When remembering the games we cherish the most, we are reminded of great moments in those games. Not necessarily the biggest boss fights, kill streaks, or action sequences, but rather times where you can just take a minute and appreciate the world presented to you. The best games usually intersperse such moments throughout the experience, though few present them quite in the same way that The Banner Saga 2 does.
A sequel to the famous Kickstarter success The Banner Saga, BS 2 manages to actually compartmentalize such breathtaking moments, which mainly serve to soften the blow of one of the darker and more hopeless storylines in modern gaming. They are pretty much the video game equivalent of a glass of ice cold water after a five mile run on a 90-degree day.
The latest release from indie developer Stoic, whose gameplay can be best described as a cross between Fire Emblem and The Oregon Trail, follows two groups of travelers in a pseudo-Nordic universe currently in the midst of a war with a group of warlike robo-orcs known as the Dredge. In typical proto-medieval fantasy fashion, the clans you control are mostly trying to escape these hordes of villains while simultaneous navigating inter- and intra-human war politics. What ensues is a storyline as grim and gritty as the average Game of Thrones season.
The Banner Saga 2 is technically a tactical role-playing game much like Fire Emblem or Tactics Ogre, where each fighter you select for battle has their own strengths, abilities, weaknesses, and storyline, though most of the gameplay follows an Oregon Trail-type structure, where you travel with your clan in an attempt to save everyone from certain death, only for a grim demise to fall upon many members of your party regardless of what decisions you make. Members of your party may die in battle, commit mutiny, abandon you, grow sick and hungry, or just flat out get lost in the shuffle. The Banner Saga 2 often puts the player in a position to make immensely significant decisions at a moment’s notice and craftily conceals the consequences of each choice. You could decide to let lonely stragglers come on to your party and risk losing supplies faster, or deny them and not have enough soldiers or clansmen for your next battle. Each decision matters, but not in the way that there is a “right” or “wrong” way to play the game. At the end of the day, surviving battle sequences and trudging forward are the only things you need to focus on. Everything else comes down to adding more color to an already scintillating plot.
In between fighting the Dredge (as well as other humans who don’t trust you) and seeking ways to keep up morale, your party will encounter what are known as “godstones,” or rather large manmade or naturally-occurring structures that hold significance and relevance in game’s lore. These are where some of the most emotional sequences of the game occur; each godstone has its own backstory, and often such backstories contextualize the game’s events or simply provide a respite from misery.
These are the manufactured, compartmentalized moments I was talking about earlier; they are parts of the game where you just sit and bask in the beauty or glory of an enormous statue or cave drawing without paying much mind to why you had to pass by it in the first place. Much like the bits of beauty and immersion you’ll find in other games, the godstones completely separate the player from the action and the politics. They remove you from the war and the bickering to provide you insight into the actual world. What’s special is that, in The Banner Saga 2, you can’t roam around and explore anything; nearly every movement is automatic, giving the godstones more gravitas than the average vista or cutscene.
The godstone sequences are the only way the player can experience the universe of The Banner Saga, and while that may seem like a cheap way of creating moments that wouldn’t otherwise exist, the juxtaposition of action and peace works rather nicely. The RPG elements of The Banner Saga 2 can be fairly complex, causing the player to constantly plan their next move with extreme caution. You have the option of going a more warlike path and kill everything in your way, or you might prefer to negotiate your way through hostile circumstances. You’ll also have to make sure there are enough clansman and soldiers to perform various tasks, and you have to make sure that morale (an actual stat in this game) is as high as possible. Meanwhile, all your fighters require leveling up if you want to have any chance of survival, and the currency used to level up your heroes (known as “renown”) is the same you would use to purchase items and supplies. Having short sighs of relief in the form of godstones breaks up the action and the stress of what is an otherwise mentally exhausting adventure.
The Banner Saga 2 is not without its flaws. The battle system, while normally fun and entertaining, can suffer from lag issues and frame rate bugs. Some of the RPG elements are so complex that they can be daunting, yet you can coast through most parts of the game without upgrading the majority of your fighters or using items, thus making such RPG elements mostly unnecessary. The transition sequences, which make up the majority of the game, are scenic and beautiful yet occasionally dull, and it’s never quite clear when or how your decisions affect latter parts of the game.
Despite its flaws, however, The Banner Saga 2 manages to perfectly intersect story and combat in ways that RPGs don’t always do so well. In certain combat scenarios, losing does not require a retry, but rather leads to a different narrative outcome. In other cases, victory is reached through the demise of just one of many enemy combatants or through buying time until another story-based event occurs. The integration is not always seamless, though, as one’s video game instincts often supersede the game’s directions. Still, the structure of BS 2 injects significance into every action of the game, not just the cutscenes (which thankfully don’t occur that frequently).
The stellar mixture of narrative and gameplay makes the godstone events so fantastical. Since every moment in The Banner Saga 2 teems with importance, a break to idolize a heavenly, beautiful structure helps the player understand that not everything in this world is bleak and miserable; there is beauty to be found if you’re looking for it. The fascination of such structures by the game’s characters adds an additional layer of immersion; it gleefully humanizes them while the remainder of the game often exposes their darkest and most destructive qualities.
STORY: The Banner Saga 2’s plot is depressing, dark, and often hopeless, yet the brilliantly-written character interactions, godstone sequences, and small moral victories motivate the player to faithfully persevere through every single battle and transition sequences. The story is engaging, deep, and full of surprises.
GAMEPLAY: The turn-based combat is mostly smooth and fairly simple to figure out, though there are a litany of spells and abilities that are rarely useful. Beyond that, every battle sequence is an exercise in patience and skill-mastering, and the movement sequences are full of exciting moments. The biggest gripe I have with the gameplay is the inclusion of numerous abilities and features that don’t seem to add to the experience at all yet loom over the player as if they are essential to the full enjoyment of the game.
PRESENTATION: The Banner Saga 2 features a classic 2D cartoon art style that includes mostly still images of characters in conversation and very detailed movements in battle. The graphics, however, suffer from several frame rate and lag issues that often interrupt the pace of the game. On the sound side, the music and sound effects are splendid, though the score is often defined by the banging of war drums and monotone chanting, which can get old quickly.
REPLAYABILITY: The game ends abruptly and has no side quests, so any replayability will have to come from either attempting the campaign again on a greater difficulty (for what it’s worth, you can adjust the difficulty at any time) or trying to navigate the story through different decisions. In other words, unless you’re looking for multiple play-throughs, once you’re done, you’re done.
IN CONCLUSION: While The Banner Saga 2 fails at the margins, it succeeds in concept and execution, at least as far as the big picture is concerned. The story is riveting and layered, the combat is enthralling and easy to figure out, and the length of the game is perfectly appropriate (about 11-12 hours). The issues with The Banner Saga 2 are more related to minor design flaws, but those flaws do get in the way of the action at times. That said, The Banner Saga 2 is easily the best turn-based RPG I’ve played this year and already a Game of the Year candidate for me.