Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, previously released for the Switch, came to PS4 in late 2020 with some new updates and hopes of reaching a broader audience. The game combines a strategic, campaign-based style with traditional turn-based tactical battles to tell a story of a continent at war—with the player taking on the role of one of the major powers. I felt that the game’s balance was tipped a bit more in favor of strategy/tactical gameplay over RPG elements, however, and though Runersia presents several different systems for questing, unit recruitment/growth, etc., they were not always well executed or engaging. That said, the game features some beautiful 2D character designs, a lot of (Japanese only) voice acting, and manages to cover all of the tactical RPG basics for devoted fans of this subgenre.
Runersia‘s story recounts the tale of one of the six nations of Runersia during a conflict to unify the continent framed in a somewhat “historical” light. The story you hear is based on which of the six powers you choose to control during your campaign, as each has its own history, relationship to the other nations, and unique culture. The storytelling generally falls into three types of scenes peppered throughout the game at the pace of your conquest: “main” story scenes speaking directly to your nation’s leaders and their growth, snippets from historical records detailing prior conflicts or principles of Runersia‘s world, and a few lighthearted episodes with your main or side characters. Generally, each time your empire expands a certain amount, one or more such scenes play before you can get back to conquering. There is some depth to the story, especially since each nation has its own set of characters. For example, the nation I played—a roughly French Republic pastiche complete with ballet and fencer-like characters called the Republic of Guimoule—charted the rise of the President’s daughter to take her ailing father’s place and lead the nation (which does make me question the “Republic” bit but we’ll leave that aside for now). Alongside her, aside from a standard pompous rival character and old sage mentor, are a race of elf-like beings that serve as soldiers but have sort of a vague subclass status in the Republic.
These threads and others were explored through my playthrough, though I’ll admit the Runersia does throw a lot of names and places at you, leading to me occasionally disengaging from the story. On the other hand, this lent more authenticity to the historical feel, much like opening a textbook to a random page. Aside from these various episodes, there is a main plot thread that appears abruptly at the end, ties into all the nations, and sets up the climax. This works well from a gameplay perspective, as it feels like you have to overcome a final challenge to truly unify the world rather than just conquering whatever last ignoble towns happened to be left. From a story perspective, however, it is a bit rushed and I would have preferred more foreshadowing than I saw throughout my campaign.
Gameplay in Runersia consists of two main parts—the strategic, represented by the campaign map where you move and build your armies, and the tactical, represented by individual turn-based tactical battles where your units will fight to attack or defend bases on a hex grid. Each campaign’s overall goal is to unite Runersia by conquering all of the territory on the map (the “bases”) within a certain time limit. You start off with just a few bases and a modest income, as well as a few Rune Knights to lead your forces. Rune Knights are the linchpins of your empire, as each army must have one to lead the various types of summoned monsters filling out the ranks. During the game’s strategic phases, you can spend time summoning monsters, assigning them to Rune Knights (restricted to certain point values based on the leading Rune Knight, much like a miniatures game) and moving your forces into position.
Though the strategy itself can be quite basic and amounts to controlling chokepoints and not leaving yourself open, I did take some pleasure in positioning my forces and watching my empire expand. On the flip side, other parts of the campaign map part of Runersia can be extremely tedious. Monsters must be summoned one at a time and assigned to armies. If you take major losses, expect to be spending at least a few minutes rebuilding your armies and fiddling with how many “points” worth of monsters you can fit into each army. Your monsters gain experience as they fight that can be used to eventually class them up into higher forms (e.g. a generic Dragon to a Fire Dragon), though the monsters suffer from permadeath if defeated, unlike Rune Knights. And while there is a fairly large variety of monsters to summon and Rune Knight “classes,” I was a bit disappointed with the lack of variety between the nations. Everyone is, for the most part, using the same units.
There are other features I felt I was not able to engage with as much: questing and equipping items. Other than just attacking/defending, you can also send one of your Rune Knights questing for a turn. This leaves them out of combat and can often weaken your lines in exchange for the chance of getting some experience, equipment, or sometimes even recruiting a new knight. While this definitely helps hit the RPG part of tactical RPG, I found that in my campaign it was rarely worth the risk of leaving one of my armies out of battle for a turn and potentially leaving bases undefended. As my empire expanded, it only became harder to justify sending knights on quests, as the AI would attempt to take advantage of weak or undefended spots quickly. The items/equipment, while not risky like questing, was cumbersome to manage and again hardly seemed worth the effort. It seemed much more important to have vast armies than a slightly better piece of equipment on one knight. I generally was averse to fiddling with the items to maximize their effect because I had many knights to manage, and trying to figure out where each piece of equipment would go was tiresome.
