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Battle Brothers is an open world, procedurally-generated, sandbox-focused strategy/RPG hybrid with turn-based tactical combat by Overhype Studios. I know, it's a mouthful. Prior to its release, Battle Brothers had gone through a successful Early Access period during which I've heard nothing but good things about the game. As I never play games while they are still in Early Access, I waited patiently for the full release, filled with hopes and high expectations.
Don't expect anything and you'll never be disappointed is a good rule to live by, but in this particular case, my expectations didn't end up working against me. As a strategy/RPG, Battle Brothers can provide you with plenty of enjoyable - even, if at times, frustrating - challenges.
In Battle Brothers you play as the leader of a mercenary company that's fallen on to some hard times. In a scripted event, most of the company gets killed, including the captain, and you have to take the reins, rebuild, and bring glory to your company's name in a low fantasy medieval setting. This means that, apart from the ordinary bandits and arrogant nobles, you'll be fighting ghouls, orcs, goblins, and a plethora of undead. That's the fantasy part. The low part comes from the fact that you won't be recruiting wizards or clerics, or creating your own private hoard of legendary swords. Magic in the world of Battle Brothers is extremely scarce, and therefore the rare named items are just well-crafted pieces of gear, not vorpal blades.
To begin your journey, you first need to generate a world. The topography, all the settlements, the enemy encampments - it's all randomized, with a few common elements that persist. No two worlds are exactly the same, but certain places of interest and the general balance of power are constant.
With the release of the version 1.1 patch, the game's difficulty is highly customizable. You get to choose the combat difficulty, economic difficulty, and your company's starting funds, with an optional Ironman mode on top of it. You can also pick an end game crisis you'll be dealing with or leave that decision up to chance. And if you've generated a particularly interesting or challenging world, you can send its unique code, or "seed", to your friends and they can play in it, too.
This world you create is represented by an overworld map where caravans and peasants traverse the roads, other mercenaries take care of business when you aren't present, and nefarious individuals and creatures of the night try to ruin it all for the good hard-working folk of the land.
The village elders, the affluent pillars of the community, and later, the nobles, all have their problems. Problems only someone good with a sword and plentiful in numbers can solve. This being a sandbox game, you're free to take on any contract you want, accept or refuse any job, or even be a free spirit and just roam the wilderness hunting bandits, exploring ruins, and keeping the greenskin population in check.
I'm not usually a fan of sandbox games as they tend to feel too big, too open, and typically contain pointless filler, but in Battle Brothers, you always have something to do. Contracts provide short missions; ambitions, like rebuilding your company or gathering a certain sum of money in order to expand your inventory, fulfill the role of mid-term goals. And the aforementioned end-game crises that come in the form of a war between the nobles, a greenskin invasion, or a necromantic plague, plunge the realm into chaos, shake things up, and provide a soft win condition for your campaign. On top of that, thanks to the plentiful random events, something is always happening. Everything pulls at you, requires your personal attention, and there just isn't enough time in a day to cover all your bases, especially early on. Your mercenaries require daily salary and they need to eat, and they need someone to tend to their wounds and fix their deteriorating equipment. There's no time to be bored by an open world, dealing with all these logistics.
And while all these things, as well as the abundant and high-quality for a procedurally generated game writing, create an illusion of a living and breathing world, the simulation feels somewhat lacking. It's like the developers knew what they wanted to put in the game but either didn't have the time or the resources to finish it, so they left the basic placeholder model.
For example, the game has a trading system. Depending on the world's seed, towns can have access to a variety of trading goods. The prices for these goods on the marketplace are dynamic and depend on the current events. If you protect a town, its prices become more favorable. If it gets raided, the goods skyrocket in price and become limited in their availability. The unfortunate part is that there doesn't seem to be a way to trade in bulk, send out caravans of your own, or have a decent idea where your particular goods will fetch the best price. It all mostly boils down to buying a few stacks of lumber, traveling across the map, and selling it to a town without a forest around it, hoping to get a decent margin.
Then, there are the provisions. You have access to all kinds of different foodstuffs from dried fish to cheese and to edible mushrooms, but this variety doesn't seem to matter much. As long as you have enough to feed your troops – you're good. The only benefit to having a balanced diet is that at some point it opens up the possibility of a random event happening that can raise the morale of your company. Once again, an intricate system that lacks just a few touches to be fully satisfying.
And, of course, the biggest thing about the simulation is the way you deal with the neutral parties on the map. Now, this may well be a tinfoil hat moment, but I've managed to finish my first campaign by overcoming the end game crisis without even realizing you can interact with non-hostile parties in any way. But later, playing the game some more after a few patches, I've started noticing a loading screen tip that told me that you can CTRL+click on the neutral parties to attack them. I'm fairly certain this tip wasn't there in the initial release version.
