The journey through the epic that has been The Banner Saga is like few other tactical RPGs out there. This Nordic-inspired adventure has mixed elaborate storytelling and gorgeous art and music with a compelling combat system that challenges players to think on their toes as the characters evolve through the story. At times it feels like taking The Oregon Trail towards Ragnarok. Other times it feels like Iron Age X-COM, but always it has pushed us to care about the people involved in the journey and the decisions and sacrifices we’ve chosen for them to make along the way.
Now the final leg of the trilogy looms. The Banner Saga 3 crushed a KickStarter goal and is well on its way to development. It promises to bring our time with characters like Alette, Rook, Juno, Eyvind, Iver and more to defining close. With that in mind, we reached out to the developer Stoic to talk about what we can look forward to in this final harrowing adventure for the heroes. Stoic Co-Founder and Technical Director John Watson was kind enough to heed our call and talk about Banner Saga 3’s story, new features, and the future of the franchise.
GameWatcher: So this caravan has been on the road in a world that slowly falling apart for some time. They’ve dealt with murderous Dredge, Horseborn, betrayal, bizarre magic, and everything the rotting world could throw at them it seems. What’s the baseline for where we find ourselves heading into the conclusion? What’s ahead of them at this point?
John Watson: At the end of the second game, a lot of the heroes including Rook or Alette, the centaur-like Horseborn, and the giant humanoid Varl, as well as refugees from across the land have fled to the walled city of Arberrang at the edge of the continent trying to escape a Darkness that is spreading across the land. We left off on some treachery just as they were scrambling to get inside the walls to survive. Besides the coming storm of the darkness, there’s societal chaos and fear among the refugees because it’s a small space with all these people crammed inside, not to mention the treachery between a former governor Rugga and his faction. The band of heroes under Alette or Rook are trying to do everything they can to survive just a few more days. Our other end of the story left off with the Menders Juno and Eyvind and Alette and Rook’s Varl friend Iver venturing into the Darkness with what was left of a group known as the Ravens, following Iver’s defeat of their leader at the end of the last game. Juno has a plan to stop the Darkness and it’s a race against time on their end to save what’s left of the world.
GameWatcher: In the past, there’s been sort of an Oregon Trail-style of management in the journey where you manage supplies and make decisions for the sake of a large group as the journey happens. How does that core mechanic adapt in these two new situations?
Watson: There really is no caravan like there was in the past. On one end, you’ve got Alette and Rook’s group surviving Arbarrang and the coming Darkness and the chaos that comes with it, inside and out. It’s on them to figure out how to come out alive against all odds and see Juno and Eyvind come through on their promise to stop the Darkness. Meanwhile, Juno, Iver, and Eyvind’s group is far smaller and concentrated then anything seen in the first two games. There are no refugees or supplies to manage on their end this time. It’s just a collection of heroes traveling through the Darkness. The only thing protecting them from the Darkness is Juno and her powers that are creating a dome of light to keep them safe, so protecting her as they travel is crucial as they race to the source of it all. It’s like a life boat mixed with a pressure cooker as they disagree about what they should do in this race against time. And then you’ve got the Darkness threatening all around them with creatures that have been twisted by its influence. It makes for a very tense situation on multiple angles despite being a smaller group.
GameWatcher: As we’ve arrived at the end of what was obviously a planned trilogy for a long time, is there anything to keep a player from jumping right in this late? Obviously there’s a lot of story you’ve told leading up to this point with some amazing twists and turns, but can someone with no experience in the Banner Saga pick up here and be guided to a level plane with experienced players?
Watson: Yeah, in a way. There’s going to be a tutorial. It’s not going to be integrated into the story as it was before, but rather it’ll be its own option on the main screen where new players can get acquainted with the combat and veterans find refreshers on most of the systems. As for the main campaign, we treat this trilogy of like seasons of a television series, even to the point where we do a sort of “previously on” recap to get everyone up to speed with what’s going on. A lot of stories in games, television, movies, and print drop you in the middle of what’s going on and guide you to where you need to be. Obviously, we encourage everyone to play through the full trilogy to grasp the depth and connection to the characters, choices, and stories that led here, but we also provide players that just want to jump in with the tools to choose important events from previous games and get started here in Banner Saga 3 if that’s what they want.
