I’ve been wanting to write another game review recently. The Banner Saga is one of my all-time favorites, both in story and in gameplay. The designers who created the first game, Stoic Studios, have at long last put out a sequel, the Banner Saga 2! I pre-ordered it, and then kind of did a marathon run the week that it came out. After waiting two years, it’s kind of hard to eat your dessert in small bites. Now I’m doing a second play-through with my fiancee (we play hot-seat), and my thoughts on the sequels pros and cons are coalescing a little better. My review is going to focus primarily on the story, but I’ll cover the gameplay a bit too.
First off, there are going to be some big *SPOILERS* for those who haven’t played the first entry in the series.
The first chapter of the Banner Saga ends with a climactic battle, and the tragic death of one of two central characters. That character then becomes the leader of the first game’s caravan in TBS2. This makes at least two playthroughs kind of mandatory, because your choice of protagonist makes for a very different experience each time. So, you have Rook’s story, and Alette’s. With old man Rook, the story is more about the grieving process, and trying to find other reasons to go on with your journey. You get to deepen your relationship with other characters like Iver and Oddleif, and continue to be a leader (and renowned hero) in the eyes of your caravan. *MORE SPOILERS* My favorite moments of Rook’s story (in highlight-able text): the dream conversation in the forest, saying goodbye to Iver in Fiskivik, the Godstone Lauga (finally!!!).
So if Rook’s story is about being a hero trying to find his way after losing the reason to fight, Alette’s is about becoming that hero, and filling in her father’s shoes. A lot of the characters who are present for Rook function as either emotional support, or backstabbing enemies who can’t be trusted. These characters maintain that role for Alette, but also play the part of guides and teachers. It’s up to you, as Alette, to choose who you’ll listen to and allow to influence your journey. I still haven’t finished Alette’s story, but if the young heroes’ tale is more your kind of thing, then I would recommend choosing her as your first main character.
The third protagonist (although in any game he would be the second) is an interesting new character who was introduced at the very end of the last game, Bolverk. This broken-horned Varl berserker is the leader of the Ravens, an amoral, hard-bitten pack of mercenaries who serve the highest bidder. The Ravens represent their own caravan separate from the main one, that split to follow a different route early in the game. Bolverk’s chapters feel very different, since you’re a cutthroat mercenary and you have to keep your warriors in line. Your choices tend to be much more morally gray, and sometimes downright despicable. But there are things that Bolverk cares about, and as I came to understand those things, I felt more of a connection with him and his Ravens. He values keeping his promises, maintaining the reputation of his band, and he cares about his men (although he would never reveal that to them).
Most compelling of all for me was the complicated relationship with his second-in-command, Folka. She is an all-around great character for so many reasons. First, she’s a shieldmaiden, and that’s badass. Second, she provides the moral and human element to Bolverk’s story, which would otherwise be kind of bleak and hard to empathize with. She’s the one who questions your orders and decisions, she’s the one who keeps asking you about your feelings (faen humans), and when things start to change for Bolverk later in the game, she’s the one who worries about you when no-one else does. And in spite of all that tenderness and vulnerability, she’s still an incredibly competent warrior and leader, who never flinches or hesitates when things are tough. It’s beautiful to me because Bolverk is kind of a monster in some ways (and for the record, he is not actually human), yet she clearly cares about him. She sees the person inside the beast that he usually presents to the world, and recognizes his pain and loneliness. She herself is no stranger to those things, so he’s kind of like her perfect soulmate. Except that he’s from an all-male race of brooding giants who don’t understand relationships and can’t reproduce, so… there’s that.
This is clearly a story where the greatest strength is in the characters, but I loved the twists and turns of the ongoing plot, which concerns the end of the world, the dangers of magic, and a really big snake. We get to see new parts of the setting that were referenced in the previous game, and meet some new characters, the Horseborn (centaurs!). I loved most of the story, and I found most of it really compelling, but there were some holes here and there. I will list them briefly *MORE SPOILERS* –
- While I loved the Horseborn, I wish I could have learned more about what was actually going on with them. The Horseborn in your caravan only barely speak your language, so you don’t learn that much about them. You get the sense that their race is very fractious and war-like, and they’re probably dealing with the same upheavals in the world that everyone else is, but you really have to read into things to get that part of the plot. Also, their role in the ending was kind of confusing.
- The ending itself is definitely going to be tough for some people to swallow. I personally thought it was cool, but they introduce a lot of ideas and developments rather suddenly, and you’re left with some big questions. People you thought were friends turn out to be enemies (I think?) or at least a source for complications. The ending probably would have felt a little less arbitrary if they had spent more time exploring the characters of Juno and Eyvind, who (of course) play a really important part in everything.
- Also on the subject of the ending, there isn’t really a proper final boss fight, like there was in TBS1 against Bellower. This might feel like a let-down for some players. My guess is they felt like Bellower’s legendary difficulty was too much, and didn’t want to go through all the fan rage with another really tough boss. Personally, I only found Bellower to be unfairly tough on Hard mode, but maybe I was just lucky.
Golly, I’ve spent this entire post talking about story (hopefully that tells you something). I found the gameplay to be excellent, but not that different from the first. It’s overall easier, because they’ve tweaked the “Renown” economy from the first game. While there are fewer fights (and no longer an option to go into a second round), you get WAY more renown for each one, and I never felt like I had a shortage like I usually did in the last game. You have more choices in leveling your characters (the cap has gone up to 10), and can now choose a second ability from several options, depending on their class. The caravan mechanics are also a bit different, and generally a lot easier. Clansmen are no longer useless food vacuums, as they will forage periodically to add to your supplies. You can also train them to fight as warriors, independent of story events. The “War” events are gone, so I wasn’t even entirely sure what the point of warriors and varl was, other than to protect the clansmen in story events. But those don’t happen often enough for it to be possible to lose the entire caravan, so IDK (shrug). I didn’t fall in love with the first game for its quasi-Oregon Trail gameplay, so I don’t care that much if it doesn’t gel perfectly.
There’s a bunch of new characters, and thus new classes, and they all try to do something interesting and unique. I liked them all for the most part, but there’s a few disclaimers here. First off, many of the characters in Bolverk’s story are awesome, but they’re kind of hard to use effectively. Bolverk himself is great, but mainly because he hits twice. His abilities just don’t come in handy very often, and there’s also a chance that he’ll attack allies too (he is a berserk after all). Many of the new characters are like this, good in terms of stats, but hard to use the way they’re intended. The new “Skald” characters are really neat, but I hardly ever used them for this reason. My favorite newbies on the battlefield were the Horseborn, who make up for their lack of story flavor with being super-great fighters. In particular, the female javelin-throwers were amazing, and skyrocketed to level 10 before anyone else did. That’s all I really care to say about game-play, except for this; you can get a bear, his name is Spinegrinder, and I love him. He’s kind of a secret character, but I’ll give you all a hint for finding him. You’ll need Eirik from the first game, and when you reach the land of the angry bog-people, don’t worry about stomping all over their stupid traditions.
So overall, I found the Banner Saga 2 to be an excellent title, and a worthy successor to the original. An incredibly gripping story of war, community in exile, and the end-times, combined with a deep cast of characters, will leave you aching for the final installment of the epic trilogy. What’s two years to Banner Saga fans? We learn to endure, in longing and sorrow. Onward!