All of the above aside, most of your time is spent in the tactical battles of Runersia. Every time you attack a base or are defending one from the AI, a battle will occur (all battles for a given turn essentially resolving at once before you go back to campaign map management). You can bring up to three Rune Knights and their armies into each battle and have a set number of turns to resolve it, which helps them not drag too long. Battles are conducted fairly typically for tactical RPGs. Units move on a hex grid to get into position for melee/ranged attacks, spells, and other skills which can be countered by the enemy. There is one unique twist, however, which I think helps add a little more tactical flair: how you win battles. As you might expect, destroying all enemy units will bring you victory, but another path is to defeat each of the enemy Rune Knights. Every time a Rune Knight is defeated, any monsters under their control retreat (though sometimes they fail to, allowing you to get some free captured monsters). Furthermore, if the nation’s monarch is on the field, then defeating them is an immediate victory. This leads to some careful decision-making for the player on how to go about winning. Do you rush to defeat the Rune Knights, usually the strongest units, but still leave their monsters to retreat and fight another day? Or do you try and weaken their forces as much as possible in an encounter to make future encounters easier? I personally mainly focused on defeating the enemy’s Rune Knights directly. This made battles a bit faster especially as the campaign dragged on.
The AI was fairly good at the tactical battling and did well managing its units on the field. Some of the battles where I was evenly matched or where each of us had small forces were the most interesting because every spell or subtle movement could potentially matter. That said, these battles were rare, as strategically the AI did not seem as strong. I was often able to get into positions where I would have a more powerful army than the AI for any given battle, and this only worsened as my empire grew. Furthermore, the AI did not feel “alive” on the campaign map, and many of the enemy nations either held their positions or attacked me for the majority of the game. I would have preferred to see a world more alive with conflict, with each nation (both mine and AI-controlled) constantly maneuvering around each other. And with the above said, the overall campaign difficulty on Normal was not terribly hard. I beat my first campaign in a little less than 20 hours and far ahead of the number of turns I had to unify the continent, and only had a handful of losing battles.
As I played Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia, it occurred to me that there is essentially a spectrum of playstyles possible which can both hurt and help the game. On the one end is the playstyle of a strategy game: expanding quickly, treating units as fairly expendable, and rarely questing. On the other hand is a more RPG-oriented style: valuing and growing your monsters more, expanding slowly so as not to lose them, and taking time to quest. I definitely fell into the former camp, and was glad I found a place for my style, but I couldn’t help but think the game was designed for the latter playstyle. I did not feel the game compelled or engaged me with growing my Rune Knights and monsters when most battles could be won with superior and quickly replenishing numbers.
Graphically Brigandine is fine, with a few nice touches to make it stand out more here than in other areas. For example, the screen fades out after each battle to a brownish color scheme reminiscent of a drawing in an old book which, combined with referencing each battle by location and date, supports the sense of historicity the game is going for. Furthermore, the Rune Knights’ 2D character designs are quite varied and unique with extremely detailed costumes that border on unwieldy but give each Rune Knight a distinctive look that usually matches well with their back story. You have the typical old sagely wizard, pirates, golems, priests, and more off-the-wall ones like teachers or painters who take the role of Rune Knight. The rest of the graphical presentation is somewhat mediocre with in-battle graphics looking like they could have worked in the PS2 era and a relatively bland campaign map. As noted before, the variety of monsters is not as extensive as it may seem at first, so you will see a lot of the same sprites over and over, not to mention the fact that “classed up” monsters tend to be mere palette swaps with only minor graphical changes.
And while Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia‘s graphics may have had some high points, the soundtrack fails to impress. Firstly it is somewhat limited—there is (to my knowledge) one campaign map theme, the battle theme, the final battle theme, and then some nation-specific and story scene music which occur much more rarely. The campaign and battle theme are serviceable but forgettable. Given how much time you listen to these two themes in particular, I would have preferred at least more variety or something to spice up the more decisive battles. Aside from the music, the game has surprisingly robust (Japanese) voice acting with almost every line in story scenes and battle voiced. This certainly helps give more life to the characters and pairs well with the 2D design aspect noted earlier.
I would hesitate to recommend Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia to any but the more hardcore tactical RPG enthusiasts who are looking for something different in an already somewhat small subgenre. Despite a few highlights in character design and a middling story, I just don’t think there is enough in Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia to overcome some of the tedium that comes in the middle and late stages of the game, the cumbersome controls/menus, and forgettable music. I did get moments of enjoyment from the game in a few of the tactical battles and the strategic movement of my armies around the map, but felt unengaged with a lot of the game’s system and honestly not as connected with my units as I would be in other tactical RPGs where permadeath can feel more odious. For those who are willing to overlook some of these flaws, it could be a fun experience to play a campaign once. Replay value is there for those who want it, given you can play other nations and that upon beating Normal mode you unlock additional challenges, but I would not expect each playthrough to be wildly different aside from new story angles.