The Ban­ner Saga 2

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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

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