A game sequel often tries to be bigger, better and longer than its predecessor. Sequels almost alway look to polish the previous game and make it into something stronger, often feeling worlds different to the first game. It’s a breath of fresh air, then, that despite not being an episodic game, The Banner Saga 2 just feels like loading up a save from the first game and continuing from where you left off.
Maybe because that’s literally what it does. Banner Saga 2 continues the story directly after the events of the first game, asking you to import your save file in classic Bioware fashion. After all, Stoic is made up of a trio of ex-Bioware devs, and their expertise shows. The story of the first game was rife with hard decisions and moral consequences, and those choices continue to ripple and weave through the campaign of the sequel. The Banner Saga 2 even goes so far as to number the first chapter of the game as chapter 8, continuing on from the first games chapter 7 climax.
For newcomers to the series, you’re also able to simply start a new game, pick from two protagonists, and have the narrative of the first game determined for you based on that choice. While the game offers a gripping and concise recap of the first game, it still feels a bit too vague, leaving you feeling like you hit the ground running as you’re immediately introduced to a number of characters and apparently significant events that you’d have no recollection of as a new player.
Thankfully, the game does not leave you as ill prepared for the gameplay as it does for the story. The games opening chapter takes you through a simple but effective set of tutorial battles and encounters, pointing out the various game systems and basic strategies you need to employ throughout the rest of the game.
When I said that The Banner Saga 2 just feels like more of the first game, I wasn’t being entirely truthful. The game adds a fair few new things to the frying pan to help spice things up and make veteran players feel like newbies again. New enemy types are quickly introduced and they serve to throw all your previous strategies out the window. One good example are the four-legged enemy types that tend to circle around the back of your party and make quick work of your ranged units hiding behind frontal defenses.
Outside of combat, there are also improvements that help smooth the experience while still keeping it familiar. Like the first game, traveling consists of an Oregon Trail-style resource management game where you run into random character events and interactions. Choices here can seamlessly send you into or out of combat, and it makes the experience feel a lot more natural and visceral.
In one example, my group was sailing down a river until we came across a blockage caused by piled up trees. I had the choice to attempt to barge through, stop the boats to let my axemen take care of the blockage, or move around the trees and carry the boats via land. I chose to have our strongest members chop at the trees while we stopped and rested, but in the middle of this break, we got ambushed by enemies and my party was thrown into battle to defend the axemen.
We were victorious, but as soon as the trees were done being chopped away, more enemies showed up. I could either have everyone rush onboard and risk casualties, or have my party continue to fight in their current state to buy everyone else time to board. I chose to hunker down and hold off the enemies, and even though it was a tough fight with a few injured characters, we won in the end and got back to sailing.
Tough, nail-biting decisions and combat encounters like these are what make The Banner Saga special. However, there are a few hiccups here and there that make it feel less special. Much like the first game, character animations in combat are very slow and stilted. While the animation is smooth, they lack flash or punch, and character animations can end up looking weak and artificial as a result.
In cutscenes, not only do character facial expressions not change, there is also no voice acting save for a handful of special scenes. Having neither of these systems present makes it harder to engage with the story, no matter how many times the game tries to help by telling me that a character smiled instead of showing me.
All in all, though, it will easy to get over these visual missteps and have a good time with the game. Whether you’re a veteran fan or a first time player, you’ll find engaging gameplay both familiar and alien to you, no matter how much experience you think you may have with tactical RPGs.