'The Banner Saga' an engaging hybrid of new and retro

New York Times News ServiceJanuary 30, 2014 

Tryggvi, a spearman, in the Viking game The Banner Saga.



    'The Banner Saga'

    Platforms: PC. Available at Steam, Atore.steampowered.com.

    Developer: Stoic Studio

    Publisher: Versus Evil

    Rating: No ESRB rating

Perhaps because video games are often, and wrongly, viewed solely as technology, they are thought by many to be perpetually improving.

Sure, the past few decades have brought changes. Visuals have shifted from ragged, chunky blocks to three-dimensional computer animation. Sounds have gone from either nonexistent — as in the text adventure games of the 1970s and '80s — or blips and beeps to fully recorded voice performances and orchestral scores that sometimes rival the best productions for film and television.

But newer isn't always better. People still play Ms. Pac-Man and Tetris, after all. What to make, then, of something like The Banner Saga, an unusual and sometimes skillful blend of old and new?

The Banner Saga — a PC game with Viking-like humans and mythical creatures — has two-dimensional, often static artwork modeled on the hand-drawn imagery of classic Disney films rather than the precision of Pixar. The voice acting is minimal, with most storytelling through words that must, yes, be read to be understood.

The spare text and the lavish-retro art are, however, accompanied by a first-rate score by Austin Wintory, who received a Grammy nomination last year for his composition for the PlayStation 3 game Journey. In The Banner Saga's credits, Wintory's team far outnumbers the people involved in the programming, writing, design or animation.

The only team in the credits larger than the musicians is the collection of backers on Kickstarter, more than 4,700 of whom paid at least $25 on that crowd-financing website in 2012 for the privilege of seeing their names there. Stoic Studio raised more than $700,000 from more than 20,000 people who wanted to see this game made.

The style of play that The Banner Saga favors — turn-based tactical battles resembling the holographic chess that Chewbacca and R2-D2 play in Star Wars — has undergone a renaissance. Well-received games including X-COM: Enemy Unknown and Fire Emblem: Awakening have been released since those Kickstarter backers chipped in $700,000.

The battles in The Banner Saga — involving those Viking-like humans, a race of horned creatures (called varl) and stone colossi (dredges) — are tense and engaging. Unlike in the recent X-COM and Fire Emblem games, losing a character in battle doesn't mean you've lost that character forever, making The Banner Saga slightly easier to play even as it lowers the stakes. A section that resembles the educational game Oregon Trail, asking players to manage supplies for a caravan of settlers, is less successful.

For a game that requires so much reading, the prose is never more than workmanlike, but it is, thankfully, clear of melodrama. The Viking-like names and settings can seem impenetrable at first.

The story is well plotted and set in an original world with a deep mythology and history, even if it approaches boilerplate high fantasy: The gods are dead. The sun is frozen. War has returned. The end of the world is nigh.

I have a high tolerance for talk of menders and Loom-mothers and godstones, and yet I found myself rushing through The Banner Saga's character conversations so I could get back to its battles. Still, even when I hurriedly clicked through text, the game was beautiful to listen to.

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