Editor’s Note: Expect spoilers for The Banner Saga. It’s two years old.
The Banner Saga 2 demonstrates the hardships of developing a trilogy’s middle chapter. When I noticed the review code in my inbox, hysteria flooded my synapses with spurts of “oh my gosh” and inarticulate giggles. The sequel to my favorite game from 2014, contested only by Titanfall? Stoic Studios, you don’t know how long I’ve waited for this week.
But once I reeled my jubilation in, lesser thoughts graced my mind. What if The Banner Saga 2 fails to surpass the first? What if it rehashes mechanics without bettering or building on them, or limps toward a narrative conclusion as second installments often do?
On a structural level, The Banner Saga 2 plays like its prequel. Stoic separates interactions into three discrete parts ‒ dialogue, combat, and travel ‒ but the honeymoon’s over. The fissures in this marriage of Viking mythos, The Oregon Trail, and turn-based tactics ‒ thin though they may be ‒ have started to show.
Frankly, Stoic’s world won’t withstand more fractures. The Banner Saga 2 picks up the pieces after the passing of Rook or his daughter Alette, and both family and friends must shoulder the loss. Even the land is in a wretched state. The old gods have perished, evident by the sun that hangs motionless in the sky as your human, varl, and horseborn caravan roams a wilderness of Scandinavian inspiration.
Too much jargon for you? I’d recommend finishing The Banner Saga first, though a brief video recap does a modest job of getting novices up to speed. Otherwise, just know that varl were created by the heavens as a race of horned giants (and can’t reproduce), the new-to-the-series horseborn share a semblance to centaurs, and dredge (golems of flesh and stone) harass cities and emigrants while they flee.
This is not a story about winning wars or unraveling mysteries yet untold. The Banner Saga 2 favors survival and tending to refugees. On one side you have Rook’s company ‒ or Alette’s ‒ doing everything it can to reach Arberrang, the human capital untainted by a world-consuming darkness. On the other you have Bolverk, a berserk varl and overseer of the sellsword Ravens, who must escort a casket to the city of menders (read: mages) at Manaharr.
The story’s chapters alternate between both convoys, and The Banner Saga 2 evokes a brilliant agony of leaders facing no-win scenarios as society falls apart. But taking command of Bolverk provides opportunities to be the bastard that your Ravens adore. If I defiled an outpost for food and deserted civilians without weapons, nobody judged me. The universe has gone to hell, and Bolverk’s authority yields a modicum of control among the madness.
My Rook, however, became rash in the wake of his daughter’s demise. In The Banner Saga, I allowed Alette the rare chance to prove herself before Bellower ‒ an immortal dredge officer ‒ and his hammer crashed upon her. Although Alette released a hexed arrow that brought the general’s warpath to an end, she died by my hands, too. If not for a later dream, Rook may not have reconciled his animosity and remorse.
Me? I’m still bitter about The Banner Saga 2’s ending. I felt livid, not relieved when the credits began their slow upward crawl. The cutoff for this campaign seems random and unfulfilling; the closing battle brings questions, no answers. Without climax, the plot bends until it breaks while juggling too many villains. I tallied one deified serpent, the darkness, a governor, mages, some horseborn, the king ‒ and don’t forget bandits, swamp men, dredge, or the cold. It grows tiring wondering who could backstab me next.
Such paranoia makes scenes between good friends all the more precious. The Banner Saga 2 offers a real breaking-of-the-fellowship moment between Rook and his oldest comrade, and the emotional realization of the situation wouldn’t have hit me as hard if I jumped into this sequel without knowledge of the characters and what they’d overcome. I wish I could alter the game’s code to keep my strongest warriors ‒ and allies ‒ together. They don’t part ways because they want to. They take leave because the fate of civilization demands it.
If you haven’t finished The Banner Saga or want to skip ahead to the sequel, Stoic does allow players to select Rook or Alette as the survivor of a preset world state. For everyone else, The Banner Saga 2 gets underway once fans import their original save files. Characters carry over stats, abilities, and accessories ‒ as do your choices. Knowing Rook’s mindset made the tough calls even tougher.
