There’s no secret behind what a sequel is meant to do - it’s there to continue and expand upon existing foundations laid by the first entry in a series. The Banner Saga 2 does exactly that. Apart from the tutorials reacquainting you with how the game operates, it doesn't take long for the proceedings to get underway.
After a brief recap of the events in the first game, the second entry in The Banner Saga trilogy begins with the option to import a save, or else manually select from either Rook or his daughter Alette - a decision linked to the climax of the first game’s conclusion. Your group is once again comprised of clansmen, humans, Varl (giant-like humans) and, this time around, Horseborn (centaur creatures), who you eventually encounter on your journey. Continuing from where the first game left off, your united caravan party is still on the run from the Dredge - an ancient enemy threat who are out to kill every living being in sight after the sun has stopped revolving. Your only hope now is to head for the supposed safe haven - the city of Arberrang.
Like the first game, every decision you make has an impact on the outcome of your journey, which is again broken up into multiple chapters. This is an RPG incorporating text and battle decision-making. Your actions in conversation and combat can have dire effects if you don’t do your best to calculate the lives at stake; alternatively, certain actions can also lead to better than expected outcomes. The text-based scenarios are akin to the first game, and the main characters will engage in various emotionally-charged exchanges, with the onus on you to make the decisions. You can basically put yourself, your party members and the caravan at risk, or once again take a more rational approach to ensure negative outcomes are minimal.
These conversations can also impact how your journey unfolds, with certain battles able to be avoided altogether and pathways or outcomes alternating as a result. Sometimes, sacrifices are unable to be prevented, and this is where a certain level of ambiguity comes into play. Characters you encounter, befriend and battle throughout your journey can again offer mixed reactions in the form of betrayal, deceit and perhaps unforeseen alliances.
The similarities between the first and second games naturally don't stop there - often you’ll find your attention being pulled away from the immediate concerns of the caravan to go and investigate an isolated village in the distance, or deal with the never-ending inter-party bickering. If you were entertained by the exchanges in the first game, the drama in the second game should be equally as captivating. What’s most satisfying is the continuity of the narrative and how it manages to end a side tale, while also expanding upon story arcs in preparation for the events to come. The focus in this outing is generally on the situation at hand rather than having to worry about contextualising the universe. That’s not to suggest characters aren’t developed or that detail is lacking, though, as important plot points and characters still get the required amount of attention. The world map also makes a return - helping to flesh out lore on the side and plot the journey ahead.
The battles, like the text-based aspects, adopt the same format as the existing game. Fortunately, there’s a bit more variety on offer this time, with the mission objective not always being to simply kill everything in sight. There’s a mix of basic requirements like protecting an ally, and there’s even active storytelling in battles from time to time to add a greater amount of context. Battles still play out on a tile-based grid - similar to games like Final Fantasy Tactics - with each unit taking up a different amount of space.
The strategy in combat is also similar to the first game, although with a variety of new classes and races like the Horseborn (who can attack and relocate at the end of the turn) alongside the Vale and humans - allowing for close, long range and reaching attacks - you have a range of moves that can counter opposition powers. The enemy has also been given several new classes, removing a certain level of predictability from each battle, although A.I. behaviour still falls short with some questionable moves at times. There are now more enemies to take on, however.
The commands are still rather basic, with each unit able to move, attack, defend and use special abilities. When making an offensive move, the options are still the same, allowing you to attack the enemy’s strength or break their armour. Attacking armour again makes enemies susceptible to more damage in the future. Each time a kill occurs you gain 'renown' – which is used later on to improve characters by levelling them up, increasing individual stats and unlocking new abilities. Generally, there’s a lot of options on offer when it comes to building up a party of characters. Your playstyle could, alternatively, be less direct, recruiting characters with the ability to support allies by buffing them (the poet) or relying on the element of surprise with the landsman, and using promotion to further improve chances.
Introduced early on in the sequel are obstacles, requiring you to occasionally rethink your strategies depending on how the battlefield is laid out. In the worst case scenario, you can always plow through an obstacle if required. If you’re struggling to reach your target zone, 'willpower' makes a return as a limited resource - enabling heroes to boost actions and movement - with the exertion stat also needed to be taken into account. The special abilities are again varied with some that assist fellow party members, allowing them to deal damage on multiple adjacent tiles. Pilage mode means you can increase your attacks on sole enemies remaining. If battles do become too much, you can always change the difficulty on the fly. Unfortunately, the control system on the Switch is unchanged from the first game making menus clunky to navigate - especially in battle.
Managing the caravan is still the same juggling act that it was in the original game. Supplies dig into your renown but are vital in order to keep party morale high and prevent famine. If you fail to put enough points into this area you’ll lose followers, and go into battle with lower-than-normal spirits which ultimately lessens your chances of more successful outcomes. You can also acquire items from the marketplace to increase the chances of heroes having more positive outcomes in battle. Camping allows rest and now offers a way to hone your battle skills in the training tent with various challenge scenarios – this can earn you renown when you fulfil a number of battle objectives such as killing an enemy with a certain attack. You can also convert clansmen into fighters, making this area of the game feel slightly more significant than before, and benefitting the caravan.
When you’re not fighting your way out of a tight spot in conversation or battle, you’ll no doubt be soaking up the stunning and varied environments. Compared to the harsher landscape featured in the original game, there are a lot more colourful scenes on display in the sequel - with the magnificent hand-drawn artwork and characters still present. The cutscenes are just as stunning, with the graphics ripped straight out of a Disney cartoon; it’s just a pity the voice acting is limited to just a few lines and the occasional grunt in battle.
The look of battles and animations are noticeably unchanged, but are at the very least consistent with the visual style of the original game. The soundtrack once again works in harmony with the journey of the caravan party. Grammy-nominated composer Austin Wintory has done another tremendous job capturing the trauma of the game world with an emotionally-driven collection of piece, and the sound effects bring the most basic elements of the universe to life.
The Banner Saga 2 expands on the series' existing foundations with more of the same. There’s no drastic overhaul to the text-based elements or battle segments, and similar systems are in place when it comes to managing your caravan party, fighting enemies, and talking your way out of a tight spot. If you’ve played the original, you’ll know exactly what to expect. Subtle refinements make this a sequel that truly lives up to the standards of the first entry, however, paving the way for the final chapter.