The Banner Saga 2
Morale Reduced. Get used to those words, as you’ll be seeing an awful lot of them. This is The Banner Saga 2’ s equivalent of ‘You Died’, a phrase that is dispiriting and occasionally devastating at first, but which soon barely warrants a second thought. It’s a minor setback, nothing more, and certainly nothing you can’t overcome. Accepting the inevitability of bad things happening helps prevent this savagely dark cross-country trek from descending into suffocating bleakness. Elsewhere, it’s the flashes of humanity that pierce the pervading gloom, from courageous sacrifices to the most mundane acts of decency under impossibly trying circumstances that give you a group of weary survivors to really pull for.
Two years on, fans will be hard pushed to forget how things stood, and regardless of the final choice you made last time you’ll find yourself in the shoes of a grief-stricken and reluctant leader whose thirst for payback must be put on hold, with the inexorable march of the armoured Dredge bringing them dangerously close to your group. Your only goal is to reach the Human capital of Arberrang, and while there’s little choice in the route you’ll take to get there, your choices will greatly determine the state in which you’ll arrive.
Stoic may be nudging the caravan towards its terminus, but it fully respects the notion that you have a key part to play in its story. This much is apparent from minute one, but even seemingly insignificant decisions frequently have some form of payoff. However minor they may be, it’s a tale that demonstrably reacts to your input. As a result, some story developments may prompt an ambivalent shrug, as characters take their leave in what might have been dramatic fashion if you hadn’t completely forgotten they were with you. But it’s a more than acceptable trade-off for the agency you have, even if you’ll spend some of the journey being berated by allies for your poor choices.
For half the game, you’re a fundamentally decent person attempting – and often failing – to do the right thing. For the other half, you’ll face some equally unfavourable quandaries, but this time you’re in charge of someone who has far less interest in being nice. Bolverk, Varl leader of a mercenary group known as the Ravens, is a hulking mass of seething, barely repressed anger, huffing withering putdowns at anyone who crosses him, and snapping at even his most loyal followers. It’s risky to cast players as such an unsympathetic character, but it makes for a bracing contrast to his counterpart under the red banner. You’re free to give him a bit of a soft centre, though he’s arguably more entertaining the nastier you play him. There is, however, a downside to his temper, as we discovered to our cost when a recently promoted colleague crossed him and our punishment turned out to be rather too vigorous.
Bolverk is equally wild in battle, too, as one of several new units that give the turn-based combat extra range. Fundamentally, it’s the same as before, which means the grid-based battlefields get too cluttered, but a few additional options make all the difference. Skalds might not be very strong combatants, but position them adjacent to your best fighters and after every kill they’ll deliver a stirring speech that boosts the crucial willpower tally of their colleagues. Impale and knock back an enemy with a spear and they’ll lose a strength point when they move – and there are ways of forcing them to do so. Tracker units, meanwhile, are nimble enough to squeeze between a Varl’s legs, and stealthy enough to remain out of sight of opponents. Rank them up and their attacks can ignore up to nine armour points, debilitating even heavily shielded foes. It’s still strange to play a turn-based strategy game where it pays not to kill off opposing units quickly, but rather to leave them weakened, their low strength stat rendering them virtually useless. Then again, it makes sense in light of Stoic’s decision to require units to reach certain kill tallies before they can be promoted, though this time there are alternative ways of achieving this, with units slain during training activities and sparring matches contributing to the total. This in turn lets the developer vary battle objectives. Though victory is most often earned by leaving no Dredge standing, in other cases you’ll be invited to target specific enemies, keep allies protected, or, in one case, to clear away thick snowfall so your caravan can pass through. It’s an intelligent way of allowing the narrative to knit more closely with the combat, where before the two parts always seemed to feel somewhat disparate.
The strategic foundations are sturdy enough, then, but it’s the story that makes The Banner Saga 2 so absorbing. Stoic’s scriptwriters regularly defy expectations with devious manoeuvring, while disposing of characters with an unsparing callousness worthy of Game Of Thrones. It reaches a crescendo surprisingly early with an outstanding sequence that will have you watching open-mouthed as you make a series of wrenching decisions with no possible way of knowing how they will play out. That it comes after an opening that suggests this second act might just go a little easier on you makes it all the crueller.
Another huge choice awaits you at Arberrang, and if the gimmicky encounter that follows hard on its heels is one break with formula that doesn’t quite come off, it matters little when considering the bigger picture. The Banner Saga 2 is denser, knottier and philosophically deeper than its predecessor; although its weightier emotional impact has plenty to do with the fine groundwork laid down in the first game, Stoic has produced a follow-up that’s much harder to fault.
Accepting the inevitability of bad things happening helps prevent this from descending into suffocating bleakness