Battle Brothers is a mercenary team-building game set in a low-magic fantasy world that is definitely on the grim side. The land has been torn by conflict and mercenaries like you have decided to try their hand at profiting from the situation. In many ways, the game plays out like a thinking man’s Mount & Blade: Warband. It will appeal to fans of SRPGs and anyone who likes turn-based tactical combat.
Action on the world map runs in real time (with the option to pause) and uses a click-to-move interface that is both simple and intuitive. There is a day-night cycle that influences the difficulty of random enemy patrols that can be found wandering the world’s wilderness areas. The map is dotted with towns and villages, crisscrossed by roads, and infested with bad guys of various descriptions. Enemy forces can also be found in a selection of fortresses, caves, and assorted lair locations scattered around the world. These encounters are given a visible difficulty rating that present the player with some indication of the relative strength of the forces inside.
Towns and villages offer the usual range of goods and services that one has come to expect in a RPG. Most towns have a variety of muscle for hire in their mercenary market. Unlike Mount & Blade, mercenaries are hired individually rather than in groups. Your squad can hold up to 20 men, though only 12 can take the field at a time, and building up your force quickly should be a priority in the early phases of the game.
Each mercenary has up to two traits which will affect how you equip them and use them in battle. You can hire soldiers at low levels if money is running short. Normally, the level one grunts won’t bring much, if any, equipment to your band when hired and you will have to foot the bill for that yourself. Higher level mercenaries are also available and often come already decked out with decent armor and weapons, but the cost to hire them can be steep. In addition to the initial cost to hire each man, there is also an upkeep cost in gold. The total cost to maintain your force is deducted from your gold supply in real time on the world map and hovering the mouse cursor over the gold display at the top of the screen will tell you how many days you can keep your rabble under your command before going bankrupt. It should be noted that the real time clock is paused when in town so you don’t have to worry about gold upkeep while you are messing around with the vendors or selling off loot.
Once you hire your mercenaries, you will want to visit the local arms dealer to equip them with armor and weapons. Equipment is handled in typical RPG paper doll fashion, and there is a wide variety of weapons and armor available. In addition to equipment, a roving band of mercenaries worth their salt has to be properly supplied. Stocking up on food, medical supplies, and repair kits is critical to maintaining your group of misfits in the field.
Food is consumed automatically depending on how many men are under your command when on the world map. Medical supplies and repair kits are used after a battle to patch up men and arms, respectively. Basically, you have to keep your men and equipment in fighting shape so that you can take enough missions to make enough gold to pay your men and buy enough to supplies to keep taking more missions. Fortunately, the developers have kept the busy work to a minimum so that you can focus on the development of your mercenaries and the missions themselves.
Missions come in a few forms: non-combat scouting of enemy locations on the world map, escorting merchants from one town to another, and good old-fashioned combat missions where the goal is to kill everything that moves. There is not a lot of variety in mission types, but they all work well and are relatively annoyance-free (even the escort missions). Of course, you can wander the land and find your own fortune in the world without a mission, but you won’t want to try it in the early stages of the game when your food and supplies are very limited. Instead it’s best to start off with surgical strikes, doing missions that are relatively close to the starting town to build up your resource reserves. As your men level up the missions will get harder and the rewards will get better. As you might expect, many of the quests involve combat. After all, you’re leading a band of mercenaries, not a flower delivery service.
Battles play out in turn-based combat on hex maps with a nice variety of terrain features that actually have an impact on the fight. Enemy forces include human bandits, orcs and goblins, and the stinking hulk of the undead. The attacker moves first, but the developers wisely included the ability to pass the turn of a particular character until the end of the round. This is incredibly useful if you want to fight defensively. Defensive fighting is a great strategy early on since life is cheap in Battle Brothers and your troops have a tendency to meet a swift end. Maintaining formations and using your mercenaries as a team is key to victory in battle, thus ensuring that your men survive to level up and grow stronger.
Skills and equipment are a big factor in combat. They can mean the difference between your character leveling up at the end of battle or being reduced to a bloody heap. Every weapon that a mercenary can use comes with a special move or two and intelligent use of those abilities is critical. There are a wide range of interesting abilities in Battle Brothers that run the gamut from standard attacks to moves designed to destroy an opponent’s shield and defensive options that grant a counterattack.
By and large, the abilities available to a particular character depend on which weapon he is wielding at the moment. Light weapons like daggers and short swords have fast attacks that can be used multiple times in a single turn while large two-handed axes have a chance to decapitate an enemy in a single blow. There is a lot of incentive to have mercenaries in your band that brandish a variety of weapons so as to have access to whatever ability the current situation demands. Fortunately, all characters have a “bag” slot that can hold a secondary weapon and they can switch to those weapons in the middle of the battle, if necessary. This seemingly simple addition gives combat a lot of strategic depth and allows for players to react to changing battle conditions on the fly.
Combat uses a traditional action point system and, as usual, these points can be used on a combination of movement and attack as the player chooses. Additionally, all abilities cost fatigue, a consumable resource that is drained by vigorous action and recharges during turns when the character does not attack. There are various factors that can affect the amount of fatigue that a particular mercenary has, but the most important consideration seems to be the weight of the character’s armor. As you might expect, heavier armor has a much bigger impact on fatigue than lighter forms of protection. The tradeoff between armor and fatigue is an interesting choice, and effective mercenary forces will likely include heavy armor meat shields that fight alongside lighter armored strike troops with two-handed weapons.
