Battle Brothers - PC Game Review

Battle Brothers - What are we looking at?

Battle Brothers is an open-world role-playing game that takes a lot of familiar medieval fantasy elements and blends them into an entertaining, if currently somewhat pointless, romp through a procedurally generated world. Your job as the director of your mercenary band is to recruit new men into your band of mercenaries, manage their skills and equipment, and then to wander around the world looking for trouble. As the game is currently in early access, a promised story mode is still in development. 

Even so, this is the type of game where a story would be welcome but really it's not necessary. There are two main modes: an overworld map where you move your band from encounter to encounter in a real-time affair reminiscent of Mount & Blade, and a turn-based Tactical Combat game where you maneuver your Battle Brothers over hex tiles to engage foes.

The art style of this game stands out immediately and makes a great first impression. This small indie team is based out of Germany and their lead artist has really mastered the concept of creating a pleasing array of graphical variety from a small set of component parts. For example, looking at the overworld map, you might not even pick up on the fact that it is comprised of hex tiles. Forests and grasslands and mountains all flow together in a really charming and organic way. 

You will also notice that the character units on the tactical combat map all have a "Bust" that rests upon a unit base rather than a fully rendered body.  I like this choice from a design and aesthetic standpoint. By limiting the need to draw and animate the lower half of a unit's body, the artists and designers were able to focus on creating a unique, component-based visual style for their characters. The image to the left displays how a unique battle brother might be assembled from component parts.

From a technical standpoint, the game is perfectly competent and obviously crafted with a great deal of love and skill.

Gameplay Mechanics

The overworld map sees you maneuvering your band from town to town looking for contracts to fight outlaws or monsters, or to escort caravans across the sprawling world map. You also can hire new mercenaries and buy new gear in most towns. Running a mercenary band requires you to manage some basic resources: money and food are used to pay and feed your troops. Tools are used to repair equipment after a battle (automatically over time), ammunition is used to fire arrows and bolts in combat, and healing supplies are used to heal wounds over time after battle. For the most part, money is the only resource that really matters and is ever in short supply.

I found the overworld gameplay to be a bit boring and that is probably owed to the fact that, without a primary story in place, I was forced to make my own story by wandering around and getting into trouble. Even so, managing my mercenary band is definitely engrossing work. In town, you can choose from an array of procedurally generated Battle Brothers, ranging from a filthy rat catcher wearing rags to an experienced Hedge Knight armored in mail and wielding a two-handed sword. Hiring costs and salary requirements are reflected accordingly.

No matter who you hire, death can come quickly for the unprepared or outnumbered. The tactical gameplay is where Battle Brothers really shines. It seems like the developers have put a lot of effort into developing a combat system that strikes a fine balance between the skill of your characters, the quality of their equipment, and pure dumb luck to govern a battle's outcome.

There's a good deal of dice-rolling going on in each combat. Weapons and attacks have varying chances to hit their target - these chances can be affected by terrain, morale, character skill, and equipment.  Damage is determined largely by the type of weapon you are using and generally occurs within a large bounded range, i.e. 20-75 damage, allowing for a lot of variation in the quality of an attack.

Armor plays an extremely important role because it generally will absorb the bulk of an attack, although the blunt force of being struck can often bleed through to cause direct damage to hit points as well. Each weapon and attack has a different strength versus armor. A crossbow bolt, for example, can punch right through the best armor to deal damage directly to hitpoints, whereas a wooden club will be very ineffective versus armor.

Another great mechanical innovation lies in the fact that a character's equipped weapon determines his attack skills. Whereas a character equipped with a spear can do a variety of jabs that can pierce armor or stand-off foes, a character with a huge axe can instead spin in a circle to hit everyone nearby, or a character with a warhammer might try to knock an opponent senseless, stunning him for a round. There are some good combinations built into the gameplay, where one character might stun a foe and then another, who specializes in hitting stunned foes, can finish the job.

Generally I find combat to be a balanced and engaging affair. You can burden your troops with heavy armor to give them more protection, but this leaves them with a little less stamina to act during combat. You can send your bad-ass Axe Warrior into the fray to swing his blade in a circle, but this also leaves him open to being surrounded and quickly ovewhelmed.

And as I said, death comes swiftly in this game. Your prized soldier, veteran of a dozen battles, can lose his head in a single shitty turn if you aren't careful. Generally I like the stakes in a game like this.

Woes and Complaints

I can't say anything truly bad about this game. I have had some frustrations with losing and having to restart the game, but that's just because I played poorly. My biggest complaint is really that the overworld gameplay is a bit slow and dull. Sometimes it was hard to find a battle that was suited for my powerlevel. My guess, based on this team's track record so far, is that the promised story mode will give us a nice difficulty curve and a clear path to our next battle.

Final Thoughts

This game is certainly right up my alley. Steam tells me I've got 11 hours played, and I think that's high praise given my proclivity to dump an unenjoyable game quickly. The game is constantly being updated as it progresses through early access. I'd recommend this one to any fan of tactics games.

Battle Brothers, by Overhype Studiosis available on Steam Early Access for $19.99