people start to starve. You end up making some really tough decisions – no additional refugees got into my caravan after the first hour except the ones it was scripted to take since I didn’t think I could feed them, and more than once Rook had to mete out some brutal justice in the name of keeping the caravan together.
This element of the game gets even better once you get control of Bolverk and his mercenary company, the Ravens. The Banner Saga 2 repeats the questionable decision to split the narrative between two different caravans, except this time it’s handled in a much better way; the game is split into 7-8 chapters, each lasting about an hour, and each time you enter a new chapter the narrative switches to the other caravan. These chapter breaks are natural points to change the narrative POV as they inevitably occur when one group or the other reaches a town or other point of interest where they can make camp, and once you return to Rook after spending time with the Ravens there’s a sense that a little time has passed while the caravan camped and consolidated. This is pretty much the ideal structure for a game like The Banner Saga; you spend enough time with each party to get to know them, but the narrative POV also switches frequently enough that you don’t forget what’s going on with either one.
Anyway, Bolverk and the Ravens are arguably more fun to play than Rook. Rook is a good man faced with some tough decisions; Bolverk on the other hand is a Varl berserker and all-around jerk who doesn’t really have any problems with stealing food and/or murdering people to get it — he’s not exactly a bad guy, but the Ravens are a mercenary company that kills people for money, so he’s understandably got a harsher view of the world than Rook does. The Banner Saga 2 remedies another big issue with the first game — where Hakon’s portion of the story was almost entirely composed of War combats and was terribly boring as a result — by giving Bolverk just as many interesting and/or unpleasant caravan decisions to deal with as Rook does, except with him it’s easier to role-play ruthlessness and do what it takes to survive. Oh, and the best thing about the Ravens is that they chant a battle song every time they set up for a combat, which is just about the best way to announce that some heads are going to get knocked together. Or lopped off.
Ah yes, the combat. I might be in a minority by thinking that the system The Banner Saga uses isn’t inherently bad, it’s just that since you only ever faced two enemy types in the first game (the Dredge, and bandits/raiders who were your units with a different colour scheme) and since you were called upon to fight a combat to resolve just about every major encounter it got terribly repetitive. Not much about the combat system has changed – it still slavishly alternates moves between you and the enemy no matter how many units are on each side, and so you still break armour and cripple enemy units without killing them to keep their effectiveness down and waste their moves – but it didn’t annoy me anywhere near as much as it did in the first game. Partly this is because there isn’t anywhere near as much of it; there is an achievement for fighting thirty battles in TBS 2, which is about thirty fewer than I fought in the original due to the almost total lack of the tedious War combats. Mostly, though, it’s because there’s now a decent amount of variety in the enemy types that you face. The Dredge are back in the mix, as are the human raiders, but there’s now the additional factions of the Kragsmen (swamp dwellers) and Horseborn (centaurs), as well as one or two one-shot baddies who will wreck you if you’re not careful. Battles are mostly “kill all the dudes”, but not all; there’s a couple of objective-based ones that make welcome changes, as well as extra variety provided by the new barricades and stealth units.
This variety not only makes the combat more engaging, but it also feeds back into the caravan storyline. You’re no longer fighting a bunch of auto-generated Dredge, you’re defending a bridge or attacking a village protected by wooden stakes – the battles feel a bit more like battles over actual places rather than a generic speedbump tossed in your way to slow you down. The wider range of enemy types is also extremely welcome as you encounter other factions who are also running hell-for-leather away from the encroaching darkness. And this time that darkness is actually evident both in the beautiful panoramic vistas your caravan trudges past and on the world map; there’s an ever-present and ominous sense that the world really is spiralling out of control, and the weird shit your caravans run into on the way to their respective destinations builds this out far more effectively than in the first game. Crucially there’s a bigger storyline beyond Rook/whoever getting the caravan to where it’s going; certain returning characters from the first game are developed dramatically in the sequel, in the process revealing more about why the world is going down the toilet. You’re not told everything – they need to leave something for the final episode of this trilogy — but it’s a much more engaging hook, and provides a reason to play beyond the day-to-day challenges of managing your refugee column. Certainly it’s far more accomplished in this regard than I remember The Banner Saga being.
As for the visuals and the sound, they are just as they were in The Banner Saga – unfailingly lovely to look at, and to listen to. Because The Banner Saga 2 is a little more ambitious in the story it’s telling — or at least is more forthcoming with the meat of it — the environments it portrays are commensurately more spectacular, and it’s always a pleasure to watch your caravan slowly make its way across the landscape. If I had one overarching criticism of the game it would be that while the storytelling is dramatically improved there’s still a distinct lack of filling scenes to explain e.g. why something just ate one of your characters – it just comes out of nowhere in a cutscene, with what happened being explained during some text exposition in the aftermath. There’s a few too many of these jarring moments in TBS 2; doubtless they were already present in TBS 1, but now that the general story is being told in a more accomplished manner they’re being shown up for the weak points that they are. Also, despite the good words I had about the combat earlier, I feel like the improvements made there got it to somewhere just above “inoffensive” – I never winced when I went into a battle in this game, but neither was I particularly excited except when fighting a new enemy. This time around it’s acceptable both in its general mechanics and how it services the story, and maybe it’s enough that it lasts 8-9 hours without getting old, but I’d like for it to be something that’s a genuine pleasure to play.
Still, while these might be weak points I can’t think of anything in The Banner Saga 2 that is out-and-out bad. It’s one of the best examples of a sequel fixing everything that was wrong with the original game that I can remember in recent times. I’m pleased that there genuinely was far more potential to be realised from the concept than the first game did, and doubly pleased that The Banner Saga 2 has managed it with only a few minor stumbles. Where I finished the first game in a mostly ambivalent mood, I finished the second more than a little annoyed — in a good way, since I was annoyed I’d have to wait 2+ years for The Banner Saga 3 to wrap up the plot. I 100% don’t have time for this now, but the idea of replaying through both the first game and the sequel in preparation for the third installment just got a whole lot more attractive. It’s a rare game that can turn around my opinion on a series so completely, but in that regard The Banner Saga 2 is an almost total success.