The Banner Saga surprised me when it originally launched back in January of 2014. I'd sort of haphazardly bought into it, digging the art style and only barely following it in the news.

Boy was I in for a treat. The Banner Saga wound up being one of my favorites of the year, and I still look back on my multiple playthroughs as some of the best gaming I've experienced in a long time.

The sequel is more of the, only better. The gorgeous art remains, great storytelling, interesting world building and harrowing journey are all here, and this is exactly what I wanted out of the sequel to The Banner Saga when I finished that game the first time around.

If you've never played the original, you'll need to in order to fully enjoy this one. You can import your save (or simply make a single decision as you start a new game). You have the option of watching a recap before you start, but I promise, you'll want to play through the first and enjoy it for all its worth.

The Banner Saga 2 is better, and I'm in love again.

This is still a beautiful tactical strategy game, with a few changes.

At the very core of The Banner Saga 2 is the same tactical strategy game that you fell in love with the first time around. It's a slow, methodical experience that requires you to really learn each character and develop strategies of your own for conquering each board filled with dredge and other awful beasts.

I dug The Banner Saga originally because it presented a slightly fresh take on a classic formula that, at the time, was being under-serviced in the world of video games. Thanks to the likes of Fire Emblem and XCOM, though, these tactical strategy games come a lot more often than they used. I'm happy to say that The Banner Saga, with its much smaller, tighter boards, still feels fresh.

The encounters here never feel overwhelming in scale. Perhaps you feel under-prepared or frustrated with the difficulty of the enemies, but you'll never start a combat sequence and get angry once the full board zooms out. That's a welcome change in the swelling tactical strategy genre that sometimes feels like too much.

What about what's new? Well, the game has changed. I'll talk about this in the next section, but you'll have new combatants both standing as opponents and at your disposal. There's that. You also have two caravans in this game, and that means you'll be juggling two separate stacks of heroes.

You're heroes can earn talents, now, and the level cap has been increased from five to 10. Your heroes from the first game will keep their rank, too, so enjoy that.

There's also a training part in your camp. You can actually engage in fights with specific objectives and earn stuff that way, or you can simply spar. Yes, it feels a touch like grinding, but it's nice to take on combat when you find a new hero you've never used before risking their injury in a genuine fight.

The game's changes just make The Banner Saga 2 feel like a more fleshed out iteration. Stoic didn't exactly reinvent the title, they just listened to feedback and polished it as much as the could. It's the same core game that I loved, it's just better.

A continuation of the tale that left me gutted.

Over the course of my original trek in Stoic's Banner Saga, I wound up really getting into each character and every bit of backstory that was involved. By the time I reached the end of the game, I was shocked at the ending I was left with.

I couldn't believe Stoic left me hanging the way they did, and then I learned that a sequel was planned all along.

Stoic has followed up to that original tale by not only producing a satisfying next step, but also by fleshing out the world of Banner Saga that much more. The universe feels vastly more developed with the inclusion of species and combatants that push fighting beyond simply human, varl and dredge. Now we have horsefolk, to name one, that take this world and make it feel much more varied.

These new combatants can really ruing plans for victory, too. Things will seem like standard fare for the first few hours, but hours four, five, six and beyond introduce drastically different enemies that you'll need to learn a few times before you proceed.

This second part of The Banner Saga, thanks to its plot, characters, better realm and twists feels better than the first. Don't get me wrong, I adored The Banner Saga, but 2 feels like a bigger and better game in all the right ways.

The Banner Saga 2 improves upon the original without reinvention, and it's just as brutal as the first. Like tactical strategy with a side of despair? Dig in.

Banner Saga 2 is still positively grueling. The game feels like a slog through a terrible marsh with brief moments of victory sprinkled in. This is a hard, perilous game, and Stoic did an incredible job making me feel hopeless once more.

The strange thing about this sequel, and the game that came before it, is that I like this drudging affair. Watching my clansmen fall after I make decisions, be they right or wrong, is hard. Banner Saga makes you feel pangs of loss, but it does so in a relentless way that I actually appreciate in the face of easier games that serve as typical fare in the modern age.

I like being challenged, but I like that this challenges me in ways other tough games don't. The Banner Saga 2 doesn't exist solely to test your twitch reflexes or ability to read absurdly tough enemy attacks. Instead, it challenges your ability to make hard decisions. The Banner Saga 2 makes you take your time, think and then act. Doing things without thinking first will hurt you.

And I don't mean a quick slap on the wrist, either. A major mistake early in the game will punish you hours later. You'll reach a destination and wish you spent more renown on supplies instead of upgrading your fighters. You'll watch as clansmen and your horde die off slowly, day by day as your supply stack sits at zero and people starve.

Even worse? As your clan dies off, morale drops. Once you hit weak morale, you lose willpower in battle. That makes your whole team lesser combatants, and the game actually gets more difficult.

Sure, the training sessions feel like a bit of a grind here, I welcome their presence as Stoic evolves this game's formula. And, yes, there will be some who look at The Banner Saga 2 and think its differences simply aren't different enough. I see this sequel as an extension of the original, not a complete reformation. The story picks up exactly where the last left off, so I'm giving this crusade a pass on that point.

If you enjoy tactical strategy games, don't mind the challenge of making brutal decisions and fancy yourself a love of strong art and great music, The Banner Saga 2 is for you. Play the first one, though. The recap, while solid, isn't enough to cover what you learn in the original.


Disclaimer: We received a code to download The Banner Saga 2 on Steam.