Full disclosure here – I am someone who missed The Banner Saga the first time round. I missed all the hype and praise it garnered, and being mainly a console gamer it was something that never really appeared on my gaming radar when it first appeared. Yes, I am aware it is now available for console, but I didn’t really pay it much mind until The Banner Saga 2 was announced – so yeah, a little late to the party on that one. Why full disclaimer before jumping in – because I don’t think doing it the way I did way is the right way to go – at least for me it wasn’t. If you are reading this review as a returning player, fully versed in the lore and story of The Banner Saga, you probably won’t agree with my review, as it seems to be unanimously loved and adored by fans and critics. If like me you are new to the whole saga (pardon the pun), then read on and be enlightened (or not) as to what the fuss is all about.
First firing The Banner Saga 2 up you are presented with a choice of main character – a layover from the prequel in which – SPOILER -your decisions had an impact on who made it out alive. As I said, I skipped the first game and jumped straight into the sequel so I had no vested interest in either character so the only real deciding factor for me was which character would fit my play style the best between the twochoices available – melee or ranged – I didn’t explore their history or backstory, and I didn’t know it going in so I just picked and played, no weighty decision, no heavy burden of choice. Having made my choice I began my quest.
For those like me who haven’t played The Banner Saga and are new to the series, the game plays like one of those choose your own adventure books ported to console. The story plays out primarily via text on screen, often culminating with you having to make a choice – left or right? The forest or the river? Camp or keep marching? These binary choices are ultimately the game at its simplest, and each decision has an impact upon the morale and size of your group. Some of these choices are played out via beautiful animation, scenes that ooze charm and character, reminiscent of the animated films of days gone by before CGI took over everything and they are great to sit and watch. Other times, these choices are relayed between two pictures of the characters talking, as the text of what they are saying plays out below them that, when compared to the beautiful animations when they appear, give the impression that something was rushed or missed – equally the animation could have lost its charm had it been used over time so I guess it could be viewed as a fair compromise.
The overarching story continues where the first one left off, with your protagonist (whomever you kept alive should you port over a saved game or who ever you picked to begin with) leading your group away from the relentless dredge, ancient foes who serve as the antagonist but who are given no real backstory – what do they want? Why are they out to kill everybody? None of this is really explored in any real depth, you are simply put in charge of your clan, and tasked with getting them to safety.
The storyline takes the usual fantasy trope and mixes it with viking visuals to good effect – horned giants known as varl and humans united against the common enemy of the dredge, who appear every so often to attack your travelling group. The group you lead consists of two main elements, clansmen and fighters, with the number of how many your current party contains displayed at the top of your HUD, alongside how many days supplies you have remaining. These numbers vary depending on the choices you make, with villagers wondering off should they lose faith in your decisions of killed during the many skirmishes with the dredge, and as the days tick by your supplies dwindle, having a further impact upon morale and fortitude. Battles too have an impact, and when the dredge do attack the game shifts focus considerably, becoming a tactical RPG in every sense.
The battles themselves play out like a game of chess – you start by placing your chosen soldiers appropriately on the board before the battle commences, and then each unit takes its turn in moving and then attacking an enemy by either damaging their armour or there health. This is the battle system at its simplest, but the amount of strategy and variation involved quickly intensifies as you progress through the game, with all the various elements coming into play to create some complex and intense skirmishes as you continue on your journey. This, alongside the choose your own adventure style progression through the story, forces you to think carefully about the decisions you make. This is further intensified by the fact that these decisions have impact upon the number of clansmen/fighters available to you, and your rations which then have an impact upon the overall morale of your group. At times all these systems and the micromanagement that you are forced to consider before each decision really conveys the weight of being a leader, and makes the game play almost like a tabletop card game.
All of this plays out on the backdrop of your clanmarching every onward, against some beautifully animated backdrops. As day turns to night you pitch camp, and it is here you are further allowed to manage your group, choosing your best heroes or training them, resting up and passing a day, decreasing supplies but raising morale, or moving on and progressing further through the story. All of these choices do have impact, and the game does manage to convey some sense of leadership by having you fully consider what the implications might be, or how a decision now could hinder your progress later on.
If that sounds like something you can get behind then there you have it, but for me this loftiness seemed to miss the emotional kick or investment that I needed in order to truly appreciate the game. At times it was fun, but not having played the first game I just did not feel too bothered or concerned by any of the decisions I was having to make, and about two thirds through I became quite ruthless in my desire to see how the game turned out, not caring really who lived and who died along the way. If you stuck with me having read my opening confession about not having played the first game write off my negativity to that, and I appreciate that this is as much my fault for not having played the first game as it is the game itself, but with hindsight playing the first game might have given me an investment in the story and characters that I just felt was missing in my playthrough. If you are like me, and looking at jumping in on The Banner Saga having skipped the first one my advice is pretty simple – don’t. Do yourself a favour and spare the extra coin in getting the first game bundled along with it, you’ll thank yourself in the long run.
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