Battle Brothers, from Overhype Studios, is a game which took me by surprise in the best way. The first time I sat down with it and started playing, my only thought was "How has no one made a game like this before?!" This is one of those occasional titles which reminds you why you started playing video games in the first place. In case you haven't guessed yet, I really enjoyed the game. Read on to find out all the details, or just go buy the game now.
In Battle Brothers, the player takes on the leadership of a small company of mercenaries making their way in a low-fantasy world. The world, and everything in it, is randomly generated each time you start a campaign. Towns, each of different size and containing different amenities, are scattered across a world divided between a few noble houses. There is also a massive area of the world map which is completely shrouded in mystery at the beginning of your campaign. One will immediately be reminded of Mount & Blade when beginning their wanderings through the world, and if you played that classic, you will feel right at home here. Between these towns runs a network of roads cutting through forests, grasslands, deserts, swamps, and mountains. Trade caravans, squads of soldiers, and even other mercenary bands travel the roads. Lurking in the shadows on every side are groups of baddies, waiting to strike the defenseless peasants. This is where your mercenary company steps in to make some coin.
|The opening of a battle.|
The company begins with just three men, all that remains after the opening events of the campaign. Using your limited budget, you must recruit additional mercenaries and buy them some equipment. This is where some of the wonderful little details of the game start to work their magic. In each village a number of men can be found looking for work. Each one has a background story describing what brought him to take up the mercenary life. Some are appropriately cliche, some are dark, and some are hilarious. Based on their skill level, these men all have different prices to join your company, and will demand a certain wage each day. Early on you will be forced to settle for recruiting a few drunks and beggars, but as the game progresses you can afford the more experienced soldiers and sellswords to replace your losses.
And trust me, you will have losses, even on the easiest difficulty setting. I highly recommend playing with the Ironman setting turned on. Much like XCOM, the game loses a great deal of its tension without the ever present danger of permadeath for your soldiers. All of these men have unique traits and skill levels that give them character and value. Losing one of your first members, hours into the game, will hit you hard. Seeing a new recruit get cut down by a bandit in his first outing can be equally gut wrenching. Keep your men alive and they will grow ever more powerful, gaining bonuses to a variety of stats and perks. They will also tend to pick up scars and the occasional permanent injury. These kinds of wounds can reduce their stats a great deal, which may force you to send a battle hardened veteran into peaceful retirement.
|A world waiting to be explored.|
Your men also need equipment. Managing the war gear for your entire company is one of my favorite parts of the game. It takes the appeal of outfitting your characters in an RPG and multiplies it by a dozen or more soldiers. Each man can be equipped with weapons, armor, head gear, and accessories. How you equip your force is entirely up to you, and will be important to your strategy. The type of attacks a soldier can make in battle depend entirely on what you put in his hands. Archers can rain down arrows from behind your lines. Soldiers armed with shields can form a solid shield wall to hold off enemy melee attacks. However, men wielding two handed axes can chop right through those shields. There are a ton of different types of weapons to try out, and you will want to have a good mix. As the game progresses you will be able to buy or scavenge ever more deadly and exotic items.
|Some towns are less impressive than others...|
The actual fighting in Battle Brothers is done in a turn based format on a hex grid. Combatants on each side go in order based on their initiative, a value which can change over the course of the battle due to fatigue. Each character has a number of action points which are used to move and take actions. Each weapon typically has a couple of distinct attack options, or an attack and some kind of defensive stance. Each time a combatant is hit, his body or head armor will take some damage, and some damage will get through to his hit points. Shields and helms can be destroyed in the midst of the fighting. All sorts of wounds can be inflicted, from broken bones to dismembered ears, and all kinds of bloody unpleasantness in between. These wounds are reflected clearly on the soldiers duking it out. A fresh fighter will look completely different from a bloodied man, barely on his feet towards the end of a battle.
