Platforms: PC (Reviewed), PS4, Xbox One

The Banner Saga 2, the much-awaited second chapter to the well-received tactical RPG/Oregon Trail hybrid, has finally been released. It continues the story of a dying world based in Norse mythology, and gives you a chance to play as your favorite characters again. Little has changed here, so its quality will largely depend on whether or not you liked the original. If so, then this is a game you can’t miss. If not, unfortunately the dev team hasn’t done much to bring in new users.

The Saga of Dead Save Files

Before I even begin, let me give you a helpful piece of advice. Check and double check that your Banner Saga 1 save file is intact. There are a million reasons why you can lose it. I, for example, upgraded computers since The Banner Saga 1 came out, and so I had to attempt to transfer the save file manually since Steam, for some reason, didn’t keep an online backup. I’ve also heard reports of save files getting deleted if you removed the game for space or moved your Steam directories. Luckily, the game allows you to choose the major outcome of the first chapter if you are starting raw, and gives you a wonderfully animated recap movie to boot, but you do lose something by not seeing the direct results of your decisions play out, especially when it comes to deceased party members. You’ll also feel cheated if you start with fewer resources than you had at the end your original run.

A Tale of the End of Time

The story picks up mere moments after the original game ended, which can be jarring if you are coming into it fresh. It even punctuates it by showing you a large “chapter 8” at the beginning. You have just killed the great Dredge Sundr, and either Rook, the unlikely archer, or his daughter Alette has died as a result. The caravan of lost souls that you command are now looking to you for advice and guidance as you slowly march your way toward the human capital of the world, hoping to find shelter from the apocalyptic events that surround you.

The two stories, while they bring you through the same locales, follow very different narrative paths. Alette’s story is largely about how the caravan doubts her as a leader, both because of her gender and because of her age. Much of your decisions will be proving to the rest of the group that you are strong and responsible, much like Rook had to do in the first game. Rook’s story, however, is about how the loss of Alette is slowly making him become reckless and irresponsible. While still a powerful and respected leader, Rook is slowly falling into a bleak depression (which seems natural considering the world is ending) and his story is largely about redemption and finding a reason to live.

There’s also a side story about a mercenary crew that has recently joined up with you. While they start out antagonistic, several chapters focus on their making them important deuteragonists. Their story is bleaker, but also more action oriented than either Rook or Alette’s, and since they aren’t the main characters they give you a chance to screw around and make decisions you normally wouldn’t.

Choices are still the central gameplay mechanic in The Banner Saga 2. As you make your Oregon Trail-style journey, you’ll constantly be faced with dilemmas that need solving. From drunks, to rowdy kids, to bandits, to surprise attacks by the golem-like Dredge, every few seconds you have to step into the shoes of a leader and tell your people what to do. It will be these decisions that determine who lives, who dies, who trusts you, and who doesn’t, and past decisions constantly come back to either reward you or bite you in the ass. There’s no “correct” decisions here, just tons of tiny moves that determine who you are and what you care about, and that is the core of The Banner Saga’s narrative experience.

Shatter the Dredge

The other major aspect of The Banner Saga 2 is its battle system, which is mostly copy pasted from The Banner Saga 1 but with a few notable additions. First of all, everyone starts at a much higher level, which should seem obvious if you are importing a save file, but even new players are starting with characters that have mostly maxed out stats and who are already carrying a whole host of powerful magical items.

You also start with your entire party from the end of The Banner Saga 1 or, in the case of a fresh start, EVERY SINGLE CHARACTER from The Banner Saga 1. This absurd amount of items and characters, many of whom start the game ready to be leveled up, causes you to make a ton of important decisions before the game even begins, and that can feel overwhelming. It’s been two years since the last game came out, and I certainly can’t remember who had what build and why. Still, this feeling of handling far too many things at once, while forces threaten to kill you at every turn, mimics exactly how the main characters are feeling, so I guess you could call it immersive.

Several new layers have been added on to the game’s leveling system. Now, ranking up a character allows you to choose extra active abilities, usually from one or two related classes. This can get pretty delightfully broken real quick. Giving your tanky shieldmasters the ability to hit everyone in an AOE makes battles quick work.

