Platform: PC, Mac, Linux
Release Date: 11 March 2015 (Early Access)
Developer: kChamp Games
The Banner Saga, released by Stoic way back in the dark depths of January 2014, was a delightful turn based combat game. Set in a fantasy world, it was based at least partially on Norse mythology, and filled with beautiful scenes. With a myriad of very memorable, and painfully mortal characters, you led your band of warriors, clansmen and eventually refugees to escape the enemy hordes pouring out of the far north.
Three races populated the world of the first game: the mortal but numerous humans (much as you would expect, they have driven the other races out of their lands); the ancient and proud Varl, a race of giant horned humanoids who can no longer reproduce and are slowly watching their numbers dwindle; and, finally, the Dredge, a species of which little is known, living in the far north of the world after being forced to flee there after losing two great wars to the Varl and humans.
Whilst much of the game was built around your caravan, watching the supplies and morale of your followers slowly dwindle until starvation and despair eventually set in, the game was also punctuated by brutal fights, set on a square grid. But the producers were apparently informed that these weren’t quite memorable enough, and that losing your beloved heroes was not yet painful enough, so now they’ve released the second part of the planned trilogy to ensure that they leave a few more players crying as their favourite character drops to the ground, dead.
The Banner Saga 2 isn’t going to win the prize for Most Inventively Named Game of 2016 (although it’s not doing any worse than a lot of triple-A titles: take Total War: Warhammer or Uncharted 4). It remains just as beautiful as its predecessor, and the characters remain just as memorable, and apparently even more mortal.
The developers have also clearly built on the failings of the previous game as well; with a greater variety of enemies, varying from ranged slingers capable of throwing exploding icy rocks to stealthy skulkers, the roster of foes who are culling your characters has been admirably expanded. The battle maps are more interesting as well, with new obstacles and barricades being added, as well as new varieties of character such as the Wanderer, who insults enemies, forcing them to miss their turn in the combat system, allowing you to tactically deny the most powerful enemies a chance to carve up your heroes. As well, a new race has been added: the aptly named Horseborn. Made up of centaur-like creatures, they provide further tactical options in the gameplay, as well as at times a tactical challenge when you find them as your foes.
Sadly, I suspect for many players that there will be feelings that the caravan aspect of the game is all but defunct, and that they can allow their followers to starve with relative impunity. Whilst it’s true that the mechanics governing the caravan fail to impact enough on the combat gameplay, at times the number of clansmen you have left alive, or the morale of your caravan can drastically effect the chances of your heroes surviving a scuffle with the Dredge, or any other group who have had the misfortune to wander into your path.
With the improvements made to the combat, The Banner Saga 2 has managed to overcome the issues of the first game. It particularly shines if the player chooses to role-play at least a little, and try to ensure the survival of their assorted followers and heroes. You could perhaps criticize it for this, but if the player decides to engage with the game and allow it to be played to its full potential, they will have a much more enjoyable experience. This is especially true when taking into account that your caravan includes what you can safely assume to be the last remaining Varl, so to any player willing to engage with the lore, protecting your caravan becomes a battle against extinction.
During the caravan scenes between battles, you are confronted repeatedly with events, and must respond to them. If you respond well, you may gain benefits; respond poorly, or misjudge a situation and watch your numbers dwindle. The picturesque scenes and choices during the caravan scenes simultaneously provide a relaxing and highly stressful environment as you stare lovingly at the beautiful snowstorm that just killed hundreds of innocent clansmen, or make the panicked decision to sacrifice the rear of your caravan by dropping a bridge into a great chasm to save the rest.
Overall, Stoic has managed to produce a beautiful game, and one that has compelled me to play for hours on end at a time when I should probably be revising. Much like the Mass Effect trilogy, the player will develop a real attachment to their characters, and much like the Mass Effect trilogy it’s a kick to the gut every time a character dies. Despite the heartache of dying characters in a dying world, I would highly recommend The Banner Saga 2, and would give it 5 stars out of 5.