Battle Brothers Review
When Battle Brothers first launched, there were many things to like about it. It took the standard TRPG fare and added its own twist to it: a procedural, low-fantasy world where death always seemed around the corner. Unlike most traditional SRPGs, which have you progress through levels that are balanced around how strong you should be at that point, Battle Brothers presented you with a vast, open world that was yours to explore. More than three years and several expansions and updates later, I take a look at how well the mercenary band simulator has aged.
The first thing you’ll notice after starting Battle Brothers is that there’s absolutely no hand-holding (even the tutorial origin story only guides you through the first couple of hours): for some reason you and a handful of other warriors have banded together to try your luck as mercenaries. If you have the ‘Warriors of the North’ DLC, you can choose from several different origin stories that impact your company and starting location. From there, the world’s your oyster: you can head in any direction, and probably suffer equally gruesome deaths regardless of where you do go.
Not for the faint of heart…
You see, Battle Brothers is a Hardcore game, capital H. Every bandit, undead, monster, and greenskin is out to kill you, and they’ll mostly succeed—your first few hours will likely consist of dying inglorious deaths to small roving bands as you try to get your mercenary band up and running. Even at the easiest difficulty, new players will likely meet their doom sooner rather than later. Characters that die in battle are removed permanently from your roster, and the ebb and flow of battle can quickly overwhelm you if you make a mistake… or the RNG decides to be cruel with you.
As in most SRPGs, Battle Brothers’ combat is built upon a dice-like system; every action has a chance to fail, and a 95% chance of success is also a 5% chance of failure. This leads to a dual-edged sword that fans of the genre are well acquainted with: you’ll win fights that seemed insurmountable, and lose important characters to pathetic groups of brigands. The AI isn’t braindead, either: they’ll stand back and wait for you if they have more ranged characters, and they won’t charge into your characters if they have a spearwall (they will eventually, but first they’ll try waiting it out and making you fatigue yourself). The early game in particular can feel very overwhelming, as losing one or two characters will set you so far back you’ll feel like you’re just treading water.
Speaking of characters, each brother you hire is crafted from a number of backgrounds and traits. They can be deserters, farmhands, militiamen or hedgeknights, each with their own personal characteristics and benefits (of course, a hedgeknight will make a much more capable mercenary than a historian). They also have different aptitudes with regards to their combat attributes, and traits (such as glutton or coward) that’ll inform both how they develop and how they act in battle.
Practice makes perfect
As you get further into the game, mitigating this randomness becomes easier: better gear, character attributes and know-how allow you to deal with a wider array of situations without putting your characters at too much risk. This depends on you learning at least the basics of the game’s attribute system, as each time one of your characters level up you’ll need to pick a perk and upgrade 3 out of 8 different stats, such as your HP, resolve or Melee skill. It’s important to think out how you want to develop each of your mercenaries, as different roles require different attributes and perks. Even the weapons play a significant role in this, as each weapon type works best in different situations (flails are great against shields, spears are great for zone control, etc.).
Outside of battle, you’ll also have to manage a number of different resources: money, the band and their wages, food, supplies and ammunition, as well as your reputation with other factions and your group’s morale. Knowing when and where to spend your resources is key, specially early in the game. A streamlined economy system also allows you to play the tradesman, taking varying goods from where they are cheap to where they are expensive.
The interplay between these various systems—your characters, the contracts, the world itself—is what makes Battle Brothers a great example of emergent gameplay and storytelling. It’s also responsible for making it such a content-rich game: each randomly generated world offers you a wide variety of paths to take. Raid caravans, become a monster-slayer, focus on contracts until you’ve got the favor of a noble house, it’s up to you to decide where to take your band.
Another thing worth mentioning is how informative the game’s visuals are. Not only do they look nice, but both overworld and combat visuals tell you exactly what you need to know (provided you know what you’re looking for). The enemy’s armor and weapons are exactly what they drop, and the city and village buildings are reflective of that place’s economy. That lumberyard you see means you can get cheap wood, for instance.
Overhype Studios’ game reminds me a lot of Mount & Blade: an open-world, systems-driven playground for your ruthless mercenaries. Much like that game, Battle Brothers rewards those who persist and learn how to play it, with end-game events and fights that only the most experienced will be able to get through. It is substantially harder (no such thing as horse-archery cheesing here, sadly), and getting over the first hurdles might seem impossible at first. Stick with it, however, and you might just learn to love what is one of my favorite TRPGs.
You can find Battle Brothers on Steam here.
It is also planned to release on the Nintendo Switch (no release date announced).