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Game review: The Banner Saga 2 is grim but beautiful

One of the best-looking strategy games of recent years returns with more brutal battles and Game Of Thrones style decision-making.

Although it’s still not commonplace the idea of episodic content is now reasonably well established within the video games world. A season of five or six episodes comes out every two months or so, and all but the finale ends in a cliffhanger. But just as with movies, it’s rare for standalone games to treat their sequels as merely one chapter in a tightly woven story. That’s the approach The Banner Saga goes for though, and that makes it simultaneously a very daring and very predictable follow-up.

The problems with making a series of games in this way are obvious before you start: the more sequels there are the less accessible they become to new players. That, and treating each new game as merely a new episode in a larger story tends to discourage gameplay innovation. The Banner Saga 2 falls into both traps, although the core concept is entertaining enough that the approach still works.

The Banner Saga is the work of a team of ex-BioWare developers called Stoic, and although you’d never guess their origins from the gameplay the style of narrative is immediately familiar. The tone is more melancholic than most BioWare games though, and takes place in a semi-fantastical version of Scandinavia where the land has been cast into a perpetual twilight.

Although there are many sub-factions ordinary humans mix with horned giants called Varl, as they flee from golem-like monsters called the Dredge. In the sequel there’s also a new race of centaurs to contend with, but your primary concern is still protecting your caravan of refugees. In many cases despite the needs of others you meet along the way, and what seems to be the greater good.

The first game was only released on consoles in January but first appeared on PC two years ago, so despite what it may seem this follow-up is long overdue as far as fans are concerned. As before, the game is a mix of story-based and strategic decision-making, married with a turn-based tactical battle system not dissimilar to Final Fantasy Tactics et al.

The story continues on straight from the last game, even going as far as to label its start as chapter eight. The basic plot is approachable enough that, unlike a true episodic game, you don’t need to have played the first one to understand what’s going on. But much like watching The Empire Strikes Back or The Two Towers without having seen their predecessors a lot of the context and resonance is lost. Not to mention the impact of your decisions in the previous game.

Moral decision-making has become commonplace in video games today, in large part thanks to BioWare, but The Banner Saga feels very different to any of its peers. The best you can ever hope for is a least worst decision, and even then good intentions often end up having the opposite effect and the full impact of your choices is not felt for a long time; including, as this sequel makes clear, into the next game.

As well as more personal decision, taken in the style of a Telltale style adventure, you also have to make practical calls about collecting and distributing resources. This includes assigning characters to gather food and fuel (thereby taking them out of the active roster for combat) and ensuring that their willpower rating, which becomes an important factor in battle, doesn’t drop too low.

As well as importing your decisions from the last game The Banner Saga 2 also allows you to continue with your variously upgraded characters. Although here at least there is no great disadvantage for new players starting afresh. But what may be the most disappointing aspect of this sequel is that the combat is largely unchanged, which is a shame because its lack of variety, in terms of units and environments, was already one of the main issues with the first game.

Moving around on an isometric grid is reminiscent of everything from Disgaea to XCOM, although one of the main differences is that each combatant has a separate rating for strength and armour, the former determining not only how much damage they can do but also acting as their health points. This means the more injured a character is the less effective they are at fighting, which is not only more realistic but creates an interesting tactical dilemma when deciding where to focus your attacks and when to finish someone off. Especially considering every character is subject to permadeath.

The aforementioned willpower can boost attack power, increase movement range, and access various special abilities but all that is exactly how it worked in the first game. The centaur race does shake things up to a degree, with a powerful kick than can injure multiple units at once, and there there’s also a new poet class – which, as you might imagine, isn’t much for your axe-wielding battle frenzies but can boost the willpower of allies.

There’s a new emphasis on stealth for some fighters and more varied objectives than just kill everyone. But apart from infrequently seen destructible obstacles that’s really it for new features.

The sequel is just as good a game as the first but it moves almost nothing forward except the story, which is a shame as there was plenty of room for improvement. The presentation was close to perfection though, with beautiful hand-drawn artwork reminiscent of early era Disney and a haunting soundtrack. Although it’s a shame that the voice-acting is still intermittent and that the camera angle remains so inflexible during battles.

The Banner Saga 2 is a difficult game to recommend simply because we’d advise starting with the original. If you have played that and enjoyed it then don’t look for more than minor improvements in the sequel, although the experience is still intriguing enough that if The Banner Saga 3 also turns out to be just more of the same we still won’t be complaining that much.

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