The Banner Saga 2 is a sequel, and that’s something you could intuit without even noticing the 2 in its title. All you have to do is play Stoic’s latest to pick up on that little factoid. If you played the first game then the first hour of the sequel is going to feel extremely familiar.
Things pick up just weeks after your fateful decision in the fight against Bellower, with the clan’s leader summoning what resolve he/she can following that tragic turn of events and pushing on toward the human capital of Arberrang. You’ll travel by ship instead of on foot for a spell, but that doesn’t change the fundamentals: your clan treks toward its destination while you manage resources and occasionally rest at towns and campsites in between small-scale, turn-based, tactical clashes with your relentless Dredge pursuers. You still have the option to pick up more clansmen and fighters you find on the roads and in towns — or you can always opt to just kill them and/or take their supplies.
Once you enter combat you’ll notice that Stoic has done the sequel thing here and tweaked or added a few features, characters and creatures as well as fixed a few issues. There are destructible barricades in some battles now, which are kind of neat but hardly seem like game-changers. You have to consider whether you want to destroy some or all of them right away; sit behind them and have your archers and menders try to pick off some baddies before breaking the blockades; or move everyone out of enemy range and wait for the bad guys to come to you and do the work of breaking down the obstacles, leaving them vulnerable to your attacks.
You’ll also notice that there are more types of enemies than before. Though I suspect most who played The Banner Saga will agree it was an excellent game — our reviewer certainly did — nearly everyone who played it also agreed that one of its biggest problems was repetitive enemies. The battles were great fun, and they remain so in this sequel, but they took on a sort of “Oh, this again” feeling toward the last couple hours because you were constantly battling almost the same exact enemies with the same exact unit types, which equated to very little need to vary up your approach.
The Banner Saga 2 picks up right where the first left off, giving you varl heavies and human archers, melee fighters and spellcasters with which to fight back the seemingly never-ending hordes of Dredge. But you’re eventually reminded again that this is a sequel when new enemy units start showing up, many of which aren’t even Dredge. This is at once a nice change of pace, but as you continue encountering more new bad guys and acquire more new units — most notably the nimble and somehow simultaneously majestic and boorish horseborn — it will also force you to begin employing different tactics in different battles.
Stoic has even seemingly fixed my personal biggest annoyance with the first game’s combat. You had to be very careful about where you positioned your units before attacking in The Banner Saga, and not just to gain tactical advantages. Putting one of your units at an angle to an enemy that the game didn’t like would frequently mean absolutely nothing would happen when selecting an enemy to attack. For whatever reason, the game often had trouble registering that an enemy had been selected and would react as though the player had selected a blank tile on the map. I don’t know what caused this annoyance, but I do know it’s not a problem the second time around, as it didn’t happen a single time in my nearly six hours of play with The Banner Saga 2.
Individually, none of these changes or fixes seem like a huge deal. It’s all the kind of thing you’d expect out of a sequel. However, I can pinpoint the exact moment during the first four playable chapters in the preview build when it became clear that all of these, and other, improvements added up to something that will hook gamers into that “just one more” mentality. For instance, after maybe an hour or so of playing your party splits into two forces, with the main group going one way and the varl Bolverk taking his Ravens mercenary group and any who will join them down their own path. When the split happens, Bolverk does something surprising: he talks.
Of course, The Banner Saga was full of excellent dialogue, but it wasn’t spoken; you had to read every single word. So while spoken words are expected in most video games in 2016, they really aren’t in Stoic’s tactical RPG series, which means that hearing Bolverk roar at another varl that he refuses to stand down and fall in line is a wonderfully shocking moment. Characters still don’t speak on the regular, but every once in awhile you’ll hear a key line or two spoken. The voice work doesn’t change your understanding of who these characters are, but it does deepen it by adding just a touch more personality to them. It’s akin to someone filling in bits of color here and there to what was previously a colorless outline of a character.
Other additions to the formula include clansmen taking the initiative to occasionally gather supplies while the clan travels; the ability to train clansmen into fighters to protect the clansmen when you’re told there’s a large off-screen battle happening; and character speech bubbles on the road and in combat. These additions reinvent no wheels, but the wheel was already a very impressive invention, and it’s now feeling as if it’s all the more so.
The Banner Saga 2 will release this summer on Xbox One. A PC preview code was provided by publisher Versus Evil.