On the road again
Platform: PlayStation 4
Developer: Stoic Studio
Genre: Tactical role-playing
Released: Windows: April 19, 2016, PS4: July 5, 2016
With the first game in The Banner Saga series, I decided to take a break while in the middle chapters. I recently returned to it and completed it in just a few sittings. With this, I did not make the same mistake. As soon as I finished importing my save file from the first entry, watched the recap and the opening cinematics, I was absorbed into this lovingly-crafted world once more - Far more so than ever before. As the opening moments unfold, it becomes clear that this is a direct continuation set right after the conclusion of the first installment. There is a sense of urgency surrounding the events of the world and its inhabitants, in the aftermath of a dramatic conclusion from Saga 1. With a massive contingent of Dredge hot on your heels, you must flee west - to the human capital of Arberrang.
Darkness comes in waves
Unlike the first game, this time I had zero difficulty in distinguishing between any of the characters. They have at this point been so well established in their characteristics and allegiances there was no mistaking any one character from another - Having spent so many hours with them coming into this also helped quite a bit. There are two distinct POV characters you play as, and two caravans respectively you are responsible for. They’re going separate directions in the world, but despite their physical distance, they’re intrinsically intertwined.
The Dredge are becoming more unstoppable as each day of your journey passes. These armoured golems are wreaking havoc in towns and cities all over the world, destroying families and the homes of countless people. Along your travels, you’ll encounter the victims of these terrible assaults. The desperation of these folks is palpable - They will earnestly try and join your caravan for support and food. They will mislead you into joining your company just to do harm and steal from you. Some will outright attack you on sight to take your resources and make them their own. You encounter dozens of these scenarios, each different from the last, and for each of them there are multiple ways to resolve these situations.
It’s these touches that make the player feel as though they are a part of a living, breathing world. The plight of these people is everywhere and there are consequences for every decision you make, big and small. Do you trust the band of warriors wandering in the forest to not hurt you and yours? That is your risk to take. In most games that feature “choice” as a mechanic, it often feels illusory, as though your choices don’t matter too much in the end. Some of the decisions you have to make in the first entry directly impact the second in a major way. Even with smaller ones, you can see the results from them filtering through. It’s commendable to see this crafted in such a meaningful way, and it’s rare that I have ever experienced the weight of my resolve in a videogame world as heavily as I have with this. Through all this, the theme of desperation is thoroughly and satisfyingly explored.
The enemy of my enemy
Alliances are key. They are shifting, tenuous, and sometimes they are fortunately fruitful. One such association is with the Menders and Valka. Menders are humans trained in the arcane arts, and the Valka are their most prominent and powerful members - Historically instrumental in fighting back against the Dredge. With this great power comes political influence, and a healthy dose of fear from Human and Varl alike. While they are presented as friendly and provide invaluable assistance to the player throughout their journey, there is a certain apprehension around them due to their potent power. These are not people you want to provoke - They could do harm with little effort.
The Menders motives are, on the surface, pure. They’re assisting the caravans you’re responsible for and are critical in saving you and your kin, however when pressed for more information on the sometimes rash actions they take and questionable objectives they want to meet, they withdraw. Their secretive nature begets deflection when they’re being questioned, and sometimes patronising remarks regarding need to know information. This group consistently impressed but also brought about suspicion in me - This order act nobly, why the secrecy? They no doubt hold many secrets of the world and perhaps don’t consider (regular) Humans and Varl capable of handling such mysteries.
The Horseborn are a new race. They are as the name implies, a mix of human and horse, not unlike the centaur from Greek mythology. When they are introduced it is heavily suggested that they are not the most populous, and thought to be purely myth by the younger generations. They’re nomadic by nature and have a proven violent past. They are a source conflict and I expect there to be far more from them in the third game as well. While on the surface they seem nearly innocent in their less than basic grasp of English, there are less than pleasant tendencies bubbling under as shown through them being quick to act when it comes to joining combat. When it comes to Horseborn relations, it feels as though there is a persistent question - What will we do with the Horseborn? This isn’t a question that is answered in any clear way, but works as an indicator that not everyone is happy with their sudden re-emergence in the world of Human and Varl.