GameWatcher: In the past, we’ve seen quite a few strategic options on the battlefield such as the ability to destroy obstacles, flanking bonuses, landmine-like pitfalls, and more. Is there anything new that Banner Saga 3 brings to the battlefield for players to recraft their strategies?
Watson: There’s several important things we’re implementing to add more strategy to the battlefields. One of the main thing is more interactivity on the battlefield. We’ve had attackable obstacles that can be destroyed to clear paths, but this time we’re talking about objects with which you can interact. We have a lot of freedom to play with this one and change up the battlefield. You can kick over an urn to spill fire onto a few spaces or throw a switch to activate a pitfall that cuts off part of the battlefield. What’s more, enemies have just as much access to these things as the player, so it adds a new angle to consider from both an offensive and defensive point.
GameWatcher: Banner Saga 2 saw the addition of quite a few new classes, as well as some cool promotions to classes from the first game. What can we look forward to as we continue to grow our parties and offensive and defensive arsenal in the third leg of this adventure?
Watson That’s one of the other main things we’re developing for Banner Saga 3. This time, the “third promotion” comes up in the form of Heroic Titles. This feature has roles in both combat and story. For the most part, they’ll come from the story events. One of the earliest instances is the Light Bringer title for Juno, as the one guiding everyone through the darkness. With the Light Bringer title, Juno will have an additional passive and perhaps a few other powers. That said, the Heroic Title applied to a hero will also have an effect on how other characters react to them. Characters that recognize Juno’s title may respond differently based on that factor alone. There’s going to be a lot of Heroic Titles and they’ll come into play in different ways.
GameWatcher: Banner Saga 2 also saw the addition of the Horseborn race. One of the stretch goals for the Kickstarter saw the addition of longtime and terrifying foes, the Dredge, join our side in some capacity. Will we see other new types of inhabitants, friend or foe, as we close out this journey?
Watson: One of the most interesting things we’re about to do is play with how the Darkness affects most of the creatures of the land. Players saw a couple different examples of Dredge that were warped by the Darkness in Banner Saga 2. They had their own unique abilities related to that. Now that the Darkness is covering a great deal of the land and Juno’s party is marching right into it, players are going to see a lot of familiar beings warped into unique forms. For instance, one of the characters you come across is this character that’s a Hedge Witch or a Wild Mender. She’s basically a Mender that settled in the Darkness. She found a way to live there and has unique ways to protect herself against its influence. So she represents a sort of an opposite to Juno and Eyvind – a twisted version of the Menders that players might be used to seeing. She’ll have ways of going about things that butt heads with Juno and force the player to decide between them, but she’ll also bring special abilities Juno doesn’t have for her part on the battlefield.
GameWatcher: With the success of the KickStarter for Banner Saga 3, a campaign isn’t all we’re going to see in this latest iteration. A Survival mode and Eternal Arena mode are also coming to the fold. These are places where players can test their mettle against numerous challenges, correct?
Watson: That’s right. Survival Mode will be returning for any player familiar with Banner Saga 2. Players will face a series of about forty battles set on a timer and try to reach the end, utilizing various configurations of fighters. There will be various achievements and rewards related to that as well. Meanwhile, Eternal Arena is more of a sandbox mode. On one hand it lets you set up certain parameters and test different aspects of the combat in ways you couldn’t in previous games. On the other hand, players will also find numerous challenges there that feature indirect competition on a leaderboard, pushing players to find the best strategies and configurations for any given challenge. Both of these modes are aimed heavily at players that enjoy the combat portion of the game. There’s plenty of combat in the game, but those encounters are finite and there’s not really any way to train or experiment in the campaign. So this is really an offering for people that really dig the tactical combat aspect of the game. It also offers different time investments. Eternal Arena is built for quick game experiences where players can jump in and play in a relatively short time period where Survival Mode is a place that challenges you to get ready for a lengthy gauntlet and bring your A game.
GameWatcher: Eternal Arena also seems to offer a little bit of community, not just in competition, but in seeing how other players take on the challenges you create. Can you expand on how?
