The Banner Saga 2 is a must-have for fans of Stoic's acclaimed original RPG, continuing the series with an equally strong narrative, beautiful visuals, and addictive combat.
A sophomore effort in a series is not always a sure-fire sign of quality. For every Baldur's Gate II or Batman: Arkham City, there are plenty of other titles that fail to reach expectations, such as the recently-released Homefront: The Revolution. Nonetheless, that has not stopped developer Stoic from creating a sequel to the beloved Kickstarter-funded tactical RPG The Banner Saga.
The title proved to be a surprise critical powerhouse, earning huge plaudits for its compelling story, fantastic turn-based battles and stunning animation. Since its release in 2014, The Banner Saga has seen further releases, such as an equally impressive port to the PS4 and Xbox One. However, the studio behind the game, which is made up of alumni from the development of The Old Republic, decided that the time was right for The Banner Saga 2 to be created.
Although some may be cautious about sequels, The Banner Saga needed a sequel more than most games in recent memory. Although the original game had a satisfying conclusion in its own right, there was clearly more of the tale to be told. What's more, the world created by Stoic begged to be explored even further, leaving plenty of room for the developer to stretch its legs - certainly a requirement for a property that has long been envisioned as a trilogy.
Thankfully, those who enjoyed the first The Banner Saga based on its story and setting will not be disappointed. The Banner Saga 2 picks up with the same cast of characters and immediately throws the player back into the world that they knew so well, even offering up the prospect of continuing directly from the events of a playthrough of The Banner Saga via an imported save file. Indeed, the title very much begins in media res, opening soon after the thrilling conclusion of the first game and literally opening with Chapter Eight of the story as a whole.
For those that are unfamiliar with The Banner Saga franchise, this tactical RPG series takes place in a world influenced by Viking lore. The realm is on the brink of the apocalypse, with monstrous rock creatures known and the Dredge rising from the ground and destroying towns and villages. The player is in charge of a group of humans and Varl (horned giants), and must keep as many of their clan and fighters alive on a journey to safety.
Those expecting the caravan to have an easier time of things this time around are going to be sorely disappointed, however, as the grim, dangerous world continues to risk the survivors' journey. Gamers should expect to feel even more oppressed by the game's world, with the entire realm on the brink of collapse. The desperate struggle of the clan leads them across vast chasms using otherworldly powers, down into the dark of mines, and into bleak, sparse fields as they journey towards Aberrang, seen as the last bastion of society in the fight to survive against a coming darkness.
Along this journey, the player, as leader of the caravan, must face some incredibly tough decisions. Unlike those seen in other games, such as Telltale's The Walking Dead, there is a real sense that the player's actions can have an effect on the clan's chances of survival. Stopping to rescue other survivors or choosing the wrong path to take can have severe consequences, and it sometimes feels like there is no right answer.
To make matters worse, the player's caravan eventually splits into two parties, with then two branching stories to uncover. These two different factions have very different expectations, so gamers will need to adjust their own thoughts accordingly in order to keep morale at a high. As well as offering up different ways in which to play the game, this split also helps The Banner Saga 2 tell a branching story, exploring the context of the world alongside a plot filled with subterfuge.
Once more, the sheer immersive nature of The Banner Saga series is not only helped by wonderful writing, with just the right amount of light humor between characters to break up the otherwise gloomy atmosphere, but also the fantastic visuals. Inspired by early Disney movies and the work of Don Bluth, The Banner Saga 2 is just as much a joy to behold as its predecessor, with lovingly drawn characters and backdrops, and fantastically fluid animation in combat. The title, much like the original game, proves that turn-based combat does not need to be rigid graphically as well as in gameplay mechanics. There is little improvement on the original game in terms of the aesthetic, but then again there does not need to be, with the game's style perfectly matching both its tone and gameplay.
Of course, The Banner Saga 2 may not be for everyone. Although Stoic has done a solid job of making the game's context obvious to new players, users will no doubt have a better time if they have played the original. That said, the sheer quality of the first game, with The Banner Saga seen as a perfect advert for crowd-funded games, means that the original title comes highly recommended.
Perhaps a slight criticism that could be aimed at Stoic is that The Banner Saga 2 does not offer up much change from the first game in terms of the way the combat system works. Once more, the creates a solid variation on traditional turn-based combat, with each character's strength both acting as a health meter and a damage gauge. It's an easy enough concept to grasp, but each battle offers up its own challenges to keep players on their toes.
Although the combat works in an extremely similar way to the first game, it's hard to think on exactly how Stoic would have made changes to the system without either overcomplicating or oversimplifying matters. Instead, additional mechanics come in the form of new party member and enemy types, with both Horseborn allies and opponents adding a strong new dimension to the tried-and-tested formula. Although some fans of the original game may feel disappointed in the lack of change, most will be happy to see the same head-teasing gameplay on offer.
In the end, Stoic has more than delivered on the promise of the first installment of the series. The Banner Saga 2 maintains the same level of surface quality, and underneath lie the same intriguing combat mechanics for players to mull over. Best of all, the game's story is second to none, meaning that fans will no doubt be eagerly awaiting further iterations of this stunning saga.
The Banner Saga 2 is out now for PC and Mac, with Xbox One and PS4 releases expected on July 26. Game Rant was provided with a PC download code for the purposes of this review.