The developers talk about what went into creating the final part of The Banner Saga trilogy.
The Banner Saga is a series known for its deep and engaging story driven by player choice, and also for its tactical combat. If you had enjoyed the first two games in the series, then you will definitely want to try out the final chapter in the saga. The Banner Saga 3 gives you all of the things you loved about the first two games, but it also brings some exciting new features including Dredge Heroes, new characters, a wave battle system, and more.
To learn more about the game and its development, Gamingbolt reached out to Stoic Studio with some questions and Alex Thomas (Lead Writer, Designer, Artist and Studio Founder), Matt Rhoades (Lead Designer), and John Watson (Technical Director) provided the following answers.
"We designed the trilogy as one complete story and it plays best as a single experience"
What are some of the main changes we will be seeing to characters and the setting as the Darkness takes over in this final chapter?
ALEX: From the outset in the first game we always had the intention of working real change into the gameplay. In particular, the Darkness really does change the world, and we intentionally let the player see the effects of this on some places they’re already familiar with. From the standpoint of characters, we always look at them as experiencing character growth, whether it’s bad or good. Characters should evolve their outlook on things based on what’s happening in the story. We had an absolute ton of characters in this game, and we tried to give them each a moment, or an arch that implied their change. Hopefully we pulled it off!
Where does the game’s story begin? To what extent will it be determined by players’ actions from the previous games?
ALEX: The end of Banner Saga 2 had a lot of different threads for us to pick up. We worked hard to let the player resolve everything without just glossing over anything, so Saga 3 will pick up right where Saga 2 left off and take into account the choices you made. That said, some of the things you expected to be true might have surprising resolutions.
On a related note, how necessary is it to remember the events from previous games? Has it been a goal to clue in the player to past events they may not remember?
ALEX: One of the things we decided early on with Saga 3 is that we wouldn’t worry too much about losing the player. We designed the trilogy as one complete story and it plays best as a single experience. Just like Saga 2, we do include a “previously on” to remind players what happened and we made a strong effort to ease the player into all the things that are happening, but we also don’t smother the player in new lore, people and places. Even if you don’t remember exactly who Meinolf or Arberrang is, you should be able to pick up the context clues pretty quick.
What can you tell us about some of the new playable characters we’ll be seeing this time around?
ALEX: We really focused on expanding existing characters and moreso than previous games, Banner Saga 3 is more about who you know than who you meet. But there are still plenty of new characters with completely new mechanics, including a captain who can call NPC allies into battle, and multiple dredge, should you choose to accept them into your ranks.
MATT: I’m definitely excited about the playable dredge. It’s a lot of fun to use some of the abilities that have been used against you for the previous couple of games and get a chance to turn those around. Alfrun is a great new character from a story standpoint, but she’s also one of my favorite characters to play with in battles. And, of course, getting to use Juno in battles for the first time is really cool. Juno ended up being a real tech challenge for us, but I think she’s been such an important character over the course of the trilogy that getting her right as a playable character was very worthwhile.
Do you think players might stick to the older characters because of an emotional attachment, or is there enough to incentivize trying out the new characters?
ALEX: The new characters are going to be powerful additions that players will want to try, and often very important to story that unfolds, but like I mentioned previously, we want to go deeper instead of broader. Hopefully the player feels a deeper connection with more characters they already know.
MATT: I do think that there will be some impulse to stick with known and established characters, but that has been the case in previous games as well. One of the new elements we are introducing in Banner Saga 3 is a Wave Battle system that lets players swap in uninjured units for the wounded or fallen fighters that were in the last wave. It ends up encouraging players to explore their roster a lot more, and maybe discover some new favorites — even among existing pre-Banner-Saga-3 characters they may have previously overlooked.
"The Dredge have been a rising theme throughout the entire trilogy, and they certainly take the most prominence in Saga 3"
This time around there will be Dredge Heroes as well as mutated Soldiers. How will this impact the story and gameplay?
ALEX: The Dredge have been a rising theme throughout the entire trilogy, and they certainly take the most prominence in Saga 3. I think it should be fairly clear to player of the first two parts that what initially seemed like an unmistakable enemy isn’t quite the evil horde that it seemed to be. In Saga 3 that’ll be taken to the next level when you have to decide how much you’re willing to cooperate with them. As always, we leave it to the player to decide that for themselves. As for the gameplay, our primary goal was to make sure that the new enemies really change up the way the player approaches combat, and I feel like we definitely accomplished that.
What would you say are the most important changes in this game as compared to the previous installments?
MATT: There were a ton of behind-the-scenes improvements, but from the player’s perspective I think the most important changes are going to be the way battles feel, particularly when switching between the two caravans. Iver’s caravan travelling through the darkness is going to be dealing with a lot more warped enemies. We have also swapped out the warhorn in Iver’s caravan for the Valka Spear — it earns charges by killing enemy units just like the warhorn does, but instead of clicking it to get a point of Willpower, you click it to cast Arc Lightning. It ends up dramatically changing the feel of battles in the darkness.
