It’s impossible to ease into “The Banner Saga 2.”
My return trip to the Viking-inspired universe was probably the most jarring I’ve experienced in 20 years of gaming. I was struck – as I was the first time around – by the unfathomably beautiful world and music, but the sequel wasted no time in bringing my soaring head out of the clouds. Remember Rory, it seemed to say, you’re in the middle of a frozen war zone.
Your people are dying.
I’ve waited for the sequel to the best game of 2014 for more than two years. The first installment was monumental. It was a perfect melding of developers with years of big-budget experience looking to spread their Indie wings, an artist looking to shake up the gaming landscape and the best composer in the business. I figured this success would be reinvested into the sequel, so the two-year wait was similar to that I feel while waiting for a new “Star Wars” film.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The story is a pretty standard fantasy tale. A cobbled-together party of humans and giant-like Varl is struggling to survive against hordes of dark foes called Dredge. These creatures appear to be fleeing from an even more dangerous, unseen foe. Players must make dozens of important logistical decisions and fight still more decisive battles in order to ensure the survival of both races – human and Varl.
“The Banner Saga” franchise’s visuals were heavily influenced by Eyvind Earle’s art for the 1959 Disney film “Sleeping Beauty.”
The second chapter doesn’t quite deliver the dramatic punch of the original. I doubt that was even possible, as the final hour of its predecessor was one of the finest sequences in recent memory. However, developer Stoic made up for this by beefing up the combat system and improving on an already-stout character roster.
For much of the first title, I felt like the combat was primarily a means to an end. I enjoyed the relaxed, turn-based grid warfare, but most of the battles were little more than a way to get back to the juicy story and important decisions truly driving the game.
That’s still the case, but new classes and training options shake it up a little. Virtually every character in “The Banner Saga” was either a melee fighter or an archer, whereas “The Banner Saga 2” includes a few new support characters that give players more tactical option when handling the increasingly difficult battles.
These new characters hold their own in a cast of remarkably lifelike creatures. Most of “The Banner Saga” is not traditionally animated. With few exceptions, stationary panels with dialogue – exactly like what you’d see in a comic book – tell the story. Because the writing is so good, these 2-D characters are lively and unique despite this old-school approach.
The game’s new training system allows the previous roster of ax-or-bow characters to learn new abilities that make each individual stick out a bit more.
It also allows players to train their villagers into fighters, which adds strategical value to two previously meaningless numbers. Your party always had a certain number of clansmen and fighters. I always knew I wanted to keep as many of both alive as possible, but now I know that the clansmen are the villagers who forage for supplies to feed your party. The fighters battle dredge while your party – essentially the officer corps – fights the main battle.
The combat in “The Banner Saga 2” is quite similar to “Final Fantasy Tactics,” in which the player and opposing computer take turns maneuvering fighters on a grid until only one side is left standing.
If you train too many fighters, you won’t be able to feed your people. If you train too few, you won’t be able to keep them safe. Allowing us to control this adds yet another tactical element to a game already bursting with strategy elements.
I was a little disappointed that the game didn’t lean more on Austin Wintory, the composer of the only video game score ever nominated for a Grammy. He is to gaming as John Williams is to film.
The first title featured several long, mesmerizing sequences in which Wintory’s score and artist Arnie Jorgensen’s hand-painted scenes took center stage, basically transforming chunks of the game into animated shorts. It was such an unusual and powerful tool for a game – one that the sequel didn’t quite use to its full potential.
Wintory and Jorgensen are still major team members, but they aren’t given quite as many chances to shine individually or as a duo.
The gap between games also hurt “The Banner Saga 2.” Stoic gave us a recap of the first title’s key events, but it took several hours to really get back into the swing of things. I loved the first one and was excited for the follow-up, but a two-year wait cooled my excitement and lessened the impact of returning to “The Banner Saga” after its emotional climax.
These minor flaws do little to damage the nearly perfect gem that is “The Banner Saga 2,” though. It showed a marked improvement in a number of areas, and it served as a sturdy bridge between the planned trilogy’s opening and what will almost certainly be the thrilling climax to one of the most creative franchises in gaming.
The Banner Saga 2
Video Game Review
▪ Rated Teen for violence, blood, mild language and alcohol use
▪ Developer: Stoic
▪ Publisher: Versus Evil
▪ Out now for the PC, with console versions planned for later in 2016