The combat AI is competent and will try to outflank your grizzled mercenaries. It is important to not let the AI isolate and overwhelm your units, something it will certainly do if it gets half a chance. The AI also uses the battlefield terrain to its advantage in a convincing way. Things like terrain height and cover matter in Battle Brothers, and unlike a lot of strategy games, the developers remembered to tell the AI about it. Thanks to the AI’s tendency to take the high ground, along with some good zone-of-control mechanics, it’s easy to get your troops in hot water. Death is permanent for your soldiers unless you load an earlier save, something you will be tempted to do after losing an important member of the team to a bad decision on the battlefield. That said, Ironman mode is available for the hardcore player.
After the battle, you receive a summary of which of your men leveled up, how many kills each man scored, and who didn’t make it to the end of the day. You also have a chance to loot the field and pick up equipment from your fallen foes. Looting does not happen automatically so be sure to do it after every battle or the loot will be lost. Your men may well find some equipment upgrades in the loot, though most of the items you receive will be in need of repair.
Each of your mercenaries gains levels independently. Racking up kills and causing damage earns more experience, but everyone will gain at least some XP just for participating. Leveling up allows players to increase a character’s attributes. Do you want to make a particular mercenary into an offensive melee powerhouse? No problem. Do you need a heavily armored tank with a spear and shield? Go for it. How about an archer to pick off enemies as they approach? The choice is yours. Build your force the way you want.
Similarly, each level-up allows the player to pick a trait for their mercenary. There are a lot of traits on offer and they are laid out in a very open ended way. This makes it easy to customize your troops to match your playstyle. Many of the traits take the form of passive abilities. There are offensive melee traits, defensive melee traits, and ranged combat traits. The offense oriented traits often give bonuses to hit an enemy unit under certain conditions – an increased chance to hit an enemy that has already taken damage is a good example. Meanwhile, the defensive traits offer things like increased protection with shields or more hit points. Just like the attribute increases, the trait system offers a smooth and intuitive way to customize your mercenaries and create the force that you want to command.
There are a few rough edges that might keep this game from achieving mass appeal. For one thing, there is no story mode and no real “win” condition, which is unusual in the tactical RPG genre. This is no Final Fantasy Tactics. Battle Brothers is a game in the same vein as most Paradox Interactive titles; the player sets his/her own goals and pursues them in the open-ended background simulation. But there is no “story” in the traditional sense. Instead, there is an (optional) opening mission to tutorial-ize the player, after which the game basically turns you loose on the world to find your fortune where you may. There are events called “crises” that can happen as the game progresses, like a world-wide invasion of undead for example, that can be actively pursued or (somewhat) ignored at the player’s preference. Battle Brothers is a sandbox done right – it’s open-ended but provides the tools for players to craft their own narratives. Personally, I think that’s a wonderful thing. But fans of more traditional, story-based tactical RPGs like the Fire Emblem series may be disappointed.
Another potential issue is that the difficulty in Battle Brothers is intense. Even RPG and strategy veterans are likely to be challenged by the easiest difficulty setting. The combat is also fundamentally unfair in the sense that enemies like vampires, undead, and orcs have abilities that the player will never be able to have in the game. Battle Brothers is a game in which the world is either indifferent to you or actively hostile. The challenge of the game is to see whether superior tactics can overcome the overwhelming numbers, sheer brute strength, and even the magical abilities of your foes. To quote my favorite starship captain, “I take it the odds are against us and the situation is grim. Sounds like fun.” While that may sound exciting to some, it could keep away some of the players desperately needed by a niche indie game.
Overall, Battle Brothers is one of those Early Access success stories. It felt a lot like a finished game long before its official release and ultimately, the game accomplishes what it set out to do. This is Mercenary Company Simulator 2017. The combat system works well, and battles are both fun and tense affairs with permanent consequences. The leveling system and equipment system combine in ways that allow for an in-depth level of customization for your troops. The artwork is pleasing to the eye and the orchestral score fits the game well. The developers show no signs of slowing down after release and there is a lot of bang for the buck to be had for the reasonable asking price. Anyone interested in a build-your-own mercenary game with detailed turn-based combat in a stylized and grimly beautiful medieval fantasy world will have a blast knocking bad guy heads in Battle Brothers.
TL;DR: Battle Brothers is a gem and is a joy to play for fans of Strategy RPGs and/or turn-based combat systems. The game is light on story/plot and is very much a sandbox experience; the narrative is the player’s job and the game provides the tools to craft it. The world simulation runs in real time and the player can take advantage of opportunities as they arise and explore freely – as long as the food holds out. The game is pretty difficult, even on its easiest setting, so those looking for a good challenge are likely to find it here.
You might like this game if:
- You enjoy turn-based tactical battle systems
- You like sandbox games that allow you to craft your own narrative
- The theme of building up your own gritty band of mercenaries is appealing
You might Not like this game if:
- You don’t like games that require you to make your own fun
- You think managing the equipment of a 12 man party is a chore
- You find the limited variety of missions repetitive
Micah played 15+ hours (both online and offline) on a custom PC with an FX-8320 CPU, GTX 970 GPU, and 16 GB of RAM, all running on Windows 10