Few games are as relentlessly bleak as The Banner Saga 2. It begins right after the climax of the previous game, but regardless of your prior choices, the story will play out largely the same; the dredge (a relentless horde of warriors) are hunting down the remaining humans and varl (hulking, horned giants), in the wake of past events, and a massive serpent god seems hell-bent on bringing about the end of the world.
Every character, village, and town that you come across has in some way been affected by this impending doom. And as you would expect, when faced with the ever-increasing likelihood of the annihilation of humanity, there's scarcely room for jokes or secondary objectives. You won't be breeding golden chocobos or grinding levels to take on an optional super-boss – you're constantly moving forward, always towards the end goal. This momentum is the driving force behind The Banner Saga 2, and it's one of the strongest aspects of the game.
This time around, your lead character and their clan of peasants, warriors, and varl, are making their way toward the human city of Aberrang to find refuge. Early into the journey, one of the mercenaries that they met at the end of the first game, Bolverk, is offered money to transport a cart in the opposite direction, and he breaks off from the main party taking a few of the group with him. While previous protagonists Rook and Alette are very much good-natured and sympathetic characters, Bolverk is perhaps the more interesting of the leads since he's more ruthless and self-centred initially, before slowly coming to terms with just how important his role in the story may be. Both stories are quite compelling, and they should keep you questioning who to trust, what the dredge are really after, and who to side with come the end.
The mechanics of the game are largely the same as they were in the original Banner Saga. For the uninitiated, the game has three distinct phases: there are conversations in which you can learn more about your companions or the folk that you happen across, there's travel time on the road, and there are battles.
Conversations are simple, consisting of little more than gorgeous artwork and a few lines of dialogue to read. There's not much in the way of voice acting in The Banner Saga 2, but since the game plays like an interactive high fantasy novel, it isn't too much of a setback to do a little reading. Travelling time means watching your clan move from one town to the next, making sure that you have enough provisions for the journey so your people won't starve, and occasionally making decisions that will shape the fates of the clansmen that follow you. Battles are, ostensibly, of the same grid-based tactical RPG-lite variety as the first game, but with a few welcome tweaks.
When you end up in a battle you'll find your party spread out on a grid with your enemies similarly placed on the opposite side of the arena. These skirmishes are turn-based, and so you'll move your first character into a new position, and if they're close enough to an enemy then you can attack. Then your opponent will do the same. Each character has two main stats to watch: armour and strength.
Strength is a measure of both your health and how hard you can hit, and armour is how much of an attack you'll be able to deflect before taking damage. For example, if you've got an armour rating of ten, and your enemy has a strength of twelve, you'll take two damage if they attack you. Alternatively, they could choose to attack your armour, meaning your armour rating will drop and they'll do more damage to your strength on future attacks. If your strength drops to zero then you die. Spicing things up a bit are character classes (archers can attack from afar while warriors with shields can protect their friends) and special skills that can do more damage to the enemy or buff up some of your own team.
It's an interesting approach to tactical role-playing as the game manages to avoid many of the frustrations that frequently turn people off the genre. There's little to no micromanagement regarding equipment, and upgrading characters is simple and intuitive. Battles can be tricky sometimes, but with only a couple of stats to really keep an eye on, it never becomes too overwhelming. The Banner Saga is, for all intents and purposes, the perfect tactical role-playing game for beginners, but one that should offer enough narrative justification for seasoned veterans of the genre, too.
As a leader you'll have to make tough decisions and many of these will have consequences that will give you plenty to think about. Whether it's stopping to help villagers under threat by the dredge horde, or leaving them to their fate because you can't be sure they can be trusted, you'll get these decisions wrong as often as you get them right. Sometimes being lax with the rules will win you the admiration of some of your clan, other times it will result in children being washed overboard on a boat journey because you didn't step in and tell their parents to keep the kids in line. It's a cruel world, and life is a fragile thing.
If there's one problem with The Banner Saga 2 it's that this is very much the middle part of a trilogy. It doesn't have the origin story qualities of the first game, and it doesn't have what will presumably be the conclusion of the overarching tale in the next game either. As a consequence, it's hard to look at the game as a self-contained release, as those that play this without playing either the game before or the unreleased final chapter will likely wind up perplexed. For those that played the first game in the series, though, this second episode is probably the next instalment you were hoping for – it's more of an Empire Strikes Back than a Matrix Reloaded.
Where The Banner Saga stands head and shoulders above most other role-playing games is that the world created by Stoic Studio here feels truly on the precipice of collapse. So often when we play role-playing games we're given a rag-tag band of heroes who must join together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable threat. But for all the apocalyptic histrionics of games like Skyrim, Persona 4, or one of many Final Fantasy titles, there's always amusing side-quests to take part in or brief moments of levity to break up the tension. The Banner Saga 2 is a story about the end of the world, and few games do a better job of constantly reminding you of that fact.