Even so, attacking or not attacking is not what I would like the full extent of these interactions to be. It would have been so cool to actually have dealings with the other mercenary companies. Talk to them, form friendships or rivalries, organize joint raids on places that are too well-defended. Maybe even an option to double-cross them when a raid is finished, or get double-crossed by them. And the game actually has a system in place where multiple parties can participate in joint combat if they just happen to be nearby, so that isn't a problem. It's a shame that the developers didn't go all-out there.
A mercenary's life isn't all trading and scheming, of course. Fighting is important as well. And fighting in Battle Brothers is a heap of ruthless fun.
On a hex-based grid, your forces of up to 12 units - or brothers as the game calls them - face their enemies in turn-based combat. The enemies don't play fair, and on some occasions can field roughly fifty combatants. To overcome such long odds, you have to use every trick in the book, and in the case of Battle Brothers, that book is anything but simplistic.
What's even better, is that the enemy AI depends on the type of enemies you're facing. Highly trained soldiers will try to pepper you with arrows, protecting their archers with a shield wall, while the common rabble can try to do the same, but given their lack of discipline, they get restless after a turn or two and just charge your position. And while even the dumbest of brigands will try to avoid your menacingly sticking-out spears, various wolves or zombies will jump onto them with reckless abandon and attempt to drown you in bodies.
To deal with such a variety of enemy tactics, you have a wide range of tricks up your sleeve. Every type of weapon has its own unique move set - spears can prevent enemies from getting too close, axes can make short work of any shield, flails are good at delivering critical blows to the head, and so on.
To hit with an attack, you have to succeed in a roll where your melee or ranged skill attempts to overcome your enemy's defense skill. Some weapons, like swords and crossbows, provide a bonus to accuracy, and as such are better suited for your rookies.
The 1-hex radius around every character is their Zone of Control. Leaving it without using one of the specialized movement skills provokes an attack of opportunity.
Fighters on the battlefield, unless they are undead, tire. Every skill costs fatigue and as your fatigue bar fills, you won't be able to use as many or as powerful attacks, turning prolonged engagements into these visceral slugfests where both sides can barely lift their arms but have to kill one another regardless.
Fatigue replenishes after the fight is over but health doesn't. Health, as well as any wounds sustained, has to be treated over time, giving you one more thing to worry about. And in case one of your brothers falls in battle, there's a good chance they die for good. And if they do manage to survive, they will be forever scarred with some nasty permanent injury.
All in all, there are a lot of intricacies to the combat system. Just one example would be destroying your enemy's shield. Sure, it makes them more vulnerable but at the same time, shieldless, holding the weapon in both hands, said enemy can dish out more damage and becomes much more dangerous to your brothers.
While, overall, combat is extremely satisfying and there is little more epic than facing off against a tireless phalanx of Ancient Dead, or being forced into a tough contract that pits your undergeared company against a hardened Orc war party, there's one thing that sours the experience.
You fight your enemies full medieval style where two lines of fighters advance towards one another in an open field with maybe a few trees sprinkled here and there or an occasional swamp. And while such approach is fine for a noble house, a mercenary company shouldn't be beholden to such standards. I would have liked to see larger obstacles, urban multilevel combat, storming fortifications, and the like. The worst part is that when you learn the AI tactics, varied as they may be, fighting any kind of enemy becomes formulaic with such little variety in the battle arenas. The underlying combat systems are quite fun, and confining them to mere line combat was a mistake, in my opinion.
Overwhelming Yet Intuitive
When you first start playing Battle Brothers, it feels like you have an ocean of options before you. You can have a party of up to 12 characters plus a reserve roster of 8, these characters seem to have 16 stats, every weapon has a different move set, every character has a number of unique traits and a pool of 49 perks to choose from. And this is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
However, as you play the game you realize that things aren't as convoluted as they initially seem. All those stats boil down to a few important ones and the rest are there just to keep you appraised of your brothers' gear condition and such. Perks open up in a tiered fashion and don't require careful pathing. And after trying all the weapons out you quickly get the feel for what's what.
Despite how overwhelming the game may seem initially, it's actually extremely intuitive. It adds another, preliminary, step to the old "easy to learn, difficult to master" formula, which is "intimidating to get into." But steel yourself, jump in, and soon you'll be navigating the intricate waters of Battle Brothers as if it were a game you knew for decades.
In case you want to test your skills in consequence-free combat situations, the game offers a set of scenarios that aren't a part of the campaign. You can learn a few tricks there before jumping into the main game. And if you find some of the game's aspects confusing, one of the menu buttons takes you directly to YouTube where you can watch detailed video tutorials created by the developers. This isn't the most elegant solution but as I've said, this shouldn't be necessary, as you are quite likely to figure things out on your own.
