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The Banner Saga 2 – PlayStation 4

The Banner Saga 2 – PlayStation 4

The Banner Saga 2 [Box Art]Platform: PlayStation 4

Developer: Stoic

Publisher: Versus Evil

Release Date: July 5th, 2016

Genre: RPG, Strategy

Nerd Rating: 8 out of 10

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the final installment to the critically-acclaimed trilogy known as The Banner Saga will be ours to enjoy, in the form of The Banner Saga 3. I, like many others, am very excited about this development. But, since The Banner Saga 3 will not be here for a while, let’s take a little time to review Stoic’s latest title, The Banner Saga 2.

Inspired by Viking and Norse culture, The Banner Saga series tells a story of a Medieval world that is on the brink of war. Controlling a diverse cast of characters, the player gets to live out and experience the epic events of a ravaged world in RPG fashion, all the while soaking in the hand-drawn Disney-esque sights and characters as well as the Medieval-style music that all work together to create one of the most immersive gaming atmospheres I’ve yet experienced. The first game in the series, aptly titled The Banner Saga, serves as an introduction to the world, letting the player experience an engaging story while challenging the hell out of them. If you’re new to the series, that’s where you should start. Following on the heels of the first game, The Banner Saga 2 arrived in spectacular fashion to continue building the epic from the groundwork laid by its predecessor.

The Banner Saga 2 takes place immediately after the events of The Banner Saga, and if you’ve played the first game, you get to import your save, complete with characters, past decisions, and items that you’ve managed to hold onto. Right off the bat, this struck me as a really awesome facet of The Banner Saga 2, since the first game alone featured a ridiculous variety of outcomes and possible character deaths. Carrying my previous posse into this game felt really good, and watching it evolve along the way was even cooler.

Banner Saga 2_20170413203955

Much like the first game, The Banner Saga 2 is a story-based RPG. An epic war looms on the horizon, and if that wasn’t bad enough, the world, itself, seems to be falling apart. During the game, the player spends their time role-playing as the leaders of two different factions, making decisions and navigating their way through tense confrontations as well as combat scenarios as they try to lead their caravans of people away from an endless onslaught of enemy warriors and an impending cosmic doom. Along the way, friendships will be formed, enemies will be made, and yes, people will die. Bringing all the best elements of a fantasy novel to the player’s screen, The Banner Saga 2 hits the mark not far from its predecessor.

There are two primary gameplay elements featured in The Banner Saga 2: Dialogue and decision making alongside turn-based strategy combat. The dialogue and decision making is perhaps the most important of the two in terms of narrative, so let’s tackle that first.

Decisions, decisions.

Decisions, decisions.

Being on the brink of a great war (not to mention the coming apocalypse) would be a stressful scenario for just about any person, and the decision-based structure of The Banner Saga 2’s  narrative captures this with flying colors. Along your journey, you will meet both friend and foe, often forced to make decisions that will affect the lives of the people in your caravan. People will starve because of your decisions, and others will die because of them. Whether those lives lost are your own or those of the enemy…well, that’s up to your wits and judgement.

As the story progresses, this game just kind of beats you into the ground like a dead horse. Defeats may often be followed by more defeats, followed by poor choices that get members of your posse killed. There’s not really any game-over in this game, so any failure is made that much more punishing, as the difficulty of the road ahead just becomes more and more foreboding.

The story and dialogue is extremely well-written, each featuring a literary grandeur that carries the events beyond their time and place. While playing this game, it’s not hard to get lost in the descriptions of scenery or day-to-day occurrences  in the same vein of Game of Thrones. Characterization is top-notch, and the surrounding events and lore are just as good.

As is the case with plenty of sequels, the story featured in The Banner Saga 2 is slightly less interesting than that of its predecessor. I feel like this is simply a curse of sequels, since by default they are already showing the player something that they’re at least somewhat familiar with, diminishing the novelty value. But, that doesn’t mean that this game won’t present you with plenty of twists and turns along the way, each of them leaving you surprised, awestruck, and downright disgusted in almost equal parts, and it really does feel like it’s progressing towards a veritable climax. Truly, just like the first game, The Banner Saga 2 excels at the handling of its story, and I’m really excited about where things will go next.

On top of all this, you can even import your save file from The Banner Saga, giving you the true feeling of carrying on the story from where you left off. This game makes as good a case as any for eliminating the traditional sequel, allowing us instead to incorporate our previous decisions from possibly months or years ago to affect how we experience The Banner Saga 2 in exciting and dynamic ways.

For instance, there is a pair of twins, known as Mogun and Hogun, that I met in the first game. I know for a fact that during our encounter, they could have been killed or I could have sent them away from me. Instead, I invited them into my posse, and they followed me throughout the course of the game. When starting a new game in The Banner Saga 2, I was relieved to find that Mogun and Hogun were still in my posse. Only, they weren’t just in my posse; they each had their own unique dialogue and character arcs that I never would have suspected this far into the story.

