By Marshall Lemon
Like the first game before it, The Banner Saga 2 is absolutely gorgeous. Its hand-drawn animations and snow-covered landscapes immediately draw you into a rich world, filling you with a primal sense of wonder. Yet just before that feeling sets, Banner Saga reminds you of a harsh truth - beauty is fragile. The PAX East demo began mid-combat, as horrifying Dredge soldiers fell upon unprepared refugees. They were killed mercilessly, a grim reminder of what your heroes will face in mere moments.
But first, I shifted the camera North to see how many enemies I’d have to face. Instead of an army, I was greeted with a surprising sight: A stoic figure at the wood’s edge, keeping watch over two Dredge children. The sight was strangely like Banner Saga on the whole - beautiful and unsettling all at the same time.
Banner Saga 2 follows a refugee caravan of Varl Giants and human warriors struggling to survive in a harsh fantasy world. Joined by new heroes, including the new Horseborn race, players make decisions for the entire caravan, manage distinct personalities, gather new supplies and clansmen, while defending them all on a tactical battlefield. What’s more, if you upload your Banner Saga 1 save file, you can incorporate all decisions from the previous game - including how many heroes survived the previous adventure.
“We now have over 40 heroes that are possible if you didn’t lose them along the way [in Banner Saga 1],” Banner Saga 2’s art director Arnie Jorgensen explained. “So right now we’re dealing with a fairly massive amount of heroes with storylines and abilities to deploy.” Jorgensen adds that even if most characters were killed in Banner Saga 1, there will be enough new recruits to enter the game with a relatively fresh slate.
Fans of the original Banner Saga will be happy to hear Stoic hasn’t overhauled the original formula either. Instead, Stoic Studio is tweaking most systems to fix common complaints - the UI has been revised, clansmen have more responsibilities within the caravan, and battles have more complex victory conditions beyond killing all enemies. But a rich, well-written story and brutal tactical combat remains at Banner Saga 2’s heart, sucking players in even as it challenges them with harsh choices.
For the PAX East demo, I chose Alette as my hero, a female archer forced into a leadership role with her party. After gathering supplies and interacting with new members of the caravan - not all certain I was up to the task - we made our way along the river to our next destination. Almost immediately, I was faced with difficult choices. Should I endear myself to an insubordinate warrior who joined the caravan, or insult them right back? Is it a good idea to fire arrows at the Dredge scount watching from the trees, or will that attract undue attention?
Outside of battle, these kind of choices appear constantly, and can have huge consequences for the unfolding story. More importantly, the consequences of your decisions aren’t clearly telegraphed in advance. This isn’t a Telltale adventure game, where you’ll always know which comments an NPC remembers. You’ll never learn which supply purchase or minor dialogue choices will impact your story until it's too late - assuming you find out at all.
“We have a lot more decisions to be made in The Banner Saga 2,” Jorgensen said. “I was watching a Twitch the other day … I don’t want to go into exact part, but [the player was having] a very difficult time. One of the characters said ‘Damn it, if we didn’t have so many clansmen weighing us down, we’d be doing a lot better right now.’ And the [streamer] goes ‘I guess they always say that here’. And I was laughing because they don’t.”
It turned out this battle was going poorly because of the player’s own decisions, but it felt so natural that he assumed it was a pre-determined story element. “You know you’re making choices, but the ramifications are very organic,” technical director Matt Rhoades explained. “So you can have two playthroughs and have every different results in situations you thought were pre-determined outcomes.”
“There are a lot decisions under the hood that are affecting your whole game and we’re not calling it out to you,” Jorgensen continued. “We’re not saying ‘Ding! You just made a choice that matters!’ You never know.”
Eventually, my own caravan came across a Dredge army, all heavily armored. A larger boss character stepped into the fore, and Alette noted that taking him down would scatter the attackers. It’s a great change of pace after the original Banner Saga, which forced players to defeat every opponent they encountered.
“We love our combat design, but in the first game it was mostly throwing you into randomized encounters that we tweaked based on danger,” Jorgensen said. In response, Rhoades has hand-designed almost every combat encounter, structuring them to reflect the story while adding new victory conditions. “It might be [defeating] a boss, or it might be breaking a wall. It’s not just ‘kill ‘em all’ anymore.”
Which isn’t to say skirmishes are easy. The Dredge are heavily defended, and some characters are better equipped at wearing down armor than others. The willpower ability from the first game is back, giving you a short-term damage boost in exchange for reducing long-term effectiveness - at least until you’ve spent a turn resting. Even then, you’ll be hard-pressed to complete objectives, and not all heroes will survive.
My own combat quickly turned into a disaster, as my heavy hitters were separated and defeated by Dredge units. Out of the entire battle party, only a few survived, tucked into the corner of the battlefield. The Dredge commander’s armor easily deflected most several turns of arrow blows and it seemed my playthrough was coming to a close. Then, with a last burst of willpower, I let an arrow fly that wiped out its final health point. Success!
But unlike other tactical games, this was far from an absolute victory. Most of my party was killed in the battle, permanently removing their stories and abilities from the game. My caravan might have survived, but it was weaker without their presence. And who knows what challenges would be around the next bend?
The Banner Saga 2 is out now for PC, and coming soon to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One.