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Friday, 20 May 2016

The Banner Saga 2 - Review












Developer: Stoic Studio
Publisher: Versus Evil
Platforms: PC (version played), PS4, Xbox One, Mac 

[Warning: This review contains spoilers for the original The Banner Saga. You've been warned.]

The Banner Saga was an interesting take on a fantasy RPG, in part because it was a low budget game that attempted to tell a story that was large in scope. Its clever utilization of game mechanics that go all the way back to The Oregon Trail, enabled it to tell the kind of world-ending Lord of the Rings plot without having to design heaps of environments. Instead, the world became a (rather pretty) scrolling backdrop to your group of travellers.

The Banner Saga 2 is less of a sequel and more a direct continuation of the original game. It's like booting up disc two of a multi-disc RPG.The game picks up almost immediately where the previous instalment left off, with either Alette or Rook leading a rag-tag band of Varl and humans away from the mass of unstoppable Dredge after defeating Bellower.

If the first game was about coming together, with its two story threads, Rook's and Hakon's, slowly merging as the game progressed, then this sequel is about being driven apart. After several chapters, the game splits its remaining episodes between Rook's group and Bolverk's band of mercenaries.

It's a nice contrast to have the player command Bolverk's group, who were briefly established at the end of the first game. The overwhelming theme or focus of the original game's choices was “doing the right thing” when practically every option was bad. The emotional and psychological toll it took on Rook was a primary thrust of the game's story and so to have the player instead commanding a sword-for-hire there's suddenly the flip-side to all of that. Bolverk has no major stakes in anything that's happening, be it personally or in regards to the wider world, and so is free to act accordingly.


And that's still the main draw of the series. Alongside the decent writing and its cold, melancholy atmosphere, there's a solid effort to constantly reflect on player choices. Characters that survived the previous game (sorry, Egil) make it through to this one, and, given the murky morality and shades of grey that the story throws up, you're never quite sure whether you made the “right” choice. Most likely because there wasn't one.

It's somewhat awkward then, when the game awkwardly railroads you into certain decisions. Characters might be flat-out untrustworthy, yet the most you're likely able to do is mildly criticise them. Major characters will make sudden important decisions that you suspect are completely wrong but it'll do you no good to change their minds, because the game has made its mind up already.

It's a bizarre and rather difficult problem for games that introduce choice, and place so much emphasis on it as The Banner Saga 2 does. When it works it's great and makes the game that much more immersive, but the moment it locks you into a certain decision, that all comes crashing down.

The combat system, meanwhile, has remained unchanged. The game still possesses some of the most bizarre and in some cases counter-intuitive combat mechanics in a tactical RPG. In reality, it's incredibly simple, but the way it plays out means adjusting your strategy to “game” the system rather than behave in a plausible way. In short, armour negates damage whilst health governs both your vitality and your attack strength, meaning hits to a character's health results in a comparative hit to their attack power. If your health is lower than the enemy's armour rating, you're not likely to be doing any damage to them.

Similarly, combat is divided up so that each side gets a turn, with you moving a character followed by the AI. What this means is that, in many fights, you're punished for actually killing enemies (since doing so simply gives the remaining enemies, who are likely still at high health, more turns). Instead, crippling each opponent in sequence before trying to wipe them out in quick succession, once they've been made relatively harmless, is the best way to succeed at most encounters.


It's not a terrible combat system, but it regularly feels artificial and counter-intuitive. Why the hell am I leaving this archer alive? Who, coincidentally, is pounding my Varl's armour with attacks. Oh, that's right, it's because its stopping a bigger enemy on the other side of the battlefield from moving a turn earlier – makes sense.

Fights then become dragged out slogs as you carefully whittle down the various enemies' strength whilst trying your hardest not to kill them outright. It lacks thrill or excitement, simply because each time you play in a way that that's strategically right but thematically nonsensical, it's sapping away at any sense of immersion you'd otherwise have. It lacks the satisfaction that tagging an enemy does in say X-COM, or slowly manoeuvring your forces in Fire Emblem, by far the biggest inspirations for The Banner Saga's gameplay.

Characters who max out a particular stat can now pump more points into that stat to purchase stronger upgrades, such as recovering armour points mid-combat or dealing critical hits. Given that the game continues with the same levelling system, renown, effectively the game's experience points, are dished out with greater abandon, and basic training challenges can reward the diligent with extra points.

Yet, so many of The Banner Saga 2's gameplay elements seem at war with one another. Just as the combat is counter-intuitive, the level up system is bizarre in a game that frequently forces you to play with different party compositions, as different members join and leave your group at the whims of the plot. It's hard to guarantee, beyond the obvious main characters, who's going to be around several hours from now, so putting points into a party member who might be dead or leave soon feels like a waste. Why not remove the levelling system entirely? It's little more than tagging a couple of points onto a stat, and by doing so you'd be encouraged to play around with your party composition more often knowing that they're all at roughly the same power level.


The game does expand on the various party members you recruit. There's the addition of bards, who can power up nearby units with additional willpower whenever one of them scores a kill. The basic class combinations, deciding which person to pair with someone else for the best synergy, is by far the game's most compelling element, and would fare far better were it not bogged down by conflicting gameplay decisions surrounding it.

The Banner Saga 2 is a game so devoted to its epic scope that it sometimes forgets to look at the smaller details. Its story has potential but suffers from plot conveniences and suddenly wresting control from the player when at other times it seems to bend over backwards to cater to choice. Meanwhile, the additions it does make over the previous instalment can seem random and sometimes pointless.

As a story, The Banner Saga 2 is engaging, if sometimes woefully underwritten. Whereas the first game was a smaller complete story that had the potential to tell a larger tale, this sequel ends abruptly, leaving you in the dark until the inevitable third game is released. Again, the second disc in a multi-disc RPG is an apt comparison. The Banner Saga 2 is hardly a sequel, given that it barely improves or attempts to change the faults of the previous game, adding elements but without any particular rhyme or reason. Why introduce the ability to train clansmen for war if there's so few wars to engage in throughout the game?

And the answer is probably “we'll find out in the sequel”, and that's the major problem here. This is the second chunk of a larger game, rather than the second episode of an epic trilogy. This isn't The Empire Strikes Back of the series so much as it is the middle portion of a game being played in isolation. It's fun in parts, and gorgeous to boot, but suffers from a disconnected story and a contradictory combat system, one of which it at least needed to get right.

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