impartialgecko's The Banner Saga (PlayStation 4) review

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Saga-cious

Leadership is a concept that is so often poorly explored in games. Commander Shephard "leads" by being charismatic, capable and oh-so sexy and The Walking Dead's Lee picks between a handful of bad choices for dealing with a desperate situation but as the players, we don't so much lead through him/her as much as we choose which outcome we would prefer. Choice is but one part of leadership and its outcomes are rarely evident to us at the moment of choosing. Stoic's The Banner Saga understood this intimately. By forcing you to make choices whose consequent outcome you could only guess at and then demanding you observe as your caravan of warriors and clansmen either survive, starve or simply desert you, The Banner Saga grounded its mix of turn-based tactical battles and Oregon Trail-esque interactive fiction in a manner that made for both an impressive debut and another legitimate Kickstarter success.

As a consequence of such a strong start, The Banner Saga 2 is immediately familiar. Carrying one's save over from the previous game populates your cohort with the last entry's surviving cast and the items you acquired along the dreary way. Bar the subtle improvements to the user-interface you'd be forgiven for thinking it's the second act of the same game, which isn't necessarily a criticism. The seamless transition into events mere days after the conclusion of the first game lends the opening hours a momentum that's a welcome reprieve from Stoic's previous insistence on making you plough through incessant identi-battles while your caravan was whittled away to scraps. The consistency of the caravan and its ever-dwindling supplies has been downplayed in favour of frequent and bombastic set-pieces that facilitate the hard-cuts between either Rook or Alette's caravan or the infamous Raven mercenaries commanded by immense berzerker known as Bolverk. Some of the previous entry's character is lost with the reduced emphasis on supply management, but if that's what was needed to facilitate the ferocious pace and some truly stunning sequences, it was well-worth the trade. Without giving anything away, where the last game made the sight of your banner fluttering above a line of weary clansmen trudging through the snow a recurring motif, The Banner Saga 2 subverts that imagery in a couple of moments that had me on the verge of applause.

However, The Banner Saga 2 hasn't quite managed to kick the worst elements of its predecessor out of its metaphorical caravan. In summation, The Banner Saga was a fantastic piece of interactive fiction frequently interrupted by a sub-par tactics game. Despite this, Stoic has made no substantive changes to the underlying rules of the battle system, instead adding more options and ways to develop your forces in an admirable attempt to complete a framework that previously felt unfinished. New and more interesting classes are introduced such as the aforementioned Bolverk the Bezerker - whose twin axes damage both armour and health of your targets in addition to whoever is standing next to him - and existing characters can now level up to the point where their roles feel more distinctive and useful. The multitude of new classes means that a couple too many nondescript Varl in your company lose whatever semblance of functional character they might have had. It's inevitably more satisfying to stick with your favourites and level them up exclusively. The objectives and terrain of the battles has also been given a much-needed injection of variety. Physical barriers, new threats and desperate hold-outs lend the tactical encounters some of the urgency and drama of the narrative meta-game, and while these battles still lack the moreish quality possessed by better entries in the genre, they're not nearly as tedious or intrusive as before.

Ultimately, you should be here for the story as The Banner Saga 2 has also retained the best qualities of the initial blueprint. The first game showed you the kind of decisions a leader must make in such desperate circumstances and the consequences were often as unexpected as they were brutal. The Banner Saga 2 adds even more complexity by criticising your characters' leadership at every turn. Whether it's the swelling ranks of Rook or Alette's patchwork army of refugees or Bolverk's nagging belief that he has gotten himself and his Ravens in over their heads, there's rarely a moment when your decisions aren't being scrutinised. If the first Banner Saga was about making hard choices, The Banner Saga 2 is about questioning them. There is an unwavering emphasis on that fact that leadership is dirty business. Your decisions are the sausage-making of carrying out a crushing responsibility. You will be responsible for hundreds of deaths and - depending on how you decide to role-play each caravan leader - that fact might be intentional. The writing is near-impeccable, although the plot itself isn't above a handful of moments that strain credulity as it reaches further and further towards stratospheric heights of fantasy. Nevertheless, The Banner Saga 2's storytelling tears along with confidence, escalating to what promises to be a cataclysmic follow-up as it goes.

If you finished the first Banner Saga, its sequel will likely be essential playing. That said, the Game of Thrones-meets-Oregon Trail elevator pitch of the first game has been sidelined in favour of a more dynamic, punchy style of storytelling that might not sit well with those who enjoyed wallowing in the creeping despair of the previous instalment. If one's emotional experience of The Banner Saga could be described as a death-by-a-thousand-cuts, The Banner Saga 2 is a series of body blows delivered with surgical cruelty.

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