"The world is breaking." These words, uttered by a heart-achingly weary voice, haunted my every moment in The Banner Saga 2. Even with the thunderous roar of PAX Prime raging in the background, I felt completely absorbed by the bitter struggle playing out on the monitor before me. The Banner Saga 2 might be a direct continuation of the story told from the first game, but it also presents a refined version of the same turn-based combat and caravan management elements. Though it will take more time to know for sure, there were few complaints that I had from the first game that weren't addressed in some form by my short tour through this bleak and savage land.
The demo I played picks up only weeks after the events of the first game. If you've never played The Banner Saga, I strongly suggest doing so before venturing into its sequel because it was clear how much of its narrative hinges on the events and choices of the first game. While I'll avoid spoiling the finer details of the story, the general gist is that the world is quickly approaching its end. A black tide of monsters called Dredge have come pouring out of the north, washing over the human and giant-like Varl settlements, pushing those who refuse to fight and die further south. Meanwhile, cataclysmic events continue to shake the world, making the journey of The Banner Saga's heroes even more dire.
The first game, while gorgeous and memorable, was spoiled somewhat by a rather shallow combat system that often felt repetitive. The team at Stoic seem keen to show that they have been listening to player feedback because each of the fights I encountered during my time with the demo introduced more and more new features into the combat.
The biggest addition is several new enemy types. While I was only shown a few, with the promise of more appearing in the final game, each of them had a significant impact on the turn-based combat. In one battle, dog-like Skulkers swept in from my flanks, howling before turning invisible to prepare for painful surprise attacks. During that fight, more and more monsters continued to arrive to battle until the odds were hopelessly out of my favor. That's when The Banner Saga 2 sprung one of its new surprises: altered victory conditions.
Battles in the first game were primarily a "kill everything in sight" affair, but The Banner Saga 2 aims to cultivate tension and develop the story during combat. When a new type of Dredge shambled out onto the field, the terms for winning shifted to killing that new target to cause the others to flee. As more and more Dredge continued to flood the screen, my desperate bid to slay the leader before being overwhelmed became a lip-biting gambit.
Additional enemies aren't only one way Stoic is looking to improve battles. Destructible objects have been added, which adds a new layer to maneuvering your heroes and funneling enemies. There is also a much greater level of narrative scripting taking place, blurring the lines that separated the first game's story and combat. These moments are often influenced by choices you made before the fight, and watching them play out—often helpless to prevent them—was always painful. During the against-all-odds fight with the Dredge, a choice I had made earlier in an attempt to give me an edge resulted in the death of a named character. Despite the fact that I had only been playing for half an hour, I felt gutted.
The Banner Saga 2, like the first, is one of the most beautiful games I have ever played, and its adherence to an aging animated aesthetic gives its world a sense of timelessness. It's apparent that Stoic isn't merely content to continue the epic story but is also working hard to address the issues that marred the first game. While the story undoubtedly carried the original, The Banner Saga 2's improved combat already seems to be giving it a run for its money.