As you trek towards Arberrang or Manaharr, the developers entrust you, the company’s leader, with delicate situations. Maybe it’s someone’s birthday, maybe a thief tried stealing a handful of rations. Like The Banner Saga (and The Oregon Trail, of course) you resolve these dilemmas from numbered arguments that you’re presented, but these text-based responses mask unjust results. Characters that engage in battles do not die in the field. They perish because a person picked the wrong branch in the game’s ambiguous dialogue trees.
A herd of swamp men surrounded my caravan as we traversed a bog. Seeking peace before hostility, I lost one of my senior warriors when he parleyed in my stead. Because I chose vague reaction A over vague reaction B, the man’s former kin ran him through with spears. On another occasion, I wasn’t afforded an ultimatum. A second mage sacrificed my best spellcaster to stall another invulnerable dredge.
Such is the life expectancy of protagonists in The Banner Saga 2. Here today, gone tomorrow. I could excuse Stoic’s approach to conversations if the team didn’t have another game under its belt. But forfeiting friends in the sequel ‒ who I’ve spent dozens of hours leveling ‒ to mere text drew my ire. I shunned save-scumming (reloading saves), and each death landed a low blow.
It might be my temper talking, but I wouldn’t mind The Banner Saga 3 offering players further context for their actions. With only a dozen champions to a person’s name, make the sacrifices clearer. Have fans outweigh the needs of the few over those of the many. Don’t sucker-punch amateurs with permadeath because they asked one refugee to speak for another. Even by The Banner Saga’s standards, that’s harsh.
I also endured the weight of my decisions elsewhere. Do you let the caravan stop and study a suspicious-looking flower, or hasten stragglers onward, a disappointment in their eyes? Do you send a vanguard to search for water in a labyrinth of cave systems, knowing full well that your scouts may not return? Evacuees will try to turn you away when you restock provisions; others want to join the group, adding excess mouths to feed.
You can’t presume anything. Kindness can lead to disaster; harshness might lead to triumph. In The Banner Saga 2, you face these kinds of decisions throughout a 12-hour campaign, gritting your teeth and crossing fingers in the hopes you befriended the right followers. Sometimes you will and sometimes you won’t. Sometimes you direct your destiny, sometimes fate sways to the elements’ whims. Each judgement was another burden to my psyche.
It’s harrowing not knowing how the smallest of compromises will impact your troupe’s morale, supplies, or population, and many decisions leave lasting ramifications. As your ships pass by stranded men and women on a river bank, do you throw them food or welcome them into your caravan? Bringing extra families aboard your skiffs will brighten the mood. But those numbers prove calamitous in stormy waters; the combined weight deprives boats of their agility, whether they run aground or careen over waterfalls.
Occasionally, you can consult with a member of your convoy about the current predicament, like asking a supposed witch to verify the identity of another. When not choosing between assumed life and oblivion, the dialogue shows mercy. I kissed allies goodbye left and right in The Banner Saga, whereas the sequel ‒ for the most part ‒ filled me with confidence. I wasn’t torn between bad outcomes and less-bad outcomes any time I blinked.
You’ll already have enough to manage without worrying whose head is on the chopping block. The disparities between fighters and clansmen, for example, serve a greater purpose than they did amid The Banner Saga. Clansmen now forage during your linear travels, bolstering daily provisions. The more clansmen in your party, the meatier the harvest. My kin were mere digits before, another incidental factor to keep above zero.
You need supplies, too, to restore morale at camp and heal injured characters. If the wounded don’t recuperate, they suffer penalties to their stats. As for nameless fighters ‒ consisting of humans and varl ‒ they minimize casualties to clansmen in the text-heavy skirmishes. In a wise move, you can train more whenever you make camp, if you’ve civilians to spare. It’s part of The Banner Saga 2’s tightrope routine. The fewer citizens in reserve, the less chow your companions scavenge.