Keep Rolling, Rolling, Rolling...
Randomness in games is a divisive issue. Some people abhor it, other swear by it. Usually, I'm firmly on the pro-RNG side of the argument, but in Battle Brothers even I have to admit that at times it can feel like you're not playing a game about a mercenary company, and instead are just pulling the levers of some multifaceted slot machine over and over again. Pretty much everything in the game is random in one way or another.
You can scout the enemy composition but if you attempt a particular fight several times, you'll find that the weapons your enemies wield, and the obstacles on the battle arena are different each time. The markets in towns are randomly stocked and with the sheer variety of gear in the game, it can be a real chore to find a particular weapon or a piece of armor. Your prospective brothers all have a random set of starting traits that you can't know before you hire them and even the stats they gain on leveling up are determined by a roll.
The game positions itself as some quasi-roguelike and if considered in that regard, all the randomness makes sense. However, every system in the game goes against such a notion. This leads us to my biggest piece of advice – do not fool yourself into thinking that playing the game on Ironman mode, or Ironman-style where you just deal with whatever the game throws at you without reloading, is the way to go. Unless you know exactly what you're doing, playing Battle Brothers in such fashion will kill your enthusiasm for the game faster than the enemies kill your troops.
Do not believe the loading screen tips that try to convince you otherwise. Truth of the matter is, the game's length, both when it comes to the overall campaign and the individual battles, makes dealing with the consequences of bad decisions annoying, more so than anything else. Unless you have a squad of highly leveled brothers in the best gear available, a stray crossbow bolt can one-shot them, a good attack roll can decapitate them, and a single stupid move on your part can cause you to lose half a company to some rabble.
And the thing is, while this can be fun if a game is designed around it, in Battle Brothers replacing your fallen units takes quite a while. We're talking hours upon hours of real time here. Not to mention that more often than not, the gear your brothers have on them when they die seems to disintegrate, and good gear in Battle Brothers costs a small fortune. But even if you have some money saved and manage to equip your new recruits well, there's no guarantee that they won't all be brittle-boned cowards who die in their first battle.
The time and money investments you pour into your prospective brothers are just too large for how easy it is to get them killed. It's not fun to lose a 40+ hour campaign just because you took one unfavorable engagement, especially considering that your enemies don't have the same problems as you do. While you struggle to purchase good gear or find recruits that don't completely suck, the forces of evil keep getting stronger. In such a situation, coming back from a bad loss, or even a Pyrrhic victory, becomes increasingly difficult and tedious as the game progresses. Losing is only fun when you can regain your lost progress in a reasonably timely manner, so do yourself a favor and save often.
The first thing everyone notices about Battle Brothers are the visuals, as the game looks quite basic at first glance. All the characters are represented by these tokens that look like something out of a board game, which some may find a bit off-putting. I can definitely understand that, but give the game a chance, and you'll start noticing just how detailed everything is.
Weapon models get bloody as the fight goes on, armor and helmets get banged up and even destroyed, characters get injured and start panting as their fatigue meter rises. It's all relatively minor, but these details add up to create the feel of a progressing battle better than any fully-rendered character model in a low budget game to date. It's clear that a lot of love, skill, and ingenuity went into these little tokens. I also have a great amount of appreciation for how crisp and clear the visuals are. You get all of the necessary information without your eyes being assaulted by flashy effects that make it impossible to figure out what exactly is going on.
While the game's visuals can be a divisive issue, I think it's hard to argue that the audio is well above average. The music fits the setting perfectly and manages to convey the mood, be it while traveling the roads or fighting the goblin hordes, without fail.
When it comes to performance, Battle Brothers can put any other game currently on the market to shame. It starts up fast, takes seconds to save and load, runs well, and hasn't crashed on me once.
The only gripe I have with the game on the technical level is that, from my understanding, you can't change the keybindings, and the only way to even know them is to hover your cursor over the interface buttons. You can quicksave/load the game with the classic F5/F9 combo, but since there's no interface button for that, you simply have to guess it or learn about it from the community.
Battle Brothers is not quite a great game. It has the foundation of a great game, but it misses that mark ever-so-slightly. However, despite any such flaws and questionable design decisions, the game still manages to make time disappear, while lending itself well to a more leisurely pace. You can sink entire days into it, and then emerge from your dimly lit cave with the eyes of someone who had just wasted a week of their life and doesn't regret a single moment of it, or you can come home from work, launch Battle Brothers, complete a contract or two, and feel quite satisfied.
Even with its flaws, Battle Brothers is a fun game that is well worth your time. Given that this is Overhype Studios' debut project, I can't wait to see where they go from here.