We at Crossfader were decidedly impressed with 2014’s THE BANNER SAGA (and you can read why here). The fresh spin on FIRE EMBLEM mixed with a beautiful Disney aesthetic and rich Viking lore was hard to hate, and developer Stoic continues the success with their latest title, THE BANNER SAGA 2. Rather than revolutionize the formula in the sequel, however, Stoic chooses to refine proven concepts without resorting to merely copying them, a disarming yet invigorating move in the gaming scene, and one that makes THE BANNER SAGA 2 stand out among follow-ups.

In fact, it would be easier to compare THE BANNER SAGA 2 to a film sequel or a new season of a television show than the latest entry in a series of games. Where most game sequels can be viewed as separate adventures, albeit with characters and narrative threads that carry over from previous titles, THE BANNER SAGA 2 picks up immediately where the first game left off, to the point where it opens with “Chapter 8” of the plot. While THE BANNER SAGA 2 is a standalone title, the experience is greatly enhanced by importing a save file from the original, and this review will assume that is how the game is meant to be played.

Depending on your choices in the first game, the convoy of human and Varl survivors from the Dredge invasion will either be led by THE BANNER SAGA’s hero Rook or his daughter Alette. The way your medieval retinue treats you will change appropriately whether you play as the seasoned hunter or his naive daughter, meaning that there are effectively two branching stories depending on who you choose as your protagonist. Regardless of whose mantle you assume, the tale this time manages to still raise the stakes from the first game. The world is literally falling apart as a fearsome monster, a gigantic stone serpent, has emerged from the earth, destroying everything in it’s path. Even the unstoppable Dredge must flee from the newly revealed threat, and it’s literally a race for survival as the Humans and Varl battle the stone horde for the only high ground safe from the behemoth. Snap decisions have replaced the strategic musings that were allowed to you in THE BANNER SAGA, as your situation is so desperate that even the slightest delay or slip-up can cost your people hundreds of lives. Climactic scenes become especially pulse pounding thanks to the expanded presence of hand-drawn cinematics and a more chilling musical score, heightening the sense that the entire future of your people rests in your hands.

the banner saga 2 big red douchebags

And no matter what you do, no one will thank you for ridding the land of big red douchebags

The direct progression of THE BANNER SAGA 2 extends to more than the plot, with even the experience and inventory accumulated during THE BANNER SAGA carrying over into the sequel. It’s this not-a-beat-skipped approach that makes THE BANNER SAGA 2 feel more like the most impressive expansion pack ever produced rather than a truly separate title. The level cap has been raised from five to ten, yet rather than merely allow for greater attribute scores, each character is now capable of learning from a pool of feats and perks after maxing out a certain stat. While combat is largely the same, there is now an added layer of nuance not available before, making the already superb gameplay that much deeper.

This isn’t to say that nothing has been added to the equation in THE BANNER SAGA 2, as in truth it is quite the contrary. One pitfall of the original game was a lack of unit diversity. You had Varl, men, a wizard, and women who were exclusively limited to wielding bows. THE BANNER SAGA 2 not only makes the desperately needed addition of female warriors, but adds several new classes to the equation as well, such as the team-buffing poet, axe throwers, and the centaur-like horseborn, a race only hinted at in the last game. The cast of bad guys has expanded as well to include swampfolk, invisible hounds, and even bears (oh my), ensuring fights don’t get stale. Maps also now feature defensive fortifications, which can be used to slow or divert troops, finally forcing the player to consider movement, a huge improvement over the barren stages from THE BANNER SAGA.

the banner saga 2 odds in favor

So, obviously, the odds are now more in your favor

Caravan management has been expanded as well, with direct control being handed over to the player on a (comparatively) micro level. Varl and Fighters were critical in defending your convoy in THE BANNER SAGA, but the vast swaths unarmed Clansmen, the families accompanying your soldiers, served no purpose other than being more mouths to feed. In THE BANNER SAGA 2, however, Clansmen can now be put to work as foragers, gathering food and supplies when you are far from traders. Clansmen can also now be trained to become Fighters themselves, but the tradeoff is that they’ll require more food and put less of it on the table themselves. THE BANNER SAGA 2 demands that you actively tinker with the composition of your flock, as a clan that grows too big may spell your doom.

Yet, just as the decision to strengthen concepts rather than change them amplifies what made THE BANNER SAGA work, so too does it highlight what didn’t. The isometric, layered battlefield view, though gorgeous to look at, is still as cumbersome in execution as ever, with smaller units getting obscured by larger ones in the thick of combat. This time around, though, there are more environmental features, more background action, and more people acting onscreen, meaning that it’s even easier to lose sight of what is going on, or to even fail to notice glaring developments that you might be directly staring at. The chaos of battle is often captured in real time strategy titles, but such visual clutter seems to undermine the basic principles of the turn based genre.

the banner saga 2 image she

Trust me, she could write a book about having a loud image

Fortunately, the problems as a collective are much quieter this time around. While the butterfly effect of severe consequences to minor decisions felt half-baked and unpolished in the first game, the increased production values and heightened drama of the sequel justify them here. And though the problems with unit management in combat have only gotten worse, it’s an issue that is situational at worst, meaning that you’ll rarely be taken out of the experience.

THE BANNER SAGA 2 is a near perfect sequel on a core level, and the execution of its ideas is nearly unparalleled in the medium. Yours truly isn’t a huge fan of Nordic-inspired fiction, far from it in fact. I think the Thor franchise is tryhard and lame, and I want to die just thinking about cold. But the fact that I was so enraptured by this Viking journey should speak volumes of the quality of this game. If the first entry of this saga wasn’t enough to pique your interest, I guarantee you the latest entry will change your mind. A hearty endorsement on all fronts.

Verdict: Recommend

Reviewed on PC

Ed Dutcher is the Video Games Editor here at Crossfader. The last time Ed had a meal that wasn't microwaved, George W. Bush was president. He only learned to read so that he could play Pokemon.

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