“Morale declined” should have been the main slogan of Stoic’s The Banner Saga 2. Just like in Banner Saga 1, it still puts the well-being of hundreds of people on your hands. You still have to feed them and make sure that they are happy enough to fight. Not only that, but you have to make sure that they know how to fight. And just to highlight the seriousness of the situation, just about any choice you make will bring morale down.
The entire premise might seem like a downer but don’t let that fool you. This entry takes everything its predecessor did well and ran with them. Banner Saga 2 knows that you’re on an emotional low from Banner Saga 1’s ending, so it’s taking you to an even lower ride. It knows that regardless of what happens, you’ll still enjoy everything alongside the beautiful scenery and fantastic soundtrack.
Everything that made Banner Saga 1 great is still here: its deeply strategic battle system, the branching paths through player choices, the character and resource management, and lots of amusing conversations. But Stoic didn’t stop there. They brought along some new tweaks that improved quality of life, such as reduced renown costs for promotions and improved training tent functionality.
The storytelling also received a significant upgrade. Still divided into two viewpoints, the game gives both caravans equal opportunities to be in the spotlight. You learn more about each group equally without spending too much time with just one. You get to witness essential events as they unfold instead of merely getting a retelling. And when you think you’re ready to get out of the woods, the game switches its perspective. There’s nothing worse than having to wait through an entirely different chapter just to find out what happens next.
The story also takes a darker turn this time around. Still being chased by the Dredge, our caravans have another thing to worry about: the swallowing darkness. We also learn more about some of the pivotal characters and their secrets, along with new faces and their even deeper motives. Our interaction with the world expands beyond the typical human and Varl characters by introducing new races. We get a first-hand experience of what it’s like to control someone other than a human or a Varl, all while introducing us to the idea that not everyone against us is evil. We also get crumbs of the game’s colossal lore, managing to both inform and intrigue simultaneously. Though if you’re expecting Banner Saga 2 to answer questions from Banner Saga 1, you might be disappointed. This installment is not for answering questions, and throughout the entire game, this is painfully obvious.
Character development is definitely working in overdrive here. These new characters all have their different personalities and backstories, but they don’t have the benefit of Banner Saga 1‘s introduction. Working with this new team feels precisely as awkward as it sounds in the beginning, but Stoic found a way to warm players up to them quickly. They provide a completely different vibe compared to Rook’s caravan, and that’s a good thing. Their differences ensure that we’ll never get bored of them as we continuously switch perspectives. We get to see two slightly different stories, both with their own goals and motivations to set them apart.
Even the battles have evolved. You no longer have the same grind of knocking down Dredge endlessly because Banner Saga 2 gives you something else to do. These variations still take place in the battlefield, but you now have other tasks aside from eliminating enemy units. If you’re not paying attention you’ll actually end up fighting endlessly, which could be good for earning renown but could also wipe out your team. Paying attention to text bubbles before and during the battle is paramount, as this could either spell victory or disaster.
Though perhaps the weakest aspect out of Banner Saga 2 is its ending. While it’s unfair to expect the same emotionally heavy conclusion from subsequent games after Banner Saga 1, Banner Saga 2‘s doesn’t bear the same story-altering effect. It feels as if you’re merely going through the motions before the story calls it quits. Yes the situation is dire and it raises questions for the next game, but the emotional pull is just not there. You’re not going to find yourself suddenly weighing a million options just to pick the less painful choice. Considering everything that’s happening in the story, the final fight comes a little too suddenly with not enough stakes to keep you gripped.
But that’s why Banner Saga 3 exists: to answer questions and to tie loose ends. If Banner Saga 1’s job is to establish the story’s foundation, then Banner Saga 2 sets things in motion and keeps them moving. Banner Saga 2 is here to show us how things are progressing and how dire things are becoming. It acts as a thankless bridge that’s often ignored yet fundamentally necessary. It may not have the glitz and glamour of being a beginning or an end, but it’s the workhorse that keeps everything together. The game makes us pine for a resolution so much that it feels like the entire journey just zoomed through. Maybe it did, and that’s why it’s now time for Banner Saga 3 to wrap everything up.
Note: Versus Evil provided a copy for review purposes.