One of the greatest abilities of the tactical role-playing game genre is that it makes you care about more than just yourself. In adventure games it’s always just you against the world, it’s only game over when you die. Even in traditional RPGs like Final Fantasy or Chrono Trigger, you still only have a small handful of characters to manage and care for and an even smaller handful of enemies to ward off. Tactical RPGs usually see you managing nearly a dozen characters in battle, and often a few dozen more outside of battle. What happens, though, when a game bumps the number of people you care for outside of battle into the hundred or thousands? That game would be The Banner Saga 2.
The first Banner Saga was a huge success right out of the gate. When a handful of Bioware veterans brought their idea for a high-fantasy tactical RPG to Kickstarter, they asked for $100,000 and managed to raise over 7 times that amount. It was well deserved funding, too. The game launched to critical acclaim, blending the deep strategy of a tactical RPG with the party management and dynamic event systems of games like Oregon Trail, all wrapped up with a neat bow of gorgeous world design, iconic music and hard-hitting writing that struck a chord with fans of classic Bioware titles.
Thankfully for fans of the first game, this is a sequel that takes everything that worked, polishes it up, and sprinkles a little sugar on top for you to enjoy. Unfortunately, a lot of the stuff that didn’t work in the first game also stuck around as well, and you know what they say about polishing a turd. A lot of people felt that the battle animations in the first game, while well-animated, were far too slow and weighty. They sucked away any energy and excitement you could have about the combat, and those same slow visuals persist in the sequel. Characters also lack differentiating facial expressions during story scenes, making it a little awkward when a character is angry beyond belief in the text despite displaying a blank, thousand-yard stare in the artwork.
Relatively minor presentation quirks like these are, thankfully, the worst of my problems with The Banner Saga 2. As I said, it’s a game that knows what it does right and is ready to give you more of that. The artwork continues to impress, rendering a dark and suffering fantasy world in a betrayingly beautiful way, with an equally polished and jaw dropping soundtrack. It’s also an incredibly direct sequel, to the point that the first story chapter is numbered 8, building from the last chapter of the first game, which was 7. In true Bioware fashion, these games feature a wealth of choices throughout the narrative, and the choices you made in the first game ripple throughout the story of the second if you import your save file.
For new players, you’re given a vague recap of the first game and a choice from two protagonists that shapes the narrative of the sequel. With one choice, you’re a battle-hardened father, dealing with the death of your daughter as you continue to lead the remnants of civilization to a bastion city of safety, hoping to stay safe from the onslaught of dark creatures that have begun to take over the land. Alternatively, you can choose to be the daughter, a young adult who is still training to be a warrior and a leader, now forced to try and lead an army on her own when her father, the previous leader, dies in battle. It’s easy enough to get a grip on what’s unfolding for new players, but the recap you’re given feels as vague as a teaser trailer, so it might take some a bit to get a hang of the narrative.
Something else that certainly takes a bit to get a hang of is the gameplay. The Banner Saga 2 isn’t just a deep and rewarding tactical RPG, it’s also a party management game where choices big and small can affect the survival of dozens, hundreds, and even thousands. These two systems blend in an out of each other with ease, leading to a constant struggle for survival and victory that echoes the narrative struggle flawlessly.
In combat, a selection of party members take on enemies in a basic square grid. Character class and speed dictate the order in which individual characters take their turn, meaning that enemies can act before or after your own characters do. They all have an armor bar and a health bar, and a big part of battle strategy is figuring out which of the two is better to target at a given moment. The more armor a character has, the less health damage they take, but also the greater chance they have of outright dodging an attack. Bringing the health bar to zero is the only way to defeat an enemy, so there’s an element of risk and reward as you choose.
Character abilities are varied and destructive, and you can apply points of willpower to make abilities and attacks even stronger. A lot of thought goes into the combat, but it’s a slight shame that the game doesn’t let you alter and explore your actions during a character’s turn, meaning you’re stuck with your movement choices.
For returning players, everything here plays out the same as it did in the first game, but with a wealth of new enemy types that manage to keep veteran players on their toes. Old strategies and defense plans might not work anymore, so it’s important to learn and adapt in these new situations, no matter how many hours you spent on the first game.
Outside of combat, you’ll use the currency of renown to buy supplies and fuel for your overall army of survivors. You can also use renown to level up your characters and buy rare, powerful equipment, but if you prioritize these over food for the caravan, you might find moral starting to drop. Once you’re on the road, you’ll run into a bevy of random events that will test your leadership skills and critical decision making, and these choices can lead to great rewards, huge losses, and sudden battles. It’s an impactful gameplay loop that constantly keeps you engaged, both in and out of battle.
The Banner Saga 2 doesn’t try to reinvent the wheel, it just makes the wheel bigger and keeps on rolling. Even with minor stumbles in the form of slow combat animation and initially overwhelming combat mechanics, it’s a game that excels at what it aims to accomplish. Fans of the first game will love it, and entirely new players will come to love it. If you need a new tactical RPG in your life, make it The Banner Saga 2.
Version Tested: PC