I was a huge fan of the original Banner Saga when I played it earlier this year. All of its pieces worked together so well: the hand-drawn visuals, the tactical combat, the decisions with actual meaning. Luckily for me, the sequel came out a few months back and with a small lull between now and the upcoming Destiny expansion, I had time to continue my Nordic journey. If you played through TBS1, you should do the same.
- TL;DR: A worthy sequel to an excellent game, capitalizing on the good parts of its predecessor while still having a few annoying quirks
- Platform: Android, iOS, PC, PS4 (reviewed), Xbox One
- Time Played: 13:30
- What I Played: Campaign on normal difficulty
The Banner Saga 2 isn’t a “just the next one in the series” sequel like Far Cry Primal or Fallout 4. The story picks up right where TBS1 left off after its game-changing final chapter. All of your choices carry over — who you made allies with, who you didn’t, and who is alive or dead. I’ll stay light on the story aspects just in case you haven’t played TBS1. While you can start the game with a default set of choices in that case, I highly recommend playing the first game as you’ll not only be given the chance to make your own decisions but also to learn the ins and outs of the game’s mechanics.
But, even if you do dive into the franchise here, TBS2 gives you a quick tutorial. Your side and the enemy side take alternating turns in combat following the order of initiative in the bottom left of the screen. Each character has two values: armor (blue) and strength (red). Strength doubles as both your health and damage, while armor limits the damage you take. For example, if I use someone with 10 strength to attack someone with seven armor, I’ll deal three damage. The other important stat is willpower, which is effectively mana. Willpower is used to move farther than normal or to power up either skills or normal attacks. In my earlier scenario, I could bump that three damage up to four damage by using one willpower or five damage with two. Willpower is a precious resource, though, as it doesn’t regenerate normally. You’ll have to either rest a character for a turn or draw from your warhorn, a stock of willpower added to after each enemy kill that resets per battle.
Continuing on the “one thing used for many things” train is renown, which is gained by defeating enemies, winning battles, making crucial decisions, and completing certain actions. After a character reaches an increasing set number of kills depending on their level, you can spend renown to level them up. Character levels and total renown are brought over when you import a TBS1 save, so I felt right at home with my old squad. Renown is definitely easier to come by in TBS2. It makes sense that you’d receive more for these larger, more difficult battles compared to those in TBS1, but one of the important systems in the original game was managing your small renown pool wisely. Throughout my ~13.5 hours of TBS2, I never really felt like I was in danger of running out of renown. Hell, I received 20 in my third battle which I think is more than I received in any battle in TBS1. I was able to level up my characters freely and buy items without a second thought.
Battles in TBS2 aren’t simply one “defeat all enemies” battle after another. There aren’t any puzzles or board-changing interactive events, but there are a few fights where you do more than just kill everyone. There’s a fight where you have to survive while some party members do something behind you, another where you have to escape an onslaught, and another where you have to win one on two. Some battles have destructible items like barrels or fences littering the ground, too, which slightly change the course of the fight. It’s not much, but welcome additions nonetheless.
The biggest change to characters is the addition of a talent system. Once you max out a stat on any character, you can choose one of two talents based on that stat. The talents are the same between all characters so it’s on you to craft your team as you see fit. For example, the armor talents give you a chance to resist damage or regenerate armor every turn and the willpower talents give you a chance to avoid a killing blow or regenerate willpower.
But TBS2 isn’t all about battling and progressing your characters. You also have to manage your caravan of clansmen, fighters, and varl. The excellent caravan system returns to TBS2 where you watch your party move through the countryside rather than fast travelling or warping between towns. The text encounters that pop up along the way are more lively now with some added sound effects and more diverse choices than simple yes/no decisions. Which of the three or four paths ahead do you take? How many fighters should you send to investigate a noise? Should you let a starving family into your caravan, give them supplies and leave them be, or just walk by? Your choices will follow you, so choose carefully.
When you eventually set up camp, you can make use of the training tent to run through some practice scenarios. These are fun diversions that force you to accomplish certain things in battle like damaging four enemies at once with a varl attack or locking down a specific character. These battles give you preset parties which force you to use characters you may otherwise neglect. Plus, you get renown for each battle and a bonus set of renown for finishing all scenarios.
The story and writing in TBS2 are definite improvements over the first game in the series. There is a lot more at stake here in the sequel, more character interaction, and more weight on your decisions as you progress further in the game. Characters will talk to each other while travelling via caravan which helps make the game feel a bit more lively. There are even a couple of animated cut scenes with voice work that up the ante. You’ll run into characters only talked about in TBS1 and even some old clan members thought to be lost. Naturally, you’ll lose some good men and women along the way, too. The mechanic of controlling two parties returns from TBS1 as well and the branched stories are definite improvements over those in TBS1, both in uniqueness and story importance. While the first few hours of TBS2 are a bit of the same old song and dance, once the branching paths pick up, things start to move. I was hooked hard as soon as that happened and I’m really looking forward to the story’s end in TBS3.
Overall, it’s clear that TBS2 is a giant step forward for the series. The writing is better, the characters feel more alive, the stakes are higher, the level up system is a bit deeper, and your decisions matter even more. One of my only gripes with the game is how quickly cut scenes and chapters end. In almost every case, an important visual or piece of dialogue can barely be seen before the screen fades to black. I hope the developers at Stoic let those important things breathe a little more in the future. Whenever that future date is for TBS3, you can be sure I’ll be there.