The Banner Saga 2 Expands on Its Solid, Gorgeous Foundation
The next chapter in the Banner Saga trilogy brings new combat options, enemy units, and much more.
The Banner Saga 2 has some of the most gorgeous artwork in any game I've ever played. That will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever played or simply seen the first game, and yet I was still floored by the visuals. This is despite the fact that I'm unsure of how much developer Stoic Studio has changed, and yet they still manage to impress. And while The Banner Saga 2 does bring back a number of elements, it enhances them in ways that make this a more dynamic experience.
Combat remains the central component of The Banner Saga 2. This is a turn-based strategy game where teams each have one specific unit move and attack per turn. Units each have strength and armor numbers. Strength functions as both your health and attack power, while armor is subtracted from an attacker's strength to determine how much damage is done. These basics carry over from the first game, only there are now more variables to mix up combat, which is something that Stoic is doing in response to fan complaints that The Banner Saga combat could become a bit rote over time.
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There are new enemy types, including support units and four-legged creatures with new abilities. One that I saw in action could camouflage itself, effectively rendering itself invisible. As the Banner Saga games have no fog of war, suddenly not knowing where every enemy on the battlefield is located is a significant change. Once invisible, these enemies will attempt to surround your units, potentially taking down a character you thought was safe. (There's still no permadeath in these situations, so this kind of thing only makes the battle harder; it doesn't rob you of a character long-term.)
Another new thing to be aware of in combat is the potential for enemies to show up from off-screen, shifting the balance of the battlefield.
While those elements can make defeating every enemy more of a challenge, you now have more ways to emerge victorious than just doing that. New win conditions include one I was able to take advantage of where defeating a particular enemy (in this case, one who showed up partway through the battle) caused the others to flee. This is useful for getting out of a tight spot, but it does come at the expense of being able to kill the remainder of the enemies, which would earn you more renown.
Renown is still used for leveling up your various characters, only they're now able to earn an additional ability at certain points. Stoic told me they haven't talked about this much as they're still working out exactly how it will work, but I was able to upgrade Rook, the returning protagonist from the first game, to have a new ability centered around Pillage. This is the state where the enemy team is no longer guaranteed a turn after each of yours when it only has one unit left. With Rook's new Call to Arms ability, you're able to trigger Pillage when two enemies remain.
Not all of The Banner Saga 2's changes are found in combat. When you're presented with the opportunity to jump into certain combat sequences, which risks the lives of the non-playable characters in your caravan, you can opt for alternatives. One example I saw of this involved spotting an enemy on the coast, allowing me to either get my caravan back on our boats, kill it, back away, or track it. I opted to track it, which led me to another choice between picking up a spooky statue and simply leaving. Picking it up in this case was a good decision, as it led to me acquiring a high-level item, and my caravan approved, earning me renown.
Managing the caravan has also changed. Your people are divided into several categories, including clansmen. In the first game, players discovered it was best to let them starve, rather than allow them to use up your limited supplies. Now, clansmen have more of a purpose, as they'll do things like spread positive word about you and hunt to alleviate the number of supplies they consume. They can also be trained into fighters, but this has its drawbacks, like supplies diminishing more rapidly.
Playing the original Banner Saga isn't necessary for playing the sequel, and the game will work on its own. But as part of a planned trilogy, the best way to play is to have gone through the original. You're able to carry over your save, which brings over characters' levels or, if they died, removes them completely. Stoic told me that these generally won't be replaced; if someone is dead, you won't see what they would have been involved with, and the story will adjust to compensate for their absence in the world.
Accompanied by the wonderful soundtrack by Austin Wintory, composer of the original Banner Saga and Journey, The Banner Saga 2 looks to be shaping up to be a worthy sequel to a fine game.
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