More of an episodic continuation than a sequel, The Banner Saga 2 wants to be an intense strategy game with an engaging story and winds up being tedious on both fronts. Using medieval-period weapons and magic, the player leads an army of humans and human-like giants against an unquestionably evil race of armor-clad demons called the Dredge—just another safe fantasy premise that avoids commentary on actual race-based conflict. As you watch your army march automatically across the screen and consume resources that must be managed for survival, the game will pause to give you control over dialogue exchanges and turn-based battles on a grid. Although few games have this level of play variety, developer Stoic doesn’t utilize well-established gaming trends, such as more technically sound cutscenes and a rotating camera, that could have prevented the character interactions and combat from being distractingly behind the times and awkward.
The tiring exposition of the writing and the lack of visual coherence to the storytelling are obvious from the start. During conversations, the game shifts to a series of giant character models speaking through text boxes, which isn’t a bad or unexpected aspect in and of itself. But instead of sticking only to dialogue, Banner Saga 2 often includes perfunctory second-person narration between character speeches, such as “Iver places a large hand on your shoulder.” Because the character models don’t attempt to represent the actions in the text (Iver is never actually seen placing his hand on your playable character’s shoulder), there’s a sense that the expositional statements could be cut without sacrificing a given scene’s emotional impact.
It’s unfortunate seeing this lack of cohesiveness between graphics and story in a 2016 game. The game even falters with its battles. Every character has both armor and strength/health points, and sometimes said points demand that the player take aim at an enemy’s armor first in order to then deal strength damage, which takes away the lifeblood and attack power of your foes. This concept is interesting because most strategy RPGs require the player to focus solely on killing enemies by reducing health/hit points, but what this rule ends up doing is making battles last longer, which isn’t appealing due to the overly slow pace of the characters on the board. Banner Saga 2 desperately needs an option to increase battle speed, as in the strategy masterpiece Heroes of Might and Magic III.
For a game so intent on forcing players to make life-or-death decisions, Banner Saga 2 doesn’t seem to care about giving you the tools or the knowledge to properly do so. The static isometric camera angle during combat doesn’t do any favors for the tile-based positioning that your characters must assume in order to attack enemies, as it can be very difficult to see where you can move when the tiles get crowded with sprites. A rotating camera, as in Final Fantasy Tactics or Wasteland 2, could have greatly reduced the time it takes to move characters to intended spaces and given players more of a feeling that they’re a general. This lack of design foresight also shows up when the game presents choices to you outside of combat. Late in the first chapter, you’re presented with a dilemma: keep your caravan on shaky ground, or throw away precious supplies to help regain balance. Stupidly, the game doesn’t tell you how many supplies your character is thinking of throwing away. If Stoic doesn’t care about the strategic details, how can anyone?