The Banner Saga, as well as being subject to one of the most ridiculous lawsuits in history, was a smash hit indie debut from the veteran game makers at Stoic. Fondly remembered for its breathtaking visual style, stirring musical score and surprisingly deep storyline, The Banner Saga also surprised many gamers with its compelling take on strategic turn-based combat.
Now, full disclosure, The Banner Saga is also one of my favorite games of all time (what can I say? I love me some Vikings) so while noone was suprised a sequel was in the works, I was unbelievably psyched to get my hands on a preview consisting of a handful of new, compelling chapters that I get to share with y’all right now.
Now, obviously with this being a sequel I can’t talk much about the storyline of the original without veering into spoiler territory so suffice to say for those that have played The Banner Saga things pick up pretty much exactly where they were left off and yes you can load your save, and the decisions you made, from a previous game into this one. For new players this may present a bit of a stumbling block to entry as both the world and the characters of The Banner Saga are pretty much introduced as is and much of their development deals with repercussions of the first game. A handy cut scene is on hand to summarise the main events of the original for those who are starting new (or those of us whose memories aren’t what they were) but really the best way to get into the new game is to go back and finish the old (75% off on steam, for the love of Odin, do it now!).
If you do, or if you just jump in, you’ll be greeted by a bleak Norse-infused fantasy world where the Gods have died, the sun no longer sets and (for all intents and purposes) the apocalypse has already occured except, people have just adapted to it. The two main races in the world, humans and the horned giants known as Varl, were enjoying a extended period of peace (albeit a little more doom-laden then they may have hoped) when suddenly the Dredge, an ancient race of enemies seemingly made from living stone, reappeared and started to slaughter everyone they could in an unstoppable horde of destruction.
Your main task, and the centrepiece of the game, is to lead a caravan of people (both Varl and Human) away from the Dredge and to the hoped-for Safety of Abberang, the humans capital city. Along the way you are faced with tough choices and dilemmas that can either strengthen your caravan or, more often, cause it some kind of harm. Unlike many games there isn’t a ‘best choice’ in many situations that will result in rainbows and happiness. No, this is a game that takes the often grim aspects of Viking mythology to heart and will hammer into you that there is no victory without sacrifice. Not that all your dangers are external either; each day of travel consumes supplies and if you run out people will begin to starve and die, losing you both bodies and morale which you may need in later battles. Unfortunately the resources to purchase supplies (when you do find a merchant) are the same ones that upgrade your heroes ready for the next battle. It’s another balancing act of least-bad options.
At least in TBS2 you get a little help in this last department. Clansmen (basic civilians) now will forage for supplies to help restock your larders while on the move, allowing you a little bit of breathing room in between set pieces or battles. This is a welcome addition as previously they were mostly a drain on resources as only Varl and Fighters (your other human type) could help you out in war and battle events. I always tried to keep as many of them alive as I could out of principal, but I know alot of players who did not take that route as there was no incentive to do so.
Still, when the yox droppings hit the fan you are going to want those fighters around. While tactical combat is the other pinnacle of The Banner Saga games it’s just as unforgiving as the caravan itself. To make things easier you can use your fighters or Varl to deploy and help you out before the tactical fights start, though again each choice here could spell the deaths for many of your followers.
Once that’s done and you’re in the battle things will feel familiar to any TBS veteran. There is a grid-based map on which you deploy your heroes and which will have enemies and terrain like obstacles dotted throughout. The careful positioning and movement of characters is key to winning and, unlike many games, there is no healing or resurrecting units who fall unconscious so every move and swing really does matter. It’s a simple system to understand, but an incredibly complex one to master. It’s also, as far as I was able to tell, exactly the same as the original. It’s a little disappointing to see no real innovations in this department with the new game. Admittedly you do get a new race of characters in the form of the Centaur-like Horseborn but this seems more like expansion back stuff then sequel.
Still, The Banner Saga 2 retains the originals ability to enthrall with its storyline and the haunting beauty of its artwork. The scene pictured above, where you must lead your people over a immense crack in the earth itself, is easily one of the most memorable I’ve experienced in recent years and instantly reminded me of everything I loved about the original. On the strength of that alone I want to recommend picking up this game as soon as it’s released but while that’s an easy statement to make for long-time fans of the franchise I do worry that the continuous flow from the original and unchanged gameplay may put off some players, old and new alike, from picking this up full price. In some ways it does feel more like an Episode 2 rather then a full sequel.
I’ll reserve final judgement until the full game hits in a couple of weeks but suffice to say for now I am pumped to see more and if, like me, you are a fan of the original I can only say that this sequel definitely does not disappoint.
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