The combat has not changed in any significant manner, but there has been a number of new additions. One such new inclusion are barriers. Barriers block and hamper your movement along with the enemy’s and can be destroyed, each possessing their own hit points. While on the surface this may seem like a rather minute enhancement, this at times can really affect combat. If you’re using a Varl character for example who by their nature have more limited movement, they can be further obstructed and rendered nearly useless if they have been hindered by barriers. This makes placement at the start of a battle all the more critical.
An augmentation which I found to be particularly interesting and practical was Training Challenges. They are composed of a number of different lessons imparted to you from your camp’s trainer. You’re tasked with specific objectives, making use of different abilities of your different characters. This is a great addition as it forces you to use all your different characters in each of the lessons, possibly highlighting some usefulness in characters you wouldn’t ordinarily use. This opens up an avenue for exploring characters in a rewarding manner, receiving Renown to level up with upon completion of these training objectives. This helped me refine my tactics in a big way, opening up combination abilities. You can for example push an enemy back X amount of squares, into a trap laid by a ranged character. This changed my play style for the better and carried me through some confrontations that would have otherwise been much more difficult.
Progress roughly carries over from Saga 1 in this entry. So if Rook or Alette were level 5 at the end of the first game, they would be the same at the start of Saga 2 - Save for a couple of pleasant instances where I noticed some were levelled up beyond where I left them, presumably to help with the difficulty curve. Because you reach higher levels in this, you are exposed to more abilities and thus a greater variety of tactics. This opens up not only this game but the third massively, in terms of party composition and choice in abilities (you select an additional ability at Rank 6). It’s this kind of flexibility that generously contributes to replayability, and with that in mind I’m excited to play through this trilogy again in the near future - Different decisions, and different combat options.
Battlefield objectives are another excellent inclusion. They aren’t available for every encounter, but when they’re included, it generally means there is something more to the battle. They are alternative ways of ending a skirmish - Not every conflict is about slaughtering every member of the opposing side. You’re afforded the opportunity to kill the leader unit or destroy obstacles in order to escape. These options are telegraphed in text as the fight commences, so it is made apparent when you can finish a clash in a less traditional method.
Supply and demand
It’s easy to forget about the nuances of the caravan and travelling, between the gripping storyline and involving combat. As ever, Morale is extremely important and can mean life or death in conflicts. Having a low morale while travelling, can mean you can incur penalties to your Willpower, thus not being able to perform as many actions, or extend your actions enough to kill that last enemy. Conversely, with good and great Morale levels you’ll receive a bonus to Willpower. It is truly in the best interest of anyone playing, to keep morale up as much as possible to maximise the chance of success,
You can train your clansmen to become fighters. Like most other systems in the game, it’s important to keep a balance - Clansmen can forage for supplies, whereas fighters cannot. These warriors are especially important in War. War is a larger type of battle, where there are text options to choose from at the beginning. These situations occur when you come across a larger Dredge force, and you can make a decision around charging them, retreating, and more. The more combatants you have, the less risk of casualties there is. Training your clansmen takes time however, which also takes up precious supplies. The way these various systems interact in this trilogy is one of the standout features of it. It’s effortless how so many mechanics are so inherently linked.
A war of many fronts
Woven throughout the journey and many different character actions, are decisions without immediate knowledge of what the results will be. You can only go with what feels right to you. There are very few black and white “good guy” or “bad guy” choices to be found here. You need to run with what is for the greater good, be that an added force to your caravan, or not being greedy and moving past the potential for treasure. As far as role-playing experiences go I have rarely played such an effective exploration of leadership, where a sense of resolve is demanded from you. I must applaud the team at Stoic Studio for crafting something with so much care, with such a great sense of continuity. This series to me truly feels like one of those series, that is going to stay with me for the rest of my life. I can only hope that beyond this trilogy, that someday there is more to come from this franchise. As excellent as these games truly are, this is an IP rife with potential and I can only try to imagine what could be accomplished with a larger budget. Until next time, you son of a yox!
"But options have options. So some option's options might seem easier but be worse than harder options of options."
Been playing the series? Be sure to check out my review for the first game here.
Play this game if…
You have played the first one
You enjoy carefully constructed and well paced stories
You like tactical, turn-based combat with numerous playstyle options
All images taken from The Banner Saga 2 press kit here
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