You have to manage your Willpower much more carefully, but you have the ability to inflict additional “free” damage to enemies at-will. It’s a really fun change and makes each caravan’s battles have a very different rhythm. Add to that the addition of Wave Battles and more customized battle scenarios, and I think the overall level of quality of the battles in the third game is the highest it has ever been. Of course, our players will tell me if I’m right about that or not.
We’ve learnt that there will be timed wave battles in the game. How exactly do these work and what made you add them to the game?
MATT: I touched on this a little before but Wave Battles are actually one of the big new systems we’re adding to battles for the third game. We were looking for gameplay elements that would change things up for our existing players and make things feel fresh for the third game. One of the things we have learned from past games is that the preferred way to play the game among many of our expert players is to hold back and protect some strong units while going around and wounding as many enemies as possible without killing them. This strategy of maiming rather than killing enemies has been around since Banner Saga 1 and it has become sort of habitual for many of our players. So I wanted something that would maybe shake those players up a little.
As you said, Wave Battles introduce a timed element to battles and challenges players to defeat all the enemies on the field before a certain number of turns pass. This provides some additional incentive to kill enemy units a bit faster and maybe change up the style of play, at least for these battles. If the player doesn’t beat the timer, more enemies appear and the battle continues uninterrupted, BUT if the player beats the timer there’s a respite. The player actually gets to decide whether to keep fighting and gets to bring in new units to replace injured ones. And a player who beats all the waves of a battle and within the time limit gets an item from a boss enemy at the end of the battle.
What made you go for an all new soundtrack this time around?
ALEX: Well, we love the work that Austin Wintory does, and we’ve got unique soundtracks for the first two games. With such a big tone shift in Saga 3 coming from the arrival of the darkness and the conclusion to the entire saga it seemed like a huge lost opportunity if we didn’t give it a fitting score to match.
Were there any particular challenges you faced during the game’s development?
ALEX: Honestly, one of the biggest challenges was our own ambition. Each time we’ve made a Saga we’ve tried to make it as big as possible and not hold anything back. That’s made it harder in each successive game to keep everything successive in terms of story choices, balancing increasingly more powerful characters and keeping the gameplay feeling varied and fresh.
"What we’re seeing now is that a large portion of players expect games to be “free”, and frequently updated with a clear schedule of upcoming content stretching out to infinity, so that’s what publishers and developers are giving them"
Will you be able to confirm the resolutions and frame rates of PS4 PRO, Xbox One X versions?
JOHN: The game renders at up to 2731×1536, which upscales to 4k UHD resolutions nicely if the device supports it. The in game animations are authored at 30fps, with plenty of animations on twos, depending on the visual timing of the motion. The game itself renders at 60fps when possible which leads to smoothness of camera panning in general. For a game like the Banner Saga, framerate isn’t relevant to the gameplay mechanics, only to the smoothness of the aesthetic experience, which we value strongly.
And for the base versions i.e. the PS4 and Xbox One as well?
JOHN: Aside from potential UHD capabilities, the game should render identically on these devices.
What is the resolution and frame rate of the Switch version in docked as well as undocked mode?
JOHN: 1080p and 720p.
What is your take on the recent trend of Games as a service model and the possible controversial monetization practices arising from it?
ALEX: Please keep in mind that even though my opinions on this are mild, they only represent me, not Stoic as a whole. To my mind, the interesting thing about this is that while a lot of players view the actions of publishers and developers with skepticism, it’s the players that are really driving these trends. What we’re seeing now is that a large portion of players expect games to be “free”, and frequently updated with a clear schedule of upcoming content stretching out to infinity, so that’s what publishers and developers are giving them. I can remember as far back as ten years ago hearing internally that certain big name publishers were dropping single player development for games as a service (to much grumbling), but they were right.
It’s so strange to see a complete, fully-featured game released on Steam for less than $10 with negative reviews complaining that the game has been “abandoned” by the developer only six months after release. Just a few years ago early access was considered a scam and a cash grab, now a game without constant support isn’t worth investing by a significant portion of gamers. There will always be exceptions, but there’s a reason everyone’s chasing (for example) Battle Royales at the moment: it’s what people are playing. Are single player games dead? Of course not, but they won’t come back into prominence until gamers decide they’re tired of games as a service. Which may not happen for a long time.
The current generation of consoles will probably end in the next couple of years. What is your biggest expectation from the next PlayStation and Xbox?
Seamless photorealism will remain a goal driving hardware capability, but the competition on the quality and variety, of content will be the most fierce.
From a developer perspective, do you think the next-gen console era will be the 4K/60fps era?
JOHN: Yes, I would be very shocked if any full size console device were released henceforth that did not support 4K/60fps.
Is there anything more you’d like to tell our readers about the game?
ALEX: When we set out to make The Banner Saga, it was a single game. For me, personally, the last third was where the payoff was going to be. From even before our Kickstarter we knew how the game was going to resolve and our guide post this whole time has been giving the player a real sense of closure and satisfaction that the choices they made really did matter. I think we pulled it off, and hope that our fans agree.
MATT: I’m really grateful to our players for sticking with us through the whole Saga. I think we’re ending strong, with some of the best battles and most compelling narrative of the entire trilogy. I hope fans agree and I can’t wait for everyone to play it!