Sagas have a very weighted aesthetic, sometimes somber but always heroic. Wrapped in the myth-dusted context of a fierce history, a saga is a tradition that embodies the struggles of men and women against pitiless nature, fearsome enemies, or their own flawed decisions. The three-man team that is the Austin, Texas-based Stoic Studio presents a singular vision of this Viking tradition with a game built upon a framework of the greatest elements of choice-focused narrative design and stands upon a solid foundation of turn-based, tactical RPG combat.
Stoic Studio is: a former DC Comics (Justice League) artist, Arnie Jorgensen; a programmer who worked on the Hubble telescope, John Watson; and a short story and indie games writer who worked with both of these guys on Star Wars: The Old Republic, Drew McGee. By the by, Arnie was SW:TOR’s lead concept artist, and John was its lead combat programmer. The unique sum of their vision is nothing less than a flawless execution of very old and very new traditions.
Despite efforts made by King, the developers of Candy Crush, the concept of sagas goes beyond one franchise, one genre, or one culture. Here, Stoic Studio has managed yet again to encapsulate a saga that feels ancient, in terms of design, aesthetic, and presentation, while possessing the quality and finish of the very best of the new. The first Banner Saga title won a BAFTA for its modern affirmations of traditional design concepts, and no one should be surprised if they win again here. This sequel is an improvement in every way.
Giving out a perfect score is not something that should be done lightly or praising good design because it suits the reviewer’s tastes. No game is a universal 10/10; somebody out there hates Ocarina of Time for what they believe to be a good reason. There will be pieces that people don’t enjoy. But truly, there are no real flaws with The Banner Saga 2. This review is shorter than most for I cannot tear myself away; something sublime is happening here.
The Banner Saga 2 stands on four main pillars: choice-driven storytelling, breathtaking art design, tactical turn-based combat, and heartstopping audio. The foremost of these pillars of tradition that uphold The Banner Saga 2 is the art and animation. Somewhere between Don Bluth and classic Disney, every single part of the whole is exemplary. The environments and backgrounds, particularly the brilliant use of foregrounds, give immense scale to your undertaking. Each character you meet feels unique to this world alone despite the clear Norse influences. Having such wide panoramas creates a scale for this game which feels monolithic and makes you and your characters feel rather small in the face of such a staggeringly beautiful tale.
Picking up the pieces of the first saga, The Banner Saga 2 will allow you to load a previous save which changes the story based on what decisions were made previously. If you don’t have a saved game, you’ll have the chance to make similar, though certainly less dramatic or impactful, choices. This is normally where I’d talk about where the story goes, but The Banner Saga 2 has such an ineffably personal feel to every moment that I feel like I’d be taking something away from your first hours in the game. Suffice it to say that the threat of the Dredge has not ceased since the defeat of the Bellower, and it is up to you to lead your clan through the land of the unsetting sun to a place of safety.
The game begins at Chapter 8: Forth From Their Homes. Immediately, it’s made clear that the storytelling is a main focus in the game in both quality and quantity. Familiar friends are further developed, taking into account your decisions in the previous saga. New allies and enemies flesh out a rich tapestry of heroes, villains, and everyone else left in between. Character classes are perfectly suited to this world, ranging from Landsmen, Menders and Shieldbangers, to Poets, Archers, and Raiders. The choices you make with these men and women, whether deciding who gets what items, to assigning tasks before battle, to where to move during battle, all feel like they come at some cost.
Combat and the overarching tactical RPG mechanics are immensely deep, but not by virtue of their scale or complexity. The strategic approach of needing to overcome an enemy’s armor to attack its health, which directly impacts its damage, brings about an unparalleled feeling of dread and hope with each blow you exchange with the enemy. The battles achieve a perfect rhythm only possible in the best turn-based RPGs. Well paced action at this slow a speed is a rare pleasure. The dynamic idling animations are far more than the usual “battle stance bounce” that most RPGs have which gives the eye time to enjoy the finely detailed character and environment art.
The Banner Saga 2 isn’t the most punishing tactical RPG gameplay, but it’s close. Once you grasp the flow and rhythm of the turn-based battles, you’ll find success, but even on Easy there is gravitas behind every fight. This game does not permit careless decision making at any level. None of the side quests feel trivial, as if every movement on the battlefield could create a ripple effect that leads to the destruction of your clan and your failure as their leader. The strategic depth never really lets you feel like things went perfectly, and the atmosphere that surrounds each encounter is fully supported by the art, sound, animation, and most importantly every decision--no matter the size or the matter--that led you to this point.
The impact of your choices doesn’t rely on a good/evil binary scale. No points are awarded. Events unfold through brilliant writing and design that allow you to feel the effects of your decision instead of simply counting them. Your decisions impact not only the individuals you know and have spent many hours fighting beside, but also the hundreds of humans and giant varl that march under your banner. While friends can die, you are given charge over your group entirely and have a direct count of how many clansmen, fighters, and varl remain. Some choices may lead to increasing these numbers. Many will not.
The sounds of the Banner Saga are not the most prominent pillar, but the subtlety of the themes, the grandeur that matches the stunning environments, and the ancient intensity of the battle music puts its quality on par with every other aspect of the game. The score was created by composer Austin Wintory, who was nominated for a Grammy beside John Williams for his work on Journey. A wholly identifiable sound palette emerges from The Banner Saga 2, from the soundtrack itself to the sounds of every strike or spell.
Some games have had a hard time pricing themselves lately. It’s very rare nowadays to see this level of quality on all fronts available for $19.99 USD. I don't think many would be surprised to see this priced out to $30 or even $40, and most of players would gladly pay for such a unique experience. With the first installment currently on sale for $4.99 USD, there is no excuse to not at least begin your saga there.
Banner Saga 2 was reviewed on PC, but is also available as of April 19th on OS X, PS4, and Xbox One.