Due to some unforeseen and very unpleasant circumstances, I was in the position where playing 29 hours of Battle Brothers in 2-3 weeks felt like the rational choice. However, I myself am unhappy to just leave it like that, so I’m going to review the game – in 2021.
Battle Brothers – The Game Most Sadly Not About Space Marines – takes place in the realm of Generic Fantasy Land. Split between three ruling houses, this country is nearly entirely devoid of magic save for the errant necromancer. As the leader of a mercenary band, you’ll be earning coin fighting the ever-present bandit threat, but also the unquiet dead, orcs, and just angry fantasy wildlife.
Battle Brothers has several DLCs which expand the world – somewhat literally, as two of them add the deep north and the near east respectively. I played it vanilla, because that’s the version that I had, and I also felt stingy.
Nothin personnel kid
The most curious thing about Battle Brothers is that you, the player and mercenary company leader, are not represented on the battlefield in any way. The text makes it clear than none of the mercs you actually control lead the group, but as the leader, you never lead from anywhere near the front. Why would that be, if having a player avatar character has been a thing in such mercenary gaming notables as Jagged Alliance 2?
Thinking about it for more than 30 seconds, you come to a realization: because the game is deadly as hell, and you’re expected to see quite a few of your lads bite it. In fact, if you’re playing on full difficulty AND ironman, your dudes will be dying quite often. Even with save-scumming, I’ve left quite a few friendly corpses on the field.
Said deadly encounters take place on hex-grid maps and in a turn-based fashion. Each combatant takes a spot on the initiative track, and when their time comes, they get some action points – usually enough for two actions. Skill have a stable cost in AP, but movement depends on terrain.
Actually, “over a hill” is already “far away”
Ah, but you can’t always take the actions you want because everything you do in Battle Brothers increases fatigue. Moving, fighting, activating abilities – everything. This leads to cases where your dudes are just too tired to raise their shields. This is known as a “bad thing” in the hired soldier industry.
The characters – depicted as awesome busts – can move around, hide behind trees or friends, and gain height advantage by climbing hills. They’ll be forming shields walls for defense, hacking at their enemies, shooting bows and throwing spears. You might even RELEASE THE HOUNDS if you’re feeling like it. In any case, if you land any hits, they can be very painful.
Military – Guild Hall Complex
As the world of Battle Brothers still runs on a tech level where mail armor is the bread and butter, you can never trust it to keep you super safe. What’s more, armor has a health track of its own, so even in the (rare) cases when it absorbs 100% damage, it will eventually run out. At least the armor is split between helmets and body… because, you know, you can risk it by cheaping out on one or the other.
And remember: when it comes to gear, it’s not only the money, but also fatigue that speaks. In the end of the day, you may consider taking the historical route – especially when it comes to the rookies – and giving troops shields, good helmets, and a token amount of armor. Sure, you’ll hurt a lot less when a blow lands, but you’ll save money and fatigue! Plus, when a shields blocks a hit, it blocks all of it – and shields are a lot more sturdy (unless axes come into play).
This is my axe. There are many like it, which I know from looting and selling a few
Luckily, things are a lot less arduous when it comes to weaponry. There’s a whole bunch of weapon classes in Battle Brothers, and each one has a certain role, as well as an alternate attack ability. For example, maces can stun enemies while flails can be used to strike above shields and hit the head. Swords allow you to parry, which can be very much fun when combined with a shield wall.
Two handed weapons often have greater reach – which allows you to land powerful blows by standing behind your friends that maintain the shield wall. The ones that don’t have reach are very powerful – but since you’re foregoing a shield, every enemy will be gunning for that.
And that’s one bit of exploitable enemy AI. They will always aim to hit the weakest, easiest to hit target. Now, this doesn’t mean that you can kite an entire army with a naked peasant. But when it comes to taking your spot in the shield wall, you can have a more beat up trooper raise the shield and then attack twice with a healthy one.
Battle Brothers, about 12 of them
Other than that, you’ll want to wound the enemy fast and hard. Giving throwing weapons to everyone you have is a viable option to soften the enemy before they close in. Of course, you’ll have dedicated archers of your own, and ranged attacks are serious. But the way shields can easily absorb arrows, and the enemy easily outnumbering you, you won’t be running a Total War all-archer army. Especially once you run into enemies that can teleport…
Another issue is that while your band of Battle Brothers can be up to 20-strong, you can only field 12. This is useful for rotating wounded troops for fresh ones between battles, but it severely limits what you can do on the field. Also, by default, your troops are arranged into two ranks – while you can freely change their composition, you only have so much space to work with.
Learning from the mistakes of the dude that just died next to you
Eventually, you have to hope that superior equipment, training, and tactics will prevail. Yes, your sellswords accrue experience, and go up levels. Each level up allows you to raise three of your stats (by a randomly rolled amount) as well as get a perk. Perks can be very useful, even if none of them are overpowered.
This allows you to tailor a soldier the way you like. A frontliner with a bidenhander will benefit more from perks that allow them to tank damage and resist fatigue climb while a skirmisher made for outflanking the zombie horde to gank the necromancer will be better off with stuff that helps mobility (like freely jumping out of enemy zone of control) and ranged damage.
Granted, you need your soldier to live that long…
Aside from regular HP damage that takes time to heal (and equipment which isn’t fixed instantly or without an investment in the form of tools), your dudes will accrue injuries. Some will be healed in days – as long as you have the meds. Some, like losing a finger, are permanent. All are annoying and encourage rotating troops. After all, your top swordsman isn’t doing much if he’s at -40% to attack and defense.
A living, snoring world
Now, this is all gameplay stuff – but what about the world and emergent storytelling of Battle Brothers? Well, I can only say that I don’t feel it that much. I have a hard time remembering the names of all but the most senior of troops. And even then, I don’t always know if I had just lost someone important mid battle. It’s true that your troops all have certain backgrounds as well as traits (both positive or negative). But it’s really hard to put names next to faces – even harder than it was in XCOM.
There is effort to make you remember the lads. Some come with nicknames like “The Butcher.” Some are recruited under strange circumstances, like after being saved from lynching for zoophilia. Their traits can fire off randomly, like a fieldhand drawing insight into cutting men