Battle Brothers is the story of a merry band of ugly, illiterate mercenaries who do grunt work for rich people. Set in a decrepit fantasy world where living to thirty with all of one’s teeth might be considered an accomplishment, the gritty landscapes are littered with seemingly countless brigands, orcs, undead, and really, really big dogs. Your company’s primary concern, though? Gain reputation and money so that you can gain more reputation and money. It’s like life, except with less ability to employ basic academic skills and more sudden death.
Battle Brothers offers little in the way of story or dialogue. Banter between your company and your employers occurs only when taking a job, and it’s brief at that. What’s more, exchanges are regurgitated with shocking frequency, leaving any immersion surface-level, at best. When traveling around, rare scenarios occur in which someone in your band wants a raise, a civilian needs help, or an injury is mended. These occur maybe once per hour and, again, are often regurgitated. Like most roguelikes, the story isn’t secondary or even tertiary. The disappointment here lies in that the writing is decent, and with a little more work, the world building could truly enhance the experience.
Yet, I hesitate to even call Battle Brothers a roguelike game. Based on the flow of gameplay, it’s by far a strategy RPG first and roguelike second. Then again, I played on Beginner difficulty based on recommendations from the community, as Veteran (normal) frequently results in death before day ten. The reason for this isn’t because of the roguelike nature of Battle Brothers, but because of its inaccessibility. The “tutorial” includes two twenty-minute videos which, while offering a great deal of insight, don’t provide enough information to help strategically navigate the brutal landscape. A more streamlined, interactive tutorial would do this exhilarating title wonders and probably scare fewer would-be fans away. I managed to “complete” a campaign with one Beginner playthrough, but I experienced significant hardship as I bumbled my way through the stats, myriad perks, and basic mechanics.
The bulk of Battle Brothers occurs on the battlefield, with each individual unit choosing movement, defensive positions, or attacks using nine action points. Between skirmishes, players rove the world in search of macguffins or towns. Those nine action points typically show up as two actual actions. Sometimes one might move a bit and then attack, attack twice, stand still and prop one’s shield up, or use all points for movement. Of course, more nuanced actions include counter attack maneuvers, but most of the battles fall into those basic actions. At this point, you might be wondering what exactly makes this game so “exhilarating.” The fact is that positioning a band of (one day) twelve units into an iron-clad formation with a reliable back line while carefully understanding the environment around the starting position offers a surprising amount of depth. Several in the community have complained about being cheated by the random number generator, but this is exactly why careful planning is critical, and not just on the battlefield — also how one levels up each character and equips each unit.
Like any self-respecting fantasy world, the weight of equipment and basic understanding of the statistics are critical. For those who want to dive right in without painstakingly analyzing every ability and stat — which is likely required for Veteran or higher difficulty — Beginner is the difficulty to go with, because the vast options available can be overwhelming and not everyone is going to want to begin the game poring over each detail. In fact, I would argue that getting one’s hands dirty and losing might be the best learning experience to understand what limits can be pressed. Then again, even twenty hours into the game I was learning just how crucial stamina is and how debilitating injuries can be. In this way, people may feel justified in bemoaning a level nine character dying or how a valiant warrior suffered two permanent injuries that make him almost entirely useless. This is Battle Brothers, and it’s all about stakes.
Fans of Darkest Dungeon will likely find a home here, not in terms of atmosphere, but in the planning and heart-pounding rush of wondering if a bloodied ally is going to meet his end every time an arrow is flicked and heard whizzing by. Admittedly, I was complacent for over a dozen hours in thinking my strategies solid and my careful play reliable. I grew attached to my ugly companions and thought we were well on our way to working for the nobility…until an arrow straight up decapitated one of my favorite units at full health. All was red. My eyes flew back and forth. What happened? How did he…? I’ll kill him. He is DEAD! Errant in my rushed footsteps, Giselherr raised his giant axe and took the filthy archer’s head in kind. And so, we put Rollo to rest. I recognized his contributions in the obituary and honestly felt saddened. I had grown to love his wrinkly, pudgy face and floating torso. When direwolves or armored orcs rushed my front lines, I could always rely on him. I knew him for that. He was my rock. And then he was dead. From an arrow.
While I didn’t sink into a deep, dark depression and I didn’t call off work, I was disappointed. I had thought the arrow was complete nonsense and contrary to everything I had learned about the game, but more than that, I felt loss. Then I accepted it and carried on, hiring yet another mercenary. I grew to depend on and enjoy the rest of my company. I would lose many more reliable men in my thirty-hour campaign, and while every loss hurt, I grew hardened, though not jaded. This is what Battle Brothers is about, and I think the developers somehow hit the right notes.
I say “somehow,” because even now I’m not sure exactly why I grew attached to my troop. Some friends of mine immediately comment on how ugly the game is, and while the game doesn’t look that much different when playing, something changes after one spends a few hours in the world. The art style grew on me. None of the characters are supposed to be attractive, handsome men. That’s the world. While not technically the most ambitious game graphically, the style suits the vibe well, which is only enhanced by excellent sound effects; they’re simple, but appropriate and clear.
Battle Brothers knows what it is and doesn’t try to be more than it should be, and that makes it so much better than other titles that strive for an epic or storied feel. What’s accomplished here is a solid, honest package of thrills and strategic depth, though not oppressively so. In truth, the world can get monotonous and drags at times, but I also found myself losing track of time on several occasions as I told myself, “Just one more job.” I dabbled in Veteran a bit before writing this review and couldn’t get back into it — I just couldn’t find the heart to jump right back in after I had developed such an incredible group of fighters who I got to know by name. One day I will likely pick the banner back up and I may just fall on the battlefield twenty hours in. And that’s okay.