Welcome to I’m Still Talking About… My 2016 end of the year feature where I find ten games that defined the indie game scene for me this year.  These aren’t the best games of 2016, they’re not the must-plays, they are the games that have refused to leave my thoughts, the games that got under my skin.  For better or worse, these are the games I’m still talking about.

I don’t know if I liked The Banner Saga 2 as much as I liked the first game, but that might be an unfair comparison.  The Banner Saga was my favorite game from 2014, a beautiful and nasty entry into a rather uninteresting year.  The work of a handful of BioWare vets, this norse fantasy tale manages to both be a sweeping epic that takes you across what has become one of the most interesting original fantasy worlds in video games while also being intensely personal.  Perhaps it’s that the sequel loses some of its novelty, but I don’t think that’s it.  There’s something tonally different about The Banner Saga 2, and I’ll revisit it later in this piece.

I’m still talking about The Banner Saga 2 because it’s a unique sequel.  It isn’t particularly flashy, and it doesn’t follow up its predecessor by being bigger and gaudier.  In fact, I think Stoic Studios could teach Dennaton Games (makes of Hotline Miami and Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number) about how you might not be able to exceed expectations while iterating on the same ideas you used in your first outing, but attempt to explore in more subtle ways while still keeping the core of your first game alive.  While Hotline Miami 2 sought to be bigger and better than the first, it ended up being convoluted mess.  The Banner Saga 2 almost feels content to settle into it’s place as a middle chapter, not pushing violently against the mold of its predecessor, but trying to carve out its place in history in a quieter fashion.

I do think The Banner Saga 2 does some things better than the first game, and it does them so unassumingly they can be easy to miss.  Instead of healing and rebuilding characters, it rips and tears in ways that make the audience uncomfortable.  While The Banner Saga ended so neatly and effectively, the sequel’s plot is disruptive and jarring.  In more than one way, I think The Banner Saga 2 is much like The Empire Strikes Back – a dark middle chapter that may never have the same cherished place as it’s predecessor, but doesn’t really care to.

Is it really THAT good?

I’ll get to the tonal issues I eluded to earlier.  While the narrative tone of The Banner Saga 2 is darker than the first game, it’s gameplay is far less dire.  For instance, the sequel offers more chances to indulge in more villainous choices.  In The Banner Saga, players faced difficult choices, but those choices often were for the betterment of your clan.  Either you felt that hurting others was in your long-term best interests, or you felt that helping those less fortunate would retain everyone’s humanity.  They were grey choices in the first game, but you couldn’t be evil for the sake of it.  

In The Banner Saga 2, you can totally be an awful person.  Whether you make morally questionable choices as Rook or Allette, characters angry that their family has been taken from them, or you can do it as the head of the mercenary group called The Ravens, Bolverk.

Yet, for as awful as you can be in The Banner Saga 2, the gameplay loses something.  In The Banner Saga, the gameplay and narrative worked together to create a game about survival.  Food was scarce, resources weren’t plentiful, your clan was constantly on the verge of destruction and it made the choices of survival very difficult.  The choices in The Banner Saga 2 are more a referendum on how the game is making you feel.  Don’t care about your daughter’s death?  There’s a choice for that.  Are you thirsting for some vengeance?  There’s a choice for that too.  The Banner Saga 2 doesn’t tie together as neatly as the first game.

Okay, that sounds alright.  But what is the real reason I should play this game?

The Banner Saga was a very strong first entry in the ongoing narrative of the series.  It brought you close to the characters, gave a satisfying arc to many of the game’s plot lines and told an interesting story about humanity facing impossible odds.  The only thing more impressive than doing this once, is doing it twice.  The Banner Saga 2 continues to be a wonderful experience and role-playing exercise.

Like I said, since the game has stripped away much of the survival tension, The Banner Saga 2 is far more interested in just how you’ll react to different situations.  It wants you to fill in the blanks of the story with as many gory or not gory details as you want.

The game also continues to build the relationships of the characters and lore of the world.  Normally video game sequels stand alone, you don’t have to play the earlier games to know what’s happening or who the characters are.  Every game feels like a completely different experience.  The Banner Saga 2 is a game that can only be enjoyed if you’ve played through the first game.  It truly feels like the second chapter of a larger story – and that’s rarely accomplished in video games.

Oh – and did I mention how beautiful this game is?  You’ve probably already noticed this from the screenshot in the article but check this out, and this, and this.  Damn

 

So you’d recommend it to anyone?

I wish I could, but you really do have to have played The Banner Saga to appreciate its sequel.  That being said, you shouldn’t let that stop you.  Now is a perfect time to start the series, a series that is promising a fantastic conclusion.  Then after you’ve enjoyed Stoic’s first entry, you’ll have this gem of a game all ready and waiting for you.