The 16-bit computers of the late 1980s were home to an esoteric Tolkien-universe game that sheds light both on the crossover appeal of the original Banner Saga and the central problem with its successor. War In Middle Earth didn’t give you much to do, but it looked stunning and the lethargic gait of your companions, who were seemingly out for a stroll across the continent rather than busy saving the bloody place, gave you plenty of time to gawk at its environments. No need to rush, everyone. Here’s a lovely waterfall.
Pacing was a crucial, if easily overlooked, aspect of The Banner Saga’s first installment. The hand-drawn art was its main attraction, certainly, but the game was designed with a mind to let those visuals breathe through long uninterrupted sequences of your refugees, with toddlers and elderly kin in tow, dragging carts through mountains and swamps as they plod to some haven against the encroaching legions of murderous Dredge. Unlike War In Middle Earth, its pace did not contradict the game’s main narrative thread; it complemented it. Unfortunately, that has fallen victim to Stoic’s otherwise commendable impulse to spruce up the sequel with an array of subtle but significant changes.
Following the tragic events in Boersgard that concluded the first game, we rejoin whichever familiar faces managed to survive the final showdown as they start on yet another trek, this time to the safety of the impenetrable walls of Arberrang, a human-inhabited metropolis. There’s a new threat in the form of an encroaching Darkness and more than a few hints that the retreating Dredge army still has a complex part to play in the proceedings. There is also a host of new characters, including Rugga, a former mayor who continuously (and somewhat implausibly) challenges your protagonist’s authority, and Bolverk, a berserker and mercenary leader whose group branches off to escort some mysterious cargo at the behest of the inscrutable spellcaster known as Juno. He is by far the most interesting addition, even if Stoic hesitates to embrace his initial ruthlessness and instead gradually steers him into the more conventional role of reluctant hero. Still, his mission serves to reintroduce the bifurcating structure of the original, which helps keep things fresh as the action jumps from subplot to subplot.
Both storylines, however, suffer from a peculiar overzealousness to keep players busy at all times. In the original, several uneventful days would typically pass between encounters, a time to take in the surroundings and ponder the plight of the refugees as they trudged toward the next landmark. In the sequel, events occur twice—sometimes three times—a day, hardly giving you time to digest the consequences of your last decision before forcing you to make another. The new approach hurts not just the pace of The Banner Saga 2 but, through sheer desensitization, the weight your choices carry, an issue compounded by a relatively forgiving save system. The game has a similar problem with its bevy of new secondary characters; the more recruits accumulating behind either of your leaders, the harder it becomes to differentiate between individual personalities and backstories. At some point, it even starts to feel like scenarios are being replayed: Haven’t I been double-crossed like that before? Didn’t I meet a wandering wacko just like this one a few weeks back?
Thankfully, not all of the changes are troublesome. If, on the narrative level, The Banner Saga 2 is inferior to its predecessor (owing as much to questionable design decisions as to the fact that it occupies the sometimes-problematic midpoint of a planned trilogy), the action underpinning it has been markedly improved. Enemy AI is still hopeless and the system of alternating combat turns between sides regardless of their respective numbers still makes zero sense, but there are at least several new character classes, enemies, and abilities to keep veterans on their toes. Skirmishes offer greater variety, not only through the wider range of combatants and skill sets, but also due to the introduction of varying terrain that affects movement and positioning, as well as objective-based battles—though the latter can feel gimmicky at times.
Renown still functions as the immaterial currency of The Banner Saga’s collapsing world, but the system has been overhauled to ensure you’re getting more bang for your buck, especially when using it to purchase weapons and other useful trinkets. There are more opportunities to earn it, too, a necessary amendment with so many characters to upgrade. The role of your clan has also been enhanced. You can now choose between training them as fighters or have them forage for supplies, rather than simply following the caravan and starving to death. These are all welcome changes, as they address some of the nagging issues that kept the mechanical bits of the first game from clicking together.
But the focus of The Banner Saga was never on turn-based tactics or resource management. It was about your decisions and their consequences for a cast of colorful characters in a story that oscillates between global catastrophe and personal tragedy. Stoic tried, perhaps too hard, to pepper the experience with a multitude of unnecessary distractions, made too many concessions to accessibility, and has, as a result, lost some of the original game’s simple potency. The Banner Saga 2 still tells a great story, and it’s hard to imagine someone who enjoyed the first installment not feeling impatient for the trilogy’s conclusion after playing the sequel. But like its army of weary travelers, the series would be better served by the solemn pace of the death march rather than a wild scramble to impress its already loyal fanbase.