During the combat, the player must keep an eye on more than just hit points. Each man has a resolve score which determines how long his morale will hold up when things aren't going great. Letting a soldier get isolated and surrounded will cause this score to plummet, and usually wind up with him dead. Events like the death, or especially decapitation, of fellow mercenaries will cause a team-wide drop in morale. Taking out an enemy will pump it back up. As the game goes on you will find a few extra ways to help raise morale when things look bleak. Another number the player must watch is fatigue. Every action builds up some fatigue, another value unique for each mercenary, and in longer battles this number can max out, reducing how many actions a unit can take on his turn. Deeper into the game you will face many longer battles where giving soldiers a chance to breath must factor into your decision making.
|An ugly fight where I lost some good men.|
The combat in Battle Brothers keeps me coming back for more, and even hours into a campaign it does not lose its appeal. This is because the game, despite being randomly generated in many ways, offers a satisfying difficulty curve. Early on you will face bandits that are as poorly armed as your own men. After a few successful jobs your force will pick up some better equipment and be able to make mincemeat of any rag tag thieves and bandits of the world. Just as you start to feel invincible, however, the game will throw a nastier enemy force at you that will test your tactical ability. Sometimes you will even be forced to retreat, lest you watch your entire company be wiped out one by one.
|Checking the company gear. Up to 20 mercenaries can be in your company at once.|
It's in these tougher fights where the tactical combat really shines. Deciding when to play conservatively, and when to make a push, can win or lose a battle. The weapons, accessories, and perks of individual fighters must be taken into consideration. Beyond your control, and keeping things tense at all times, is the off chance of a lucky blow. Your best swordsman could be badly wounded by an arrow before he even swings his blade. An inexperienced new recruit, armed with a dagger and not much else, could slip in a killing blow on a tough enemy. It's a system where good play is rewarded, but the chaos of battle can lash out at any time.
Between fights, the player sends his merry band from town to town looking for new contracts. These contracts start off simple, mostly jobs to go fight brigands harassing the locals. Later on you will get more difficult and lengthy assignments, such as patrolling through a large area for the local duke, or tracking down mysterious artifacts. I especially liked the occasional caravan escort job that went without an enemy daring to attack you. Your men didn't break a sweat, and you still got paid! Payment is always negotiable in Battle Brothers, and you will do well to be a hard bargainer if you want to get rich. You can ask for a portion of payment up front if you need a little cash for food, or ask to get more after the job is done, if you are simply looking for maximum payout.
|You can usually push for a bigger payout, but sometimes the client will walk away.|
As you take actions in the world, the world will react. Each town and house has an opinion of you, which will improve as you help them out, and plummet if you take action against them. You also have an overall reputation score as a mercenary company, which you must improve to get the better paying jobs. The deeper into a campaign you go, the more interesting these dynamics become. At some point you will almost certainly make enemies, whether you want to or not. If you survive long enough, the world will eventually be faced with a variety of calamities, including a war between the noble houses, an invasion of orcs, or the arrival of undead armies.
|Browsing for new recruits.|
I haven't talked about the mini choose-your-own-adventure moments that pop up during your travels, but I will leave those for you to discover and enjoy yourself. There is also the matter of keeping your company stocked with a variety of food and other supplies, the ambitions you can pursue, and inhuman dangers which reside in the more remote parts of the world. There is just so much this game has to offer that it will keep you busy for a long time.
|Not all of your enemies are human...|
Even with all the content in he game, it's clearly a candidate for more of everything, you really couldn't have too much variety here. More quests, character backgrounds, events, enemies, world ending disasters, and weapons are always welcome. Some areas I would love to see expanded in a patch or DLC down the road would include deeper interactions with towns, more options for running the company itself, a more complex perk system, or even introducing more fantastical elements like magic or taking a step forward in tech (why not both?).
If you have read this far and are still interested in the game, I strongly urge you to go buy it. This is easily my favorite game of the year so far. Not because it has flashy graphics or an amazing storyline, but because it ticks so many boxes of what I want a game to be. It is fun through and through, and feels polished from the moment the game begins.
Battle Brothers is out now and available on Steam.
- Joe Beard