Move over Odin, here’s Oddleif
As a person who grew up in Minnesota, I should have a stronger connection to Vikings. I was never into football, nor do I have any Norse background in my family. My connection to Vikings comes almost exclusively from metal bands and an appreciation for fantasy. Banner Saga 2 is a Viking-legend inspired tactical combat and story-heavy game featuring hand drawn graphics and multiple paths. That’s a mouthful of descriptors, but one glance at the screenshots and I was sold. The game was released earlier this year for console, but was recently released on iOS, as well.
Having never played the first title, keeping up with the story can be daunting. Banner Saga 2 isn’t the most ideal game on-the-go, as it was much easier to follow when I could sit and really pay attention to everything that was going on. It takes a bit to delve into the full story and start following each name and character arc, but is necessary to get everything the game has to offer. I had trouble following the story jumping in where I did, but for the lay-man’s (my) idea of the story is a group of Vikings are trekking across the world to escape the Dredge, a robot-esque emotionless race bent on destruction. However, there are many signs that perhaps they’re misunderstood.
Banner Saga 2’s strongest feature is the art. Not all games need to feature such a lush palate but the hand-drawn visuals reminiscent of early Disney features are impossible to ignore. The backgrounds are lush, the combat animations are smooth, and the color schemes and environments are gorgeous. It can’t be understated how incredible the aesthetic comes across.
The game has two phases, combat and travel. The travel portion lays out the story and pauses for character interaction. You’ll run into dialogues and decisions with party members and other actions. You can set up camp to rest your party, train your heroes, and other micro-managing duties. It seems demeaning to say this but the game played a lot like Oregon Trail. The other half of the game is the combat, both of which should be looked at more closely.
First and foremost, a tactical combat game needs to have engaging combat. Banner Saga 2 has a simplicity about it, but various classes and special balancing give it a depth that was pretty easy to pick up. There are several classes of characters each with their own balance of skills. Archers for ranged combat, warriors for melee, spear men, and many other types with specialized names. The game allows you to place your combatants in combat order and that’s your initiative for the fight. Some skills allow you to shift around turn order, but otherwise the game plays as a back and forth between teams. Each character gets a move and attack. Attacking ends turns. Should your characters get downed in a victorious combat they can either be injured or killed, depending on where the story line takes you.
The fine print of the battle is what deepens the strategy. Each character has a defense and a life stat. You can choose to either attack part of the character, but the more defense you’ve chipped away the more damage you’ll deal to their life total. This opens up potential for ranged players to chip away armor and the melee characters to finish the opposition off. Outside of basic combat, each class has a special skill which runs off willpower. You can use willpower to make any part of your turn greater. Move outside of your basic range, it will take one or two points of willpower. Same goes for strengthening your attacks and other skills. Other skills interact in fun ways. Some of my characters could hit multiple enemies at once, deal more damage, shove them back, or, as I mentioned before, change the turn order. Every time an enemy is downed the party is awarded a star in a battle horn. You can use this to refill the willpower of a party member while in combat. The game has a really great interface so you don’t have to memorize anything. Should you not know how to use a specific special skill or how much damage it will deal everything is right there to see.
While combat is important, it’s only one aspect to how the story unfolds. Managing the welfare of your party, making sure there’s enough food and supplies, choosing how to get through various landmarks and conversations. Camping is a huge part of the game. While in camp, you can rest your injured heroes, shop for supplies and special items, if available, and train your team. The entire game relies on one form of currency known as renown. You gain renown by winning combat and completing trainings. My initial reaction to Banner Saga 2 was met with hesitation as there wasn’t much by way of a tutorial, but the training in-game changed my mind completely. You are awarded a lot of renown for completing the training scenarios. These scenarios have objectives that show you how to use special skills and are great puzzles to improve future strategies. It isn’t perfect, but Banner Saga 2 is a great example of letting the player start playing to learn rather than make us sit through lengthy cut scenes and tutorials.
I do have my gripes, however. It’s a really light gripe considering I didn’t play the first title, but it was a real challenge keeping the various story lines and character names straight. People into Game of Thrones won’t have any issues and I imagine with more time invested in the series (like playing through an entire other game) I would have known who was who and how they interacted with various parts of the story. The game is still engaging, and I got attached to my starter character, Alette. My other big gripe was during combat. While a touch screen works well for tactical and menu-based combat, it would be nice if you could rotate the screen a bit. This is a challenge with 2D graphics, but there were moments where character models and menus would overlap and block each other and I’d end up in a weird trial-and-error situation where I’d tap around to get the character to target where I wanted. This was less of an issue in camp, but once in a while there’d be a special tent hiding behind the top or bottom menus and in order to go into them I’d have to tug-of-war with the screen again. I give the game the benefit of the doubt it would be easier to play on an iPad or similar tablet as opposed to my phone.
For the price of Banner Saga 2 you can’t get a more in-depth strategy game. Square Enix should take notice, you’ll get a lot more players repurchasing your games if they don’t have to pay full retail price on mobile devices. Unfortunately, there was a single in-app purchase I noticed for the survival mode, but it still makes the price of the game a fraction of other similar titles. Prior to this title I hadn’t played anything on mobile that took itself as seriously as this. Banner Saga 2 is an excellent example as to how mobile platforms can be just as significant for gaming as other platforms. If you like Vikings, strategy, folklore, storytelling, or even just beautiful art, it’s hard to see how you can go wrong with this game.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5
Available on: PC, OSX, PS4, Xbox One, Android, iOS (reviewed); Publisher: Versus Evil; Developer: Stoic; Players: 1; Released: September 30, 2016 ; MSRP: $4.99 (mobile), $19.99 other platforms
Full disclosure: This review is based on a review copy of Banner Saga 2 given to HeyPoorPlayer by the publisher.