As a strategy game, 2014's The Banner Saga was a tremendous disappointment. Its combat rarely required players to use genuine strategy to win, as the limited nature of its grid-based movement system boiled most fights down to simply going toe-to-toe with the enemy until you just so happened to be the last one left standing. Though combat actually represented a fairly small amount of the title's total gameplay, its role in the story's most crucial moment was hindered by the overall weakness of the system.
However, as a narrative and visual fueled entry into indie gaming, The Banner Saga was a triumph. It's Game of Thrones-esque story about warring tribes having to make difficult decisions while the threat of a mysterious hostile force looms above them all proved to be one of the most emotionally gripping gaming stories to come along in years. Of course, the true highlight of The Banner Saga remained those gorgeous Ralph Bakshi style visuals that helped the game become such a major hit on the crowd funding scene.
Now The Banner Saga 2 is finally upon us and with it comes developer Stoic's chance to deliver something truly special by fixing the shortcomings of the original title. It is an opportunity that they did not let slip by them.
Right from the start, it is clear that The Banner Saga 2's development was centered around improving the combat from the first game. While the basic combat system remains the roughly the same as the original, the sequel manages to completely dwarf its predecessor in terms of quality through the implementation of a greater variety of combat units. Both you and your enemies will have access to a far greater variety of units this time around, and they go a long way to adding some of the depth that was missing from the first game.
For example, you may have a "tracker" unit in your combat party that is capable of entering a stealth mode and emerging to unleash a devastating attack. However, this ability can be used very rarely and deprives the unit of attacking normally during that time. On the other side of things, your foes may have a poisonous character in their party whose attack abilities force you actually plan the order in which you engage the rest of the enemies. These implementations may not sound like anything groundbreaking, but they do just enough to enhance the overall combat experience by making every major battle feel different than the one that came before.
So far as those stunning graphics go, I'm happy to report that The Banner Saga 2 is even more beautiful than the original title by the simple virtue of providing the player with more to look at than the first game did. There is still no other game on the market that looks quite like this one and, even if there was, it's doubtful that anyone would be able to derive as much personality from their art as effortlessly as Stoic does here.
Where The Banner Saga 2 falls short of the original title is in the storytelling. While this game's overall narrative is a well-written continuation of the first game, there are many moments where it tries to shoehorn in choice-based forks in the road and fails in doing so. Though you're constantly having to make choices in this game regarding matters such as proper rationing for your troops, The Banner Saga 2 rarely presents these choices in a way that makes you feel like you're really changing the course of the game. The results of many of your decisions are too chaotic in their randomness, and there are precious few story decisions that you will make that actually have a significant impact on what's to come later on.
That's truly a shame, because the war-torn, on the run atmosphere this game creates should be the perfection breeding ground for a variety of morally ambiguous situations that ask the player to really question their moral values. This feeling that your journey will play out largely the same way regardless of what happens only manages to cheapen the tremendous effort that went into conveying this fascinating world and its people.
Such as it is, then, The Banner Saga 2 finds itself in the awkward position of making one step forward in the combat and one step back in the storytelling. Taken as a stunningly gorgeous and epic version of The Oregon Trail, this sequel manages to retain the overall sense of quality that made the first game easy to recommend despite its shortcomings. Still, as a game that feels as if it is indeed striving to become something much more than that The Banner Saga 2 is much like its traveling band of heroes in that it has miles to go before reaching its destination.
Still one of the best-looking indie games available
Combat is far greater than the original
Filled with interesting characters
Choices lack the proper impact on the overall story
Follows the structure of the first game a bit too closely