Watson: That’s exactly right. It’s not just this place where you can see who has the best strategy or score, but we’re also going to be providing players with an idea of what other players are doing from aggregate, statistical standpoints. We want to help foster discussions and debates about which strategies are best. On the matter of communities, we’ve started a Discord channel and are offering Alpha testing of the battles to players to help nail down what they want and what we want in this final chapter. We’ve also opened a new Pledge Manager page. It’s an opportunity for anyone who missed the KickStarter, but still wants to get involved in things like the Alpha testing and other opportunities and support the game.
GameWatcher: Speaking of battles, we’ve seen multiplayer take on some level of life in the past with The Banner Saga: Factions. Is there any plan to go back to or expand that variation of play?
Watson: There’s no set plans, but there’s definitely a desire. The multiplayer Factions spinoff was one of the most satisfying development experiences for all of us. We really enjoy that turn-based competitive battle format. It was fun to see how the community got into it and how active things were. There’s still a loyal following there and it’s something we want to revisit at some point. The reason why we haven’t is because the effort would just be more than we can handle right now. We’re still a small team. Moreover, we don’t think it do well to just go back and add more things to Factions. We would want to build something new from the ground up, so that would require a lot of time and effort. For that reason, it’s not something we’re going to tackle until maybe after Banner Saga 3 is finished and released. If we were going to do it, we would want the time and thought to make it fun, accessible, successful, and coherent.
GameWatcher: With the Banner Saga coming to a close, have you thought about what’s on the horizon for Stoic? Is this truly the end of this world or do you see yourselves returning and expanding upon it further in the future?
Watson: In terms of the Banner Saga world, it’s very rich, and I imagine we would love to return to it at some point even after Banner Saga 3 is done. There’s a lot of world building in this trilogy and we left a lot of the history and certain events offscreen. The world is rich enough that we can take on things that are happening parallel to this trilogy, before, or even after the events players know. That said, we’d probably let the series rest for a bit and let the audience get hungry for the next thing. The main thing we’ve considered for the future is something I mentioned earlier. We’re interested in doing something in a competitive, tactical combat capacity. We certainly haven’t sat down and drafted any ideas, but it’s most certainly something we’re all interested in and something we’d probably try to pursue given the opportunity. It would be a new IP, something that would allow us to avoid stagnance, try new things, and flex our creativity beyond what we’ve been doing. We also had a stretch goal for a motion comic for Banner Saga 3. We didn’t reach that one, but it’s still something we want to do. To be honest, we’d love to do something in the vein of animated shorts or episodes, but that’s another matter that would take a lot of consideration in cost, time, and who we would work with to make it happen.
GameWatcher: Banner Saga has a very distinct style and to see it in motion, even for the few cutscenes we got in the first two games, was pretty stunning.
Watson: Yeah, we were extremely pleased with how that turned out. We owe that to Powerhouse Animation in Austin, Texas. They did a great job at bringing the scenes to life. Scenes like when Eyvind loses control of his power and the giant Serpent make us want to really pursue that possibility. The problem is that doing hours of animation over the few minutes we had in the games requires so much more work. It’s a lot to ask to be able to put aside the hours and money on top of finding the people who could help us handle it properly.
GameWatcher: A strategy game like this lends itself to so much creativity. Is there any chance the Banner Saga might see some mod support or a tool kit for custom classes, battles, and the like?
Watson: There’s most definitely a chance for it. It’s actually something I feel very strongly about. I think having mod support for a game is extremely valuable for players, modders, and us as the developers too. We’ve released mod tools in the past for previous Banner Saga games and we’ve had some dedicated people create whole packages of mods to make the games better. Banner Saga 3 is in too difficult of a state to make a steamlined set of mod tools for just yet, but it’s definitely something we’ll be looking at after we launch the game. If we have the time, space, budget, and maybe a few months to streamline some things it’d be extremely valuable to offer a mod kit and make a move onto Steam Workshop.
In the past, Banner Saga has set our hearts aglow with a strong mixture of branching stories, tactical combat, and RPG elements that have come to define the series. Always the darkest before dawn seems like an apropos statement going into Banner Saga 3 and we can’t wait to see how this final journey unfolds for our intrepid heroes.
You can follow the development of Banner Saga 3 through the game’s direct Twitter @BannerSaga.
You can also follow Stoic at @stoicstudio and Banner Saga publisher Versus Evil @vs_evil for the latest news and information and about the game.