Note: contains spoilers for The Banner Saga series
Five books, four and a half seasons of television, and a few video games in, I heaved myself, bodily, off of the Game of Thrones bandwagon. By that point the series had already dragged me through a narrative gauntlet of infanticide and sexual violence, and it somehow expected me come out the other side of all that ready to apply serious mental energy to the goings-on of zombie ice wizards. Nah. I was done. I revolted.
Look—I recognize there's a certain irony here, because in The Banner Saga this disposition makes me exactly the type of judgy, stick-in-the-mud character that I’d immediately try to ditch along the journey. Imagine: you're just doing your best to trek your viking caravan in the opposite direction of this waxing, apocalyptic gloom that’s got everyone rightly concerned, and some self-styled voice of dissent shows up to criticize every decision you make. You'd leave that guy on the side of the road—preferably with a half dozen arrow shafts sticking out of his back—and the bandwagon would roll on its merry way.
I wanted to bring up Game of Thrones though, because the long march of its figurative bandwagon informs The Banner Saga’s literal one: each of them is moving towards a climactic, high fantasy reckoning, but their wheels sometimes seem to sink in the soggy, low[land] fantasy they’re passing through on the way. And in The Banner Saga’s second (and I gather, penultimate) chapter, there’s quite a bit of the latter still to get through, even as the story’s apocalyptic mythos begins to assert its presence in a big way. I’ve seen it dubbed the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers of the saga, and a bit of a “travel” chapter—if that even means anything for a series so about the attritive effects of travel, and whose closest genre kin was already Oregon Trail.
Departing from Boersgard, scene of the previous chapter’s final battle, the motley caravan of commoners, fighters, and giant varl sets out for Arberrang, the human capital, and whatever safety can be found behind its high walls. Rook or Alette leads the troupe, depending on how events played out in the previous game, and immediately finds themselves beset. Hot on their heels is a smorgasbord of nordic harbingers of the end of times: a sea of enemy golems called the Dredge, that aforementioned looming darkness on the horizon, and a giant, earth-tilling serpent. It’s not long before the caravan splits, though, as The Banner Saga 2 reassumes the dual narrative structure of the first game. Bolverk, the hulking leader of a mercenary outfit called the Ravens, inherits the player character mantle and strikes off in a separate direction.
The Ravens’ frosty (but at least for me, surprisingly bloodless) decampment shakes the proceedings up in a few appreciable ways. Several members of Rook/Alette’s party can pull a heel turn and defect to the mercenaries, including stalwarts that go all the way back to the beginning of the first game. Better still, to me: when one of those defectors immediately presumes to be that guy, and offers his own negative appraisal of your command, you can simply elect to have Bolverk hack him to death in front of everyone with the push of a button. “Letting you live would set a bad precedent,” he’ll growl—and shouldn’t all vikings be so politic?
It’s bloody business, decimating the ranks, but there are enough new recruits in The Banner Saga 2 to go around. That includes Folka, Bolverk’s second-in-command and my personal favorite, a statuesque “shieldmaiden” who looks a bit like Athena with a broken, purpling nose. But most of the characters are lucky to have two speaking lines; likely they were pulled up from the minor leagues mostly to round out the character class selection in The Banner Saga 2’s expanded combat roster. The most egregious additions are a foursome from a new, late-coming race of centaurs. A language barrier means the rest of the party can’t even really communicate with them, but precious scenes are frittered away anyway on stilted, abortive attempts. But hey, they can move after attacking, so there’s that. By contrast, Ludin—the crown prince of men—managed to go through almost all of my playthrough without a single remark. Face time is as much a resource as the supplies that keep your clansmen fed, and there isn’t enough of it to go around.
The world speaks pretty well on its own, though, as The Banner Saga remains a beautiful composite work of art nouveau. The caravan rolls along on its sinuous track, as trees that look like dragonfly wings and magical forests of lysergic pinks and purples slide past in parallax. The linework is versatile, pulling musculature or folds of fabric forward with a few deft slashes and swirls, and rendering patches of snow with lightning bolt flicks of brush. It remains captivating in battle, too. The game space resembles a chess board of colorful figurines, the gallery surrounding them practically a medieval Where’s Waldo scene. Not to be outdone, the horn-heavy score lends the journey a sort of languid dignity, just the right tenor for a world where the old gods have all basically calcified. The caravan passes their monoliths regularly in the course of its shambling pilgrimage.
We’ve long used the idea of gods to explain the moral fabric that binds world, to illustrate how consequence might justly derive from choice. Their departure from The Banner Saga’s world, the game seems to suggest, has meant a sort of breaking of that connection. Events happen at the player constantly—peasants need food, bandits need fighting off, etc. But an altruistic decision can sometimes result in a character's sudden death, or a petty one might mean the chance discovery of an item or an uptick of the caravan’s morale. The Banner Saga underscores these consequences with notifications that are decidedly un-romantic: "-9 Supplies," say, or "+5 Reknown." After, the death of a child in your caravan, the game follows up with "-1 Clansmen."
This is a more modern conceit, and a common parable in stories like Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead: the existence of choice as a way to reify that choice itself is tawdry, that the world is a cruel and often arbitrary place. It’s an idea that the characters in The Banner Saga 2 often give voice to themselves, suggesting to the leader that the only thing a they can do is pick a course and stick to it, that someone will always be dissatisfied (it’s typically Rugga, ex-governor of Boersgard and this bandwagon’s resident stick-in-the-mud, who appears at regular intervals to recite your history of choices and his corresponding grievances).
As the purple creep of darkness floods the map, it becomes disconcerting to see the party running out of land to flee over. The caravans’ final destinations—most notably Arberrang, a promontory fortress at the edge of the sea—feel like the last dry acres of a rapidly diminishing high ground, soon to be cramped with refugee factions and races that don’t exactly do well with each other in close quarters. Assuredly some less savory types will find their way inside the walls too, somehow. It’s a powerful, ominous note to end on. But if there’s some Tolkienesque salvation at the end of whatever low fantasy intrigue is to follow—eagles that swoop in and to carry the heroes to safety, maybe, or dragons to burn up all the baddies—perhaps they should try to get here on the earlier side.