Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Sagas both New and Old

I should confess right away that I'm not an expert when it comes to Norse Sagas.  However, I have read Njáls Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Ölkofra Saga and Völsunga Saga.  Normally, I'm not the kind of person to take much interest in literature written over five centuries ago about events close to millennium old, had not a humorous adaptation of the plot from Star Wars (told in the viking tradition) sparked my interest.  By all means check it out (it's called Tattúínárdǿla Saga).  In particular, I found the treatment of the prequels to be more entertaining than the actual films.  Then there is The Banner Saga which, unlike Candy Crush Saga (or pretty much any other video game with the word "saga" in the title), actually has some connection to Scandinavian folklore.  It's not perfection, but before I start to criticize, let me give this game some much deserved praise.

The art direction is beautiful.  Static as most of it is, I love the Eyvind Earle influenced stylization of the landscapes along with the character portraits and rotoscope animation that hearkens back to the glory days of Ralph Bakshi and Don Bluth.  The music is also excellent although I would have liked a bit more of it.  Then again the sparseness of musical cues suits the sober setting.  The combat mechanics are also surprisingly deep, and while I've seen a significant amount of grumbling about the counter-intuitiveness of the turn order system, I enjoy it.  The system's strengths are twofold; it nominalizes the effects of numerical superiority while simultaneously ensuring that the standard approach of focusing-on-one-target-until-it's-dead doesn't always apply.  Outside of combat there's a wealth of role-playing opportunities.  One of the annoyances about supposed morality systems in video games is their ham-handed "be good," "be evil" or "be indecisive" approach to decision making.  Thankfully, The Banner Saga avoids this pitfall for the most part by making pretty much every important set of choices come back to haunt you in some way, shape or form.  Stripped down to it's bare bones, the player's only real choice ends up being which way they'll get screwed.  Again, I think this is appropriate given the circumstances in which the characters find themselves...cynical me also thinks this is rather consistent with real life.

A number of reviewers have called the Banner Saga a mix of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy: Tactics.  I can definitely see the similarities to the former, but the combat in particular reminds me most of Betrayal at Krondor.  If I had to choose a Japanese parallel, something from the visual novel genre seems like a closer match to me.  While we're on the topic of text driven games, I should mention that I don't like poor writing any more than listening to bad voice acting.  Luckily, the limited use of voice acting is done well here and the text is passable although strangely lacking in Ye Olde English.  Then again the Icelandic sagas (at least those translated by the awesomely named Magnus Magnusson) are in sparse modern prose, albeit somewhat more archaic in terms of expression and presentation.

So, what's my main gripe with this take on ancient Norse literature?  In a word - clothing.  Don't get me wrong, it's all very period and thematically appropriate, but in the case of the Varl, I can't figure out how they could possibly put on a pullover tunic without ripping it.  Just look at the horns on these giants!  How the heck do they get dressed without snagging one (or both) of those pointy noggin spikes on their shirt fabric.

Other than that nitpick though The Banner Saga is a great game.  Especially when you consider it was an early kickstarter project made almost entirely by three ex-Bioware employees working out of a shack somewhere in Austin, Texas.  It's cheap, it's indie, and it's easy to tell a lot passionate effort went into making the game.  In future installments I look forward to sailing longships, slaying wyrms, meeting shieldmaidens, and sending berserkers into combat (hopefully on battlefields that are more than just flat open spaces).

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