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The Banner Saga 2 is intense and unrelenting in its mission to make you feel like the worst leader alive.
The game opens amidst the aftermath of a massive battle from the first game — The Banner Saga 2 literally begins at Chapter 8 and goes from there. In this game filled with fantastical creatures, there’s an apocalypse coming. People are dead, lives are upended and you have to move forward into the story without any time to catch your breath.
Throughout the next 10 hours, as you lead a caravan of refugees to what is thought to be the last safe place in a world being swallowed by a Darkness, Banner Saga 2 weighed down on me more and more. And somehow, I welcomed it. As you negotiate through conflicts, a small slip of the tongue can result in the deaths of dozens, or even launch you into a battle that you can’t win.
For the uninitiated, Banner Saga 2 is a tactical, turn-based strategy game that features the end of a Viking-inspired world. The characters, a mixture of humans, Varl (giants) and, later in the game, centaur-like horseborn, are seeking Aberrang, the last safe haven from the oncoming "Darkness." As your caravan treads through the apocalyptic wasteland that was once your home, you face threats outside your understanding and within your own ranks.
Stoic has created a large, oppressive world
Banner Saga 2 revels in its foreboding atmosphere. Developer Stoic has created a large, oppressive world, where friends and enemies alike face the end of all things. The Dredge — the rocky, seemingly mindless foes that you commonly battle against — are also on the run from this Darkness and are just as desperate as you are. As you travel and shed members of your caravan, the situation becomes even more desperate. As I was racing to stop a Dredge sundr from bringing back the dead, it truly felt like the end of the world.
This is reflected in The Banner Saga 2's art direction. Your small clans and groups chug through large, abandoned and torn-up landscapes. Villages are empty and covered in smoke. The ground is rocky and broken, but elements are able to make it seem less dreary. One sequence that brings your caravan into the mines is dark and cramped, but the little bits of light that shine in through the cracks in the rock wall are placed exactly to illuminate your little group hustling.
Sometimes, however, the amount of detail in the environment gets in the way of the important aspects of a scene. A loose branch on a tree can obscure half of a battlefield. Natural obstacles in the path of characters can block out some of your smaller players, which becomes a bigger problem when you have giant Varl in your party that can block out part of the battlefield with its bulk. The darkness of the Dredge — figures almost entirely clothed in black — also can mess things up when they fade into objects or other characters.
However, it’s easy to forget little annoyances that appear in battle when everything else works to the game’s aesthetic advantage. When you come across any of the large, intricate Godstones depicting ancient legends line your path, and as the poet Aleo relates the world’s mythology, it introduces needed bits of hope, as well as a needed break in the action. After coming out of a tough battle and sitting at the base of one of these statues, it’s relieving as you gain bonuses from just being in its presence.
battles are a welcome distraction from environmental annoyances
The battles themselves are also a welcome distraction from environmental annoyances. They’re complex and vary in each situation, which helped to keep me on my toes. The Dredge have multiple types, which makes for puzzle-like battles that forced me to devise new parties and strategies with each fight. I needed to create variety in my party, place them appropriately on the battlefield and in turn order, and make sure that I could account for any surprise mechanics. I often employed a couple Varl, an archer, a raider, and some kind of support, but this could change. When the horseborn were introduced halfway through the game, I began to utilize their unique skills, whether it was long-distance attacks or their ability to run away following a melee.
It forced me to live with drastic and usually negative consequences
There are many new characters to take advantage of, such as Aleo and the horseborn,, but many have been following you since the original Banner Saga. Depending on the choices you made in the first game (or if you played the first game at all), the stories can be vastly different. You can start the game as Rook, a seasoned hunter, or Alette, Rook’s daughter.
I didn’t play much of the first game and I think my experience suffered for it. Explanations of its turn-based combat system and the characters are ample enough in Banner Saga 2 that I felt less lost, but there was always a slight sense of something missing. Many characters, especially ones that were introduced earlier, don’t get enough screen time to validate some of their actions. I’m not sure if this is due to paths and side stories I may have missed, but some arcs come out of nowhere — including one moment where I was surprised by professions of love from a party member who I didn’t interact with at all.
Despite a reliance on the first game that often left me somewhat disoriented, The Banner Saga 2's narrative drew me in and never really let up. Alette must learn to lead in the immediate aftermath of her father’s death, but those responsibilities present a harsh truth: you can't please everyone. While I hoped the choices I made as I progressed would strengthen my characters, I struggled with forces beyond my characters’ understanding, and with problems I was powerless to fix. The lack of manual save points — which I use a lot in choice-making games to see all options — drives this point home. It forced me to live with drastic and usually negative consequences, and even the final moments of The Banner Saga 2 felt a bit like a sucker punch.
Those uninitiated with the series, like me, can’t be fully prepared for what’s to come during the next 10 hours. Even once the realization that it was all going to end poorly dawned on me, I couldn’t accept it. When I was given the choice to talk to the Ravens as Bolverk about a looming death, I couldn’t bring myself to stay in character as the gruff, insensitive varl. I wanted to tell everyone that it was going to be okay.
The Banner Saga 2 is a well-crafted, gut-wrenching tale
The Banner Saga 2 is familiar enough for those into fantasy, but Stoic manages to craft a complex narrative within those genre conventions. The combat sequences are elaborate enough to provide a sense of depth and reward that tricked me into having fun, but even battles won or choices that seem smart can't prevent things from ending horribly. Even though I tried to parse together the emotions I felt about the gameplay or the art design, I couldn’t get past the despair I felt when the credits began to roll.
I didn’t like this feeling at all — in fact, I felt terrible — but I can’t deny that the game provides powerful storytelling for an emotionally rich experience that’s rare to find in any medium. The combination of gameplay, character building, strategy, and narrative highlights the power games have in telling stories, and that experience is uniquely Banner Saga — even if I have to wait until the third installment to see if anything pays off.
The Banner Saga 2 was reviewed using a Steam code provided by Stoic. You can find additional information about Polygon's ethics policy here.About Polygon's Reviews