That. Is. Amazing. 

The first game alone featured plenty of characters with possible deaths and missed encounters along the way, and it is simply fascinating that the developers at Stoic took the time to write and code all this unique content for characters that the player may not have ever seen. Kudos to them for handling imported save files in perhaps the most spectacular form ever. I know that series like Mass Effect have already dabbled in this, but I honestly have not seen it done better than with The Banner Saga 2.

That said, I do have one complaint about the story, and it’s a rather specific one: Bolverk.

Bolverk is a giant who was introduced in The Banner Saga. Continuing with The Banner Saga 2, Bolverk has since evolved into one of the two playable characters. To give a little background, Bolverk is the leader of a band of mercenaries who runs into the main character’s caravan. Being the leader of such a group, Bolverk is known for his battle fury (cool) as well as his short temper (less cool) and stand-offishness (even less cool). He’s a well-characterized member of The Banner Saga’s roster, but there are a few narrative issues with controlling this guy.

For one, we already know he’s ruthless and short-fused. The game sets this up for us. Role-playing as Rook (the main character) in the first game is a lot easier for most people because he comes off as more morally-centered, and if the player really feels like playing the mean, ruthless part, there are avenues there, since Rook’s centrist standpoint allows for a bit of wiggle room. Bolverk, on the other hand, is not so complex. Before even being given the chance to role-play as him, the player already has this idea in their head about his character, so even though a lot of people may be naturally inclined to make more moderate decisions, it feels unnatural to Bolverk’s character, thus strongly influencing the way we play him. I think either the developers should have toned Bolverk down a bit or they should have swapped his leadership role with someone more relatable.

The combat featured in this game is not much different from that featured in the original Banner Saga game. Taking control of one-to-six characters on a grid-based board, the player fights with their enemies in a very Dungeons and Dragons style manner of turn-based combat, moving their characters around in strategic fashion to utilize their abilities and punish their opponents. A few new additions, such as extra moves, character builds, and in-combat structures show that the developers are at least thinking of ways to keep moving forward in terms of combat design.

There are plenty of unique character types in this game, and I’m super-impressed by the variety of novel scenarios and interactions that are possible within the game’s engine. There is also a stand-alone version of The Banner Saga 2 that is dedicated almost exclusively to exploring this combat, so that’s also really cool.

A big complaint I had with The Banner Saga for the PlayStation 4 was that the controls were rather clunky, it being almost too obvious that the game was not designed for the system I was playing it on. The Banner Saga 2 fixes virtually every technical issue that I had with the first game, greatly improving its ease-of-use on the console and making it more fun.

On top of that, there are now introductory combat scenarios that improve upon those used by the first game, as well as built-in training segments that give the player a chance to test their abilities while earning in-game points that can be used for leveling up their characters.

The Banner Saga 2 [Horse People]

The art design of The Banner Saga 2 is mostly on-par with the previous game in a lot areas. The character designs are each equally well-drawn, framed within a cinematic widescreen. However, this game is slightly better in terms of the sheer character volume and variety, meaning the artist had to draw and animate way more characters. On top of that, there are now plenty of animated and fully voice acted cut scenes! Woah!

But, this game is also below par in terms of landscape design, featuring lots of flat, boring terrain that makes the traveling sections way less interesting than the first game. In general, the artwork was understandably a bit of a plus-minus for me, but due to the incredible volume of new characters, I’m slightly inclined to call it more of a plus.

The music of The Banner Saga 2 is just as good, if not better than, the original title. Medieval instrumental scores are now punctuated by vocal, pseudo-linguistic dialogue that evokes a sort of primal energy within me, and it’s just really freakin’ good. The soundtrack and sound direction are even incorporated into the game, where certain characters will sing during victory and sound effects will more noticeably punctuate the narrative during blocks of text. This is definitely a step in the right direction, and I’d be interested to see where the developers take this idea in the future.

And this art and sound design create–you guessed it–a truly killer atmosphere! Every time I booted up this game, I felt that this was a world I wanted to spend more time in. Despite the deadly nature of its world, there is a sort of  primal energy captured by The Banner Saga 2, accentuated by such a cozy atmosphere that enraptures the player, making them want to spend just a little more time experiencing it. Few titles are as immersive as those of The Banner Saga series, and so far it’s on a two-for-two streak.

With an engaging story, fun combat mechanics, and an atmosphere that ties it all together, The Banner Saga 2 proves yet again that Stoic can bring the big guns. Not only was this game as fun as the first, but it made improvements in more than just one area, most notably in the combat mechanics, the addition of new hand-drawn characters, as well as the cool animated cut scenes. Although held back a bit by the relative lackluster appeal of the environments and landscapes, as well as the immersive issue of controlling the character Bolverk, The Banner Saga 2 still deserves an 8.

If you were a fan of the first game, The Banner Saga 2 is definitely worth the try, as I’m sure it will capture your imagination like it did mine.

Written by Nips


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