Since the game starts in medias res, many characters stats are close to maxed. That’s why the new “talent” system has been added. If a stat is maxed, you can spend another stat point to learn one of two talents. Strength talents, for example, either give you a chance to dodge strength attacks, or give you a chance to crit on strength attacks. Combining talents with your new active abilities gives leveling a bit of variety. Now it feels like your Iver is going to be different from your friend’s Iver, which just wasn’t the case at the end of The Banner Saga 1.

The battle system itself is exactly the same. Your strength rating doubles as your damage and your HP, and your armor rating takes off points of damage when you are attacked. You can attack an enemy’s strength or armor every turn, but to kill them you need to reduce their strength to zero. You and the enemy will take turns one after the other until one enemy is left, at which point everyone in your party gets to go before the enemy does. You can take up to six party members into battle, and dying in battle causes them to be out of commission for a while.

Battle strategy also hasn’t changed much. Unlike classic tactical RPGs where you focus-fire one enemy until it dies, The Banner Saga asks you to spread out your damage as much as possible. Since Strength is both your HP and Damage, you want to keep as many units at 1 HP as you can. This ensures that they can do no damage to your party, and since you always alternate enemy and ally turns regardless of how many units are alive, this means most of the opponent’s turns are spent doing nothing.

The design team tried to mix things up by innovating on the battle maps. Obstacles play a much larger role, ranging from destructible terrain and cover, to tiles that damage you when you move through them. However, these obstacles are never set up in a way that makes you think about them. If anything, they hinder the A.I., which is usually too dumb to do anything about them.

Battle maps are also bigger, and sometimes they dynamically change. Story events will open up new paths, summon new enemies, and change your victory conditions as battles go on. The backgrounds of battles have been improved to give you a sense of grand scale. They make you feel like you are really battling in the middle of the woods or on a snowy battlefield, instead of a square cut-out grid.

A new training option has been added, which allows you to grind in relative safety. You can fight training battles against your own unis to increase your kill count, or complete puzzle like challenges to increase your renown (XP). It’s a welcome addition, but it does remove some of the tension that the old system of leveling your characters in the fire of battle had.

Rally Behind The Banner

In general, if you liked The Banner Saga 1, you’ll like The Banner Saga 2, but there are a few things that might turn you off. It doesn’t do a good job explaining its mechanics at all. It assumes you already played the first game, and the tutorials it gives you are basically just lip service rather than anything useful. The controls are also still, even with a keyboard and mouse interface. Almost everything is controlled with the left click and left click alone, likely because the game is also designed for mobile and tablet touch screen interfaces. But this causes you to click around the screen like crazy just to get a character to do what you like, and since there’s no handy undo button you might find yourself stuck in a vulnerable position simply because you clicked in an inopportune time.

If you can get past the system flaws, then The Banner Saga 2 is an indescribably gorgeous experience. The animation has only gotten better, carrying over that feel of a rotoscoped animated movie. The environments you trek through are astounding, even more so than the snowy fields of the last chapter. The enemies you meet are awe inspiring. The characters you meet burst with personality. The world of The Banner Saga 2 really feels alive, which is ironic because it’s dying.

The narrative is on a whole other level than most games. The care taken in the writing of each individual decision is incredible. The fact that the team basically wrote two completely separate scripts, one for Rook and one for Alette, is mind blowing. You can’t help but care about everything and everyone. You want these characters to survive. You want the assholes you run across to get their comeuppance. You want to give Rook purpose, or give Alette strength. These characters become your friends, and by the time you hit the end you want nothing more than to see them have a happy ending.

But you won’t, because the game ends on a cliffhanger in preparation for The Banner Saga 3. Oops…

The Banner Saga 2 is fantastic. Yes, it has flaws, and yes, it’s not for everyone, especially if you aren’t a fan of reading walls of text. But for strategy fans and especially fans of games with narrative, this will be one of this year’s shining releases. It’s kind of an odd thing to say, because The Banner Saga 2 is good for the same reasons The Banner Saga 1 was. It hasn’t really improved on much, except for becoming prettier and giving you some new toys to play with. If anything, it feels more like an expansion pack or a direct continuation than a self-contained game, but a continuation of a near perfect game is still near perfect. I wouldn’t recommend purchasing this if you haven’t played The Banner Saga 1 first, but if you have, it’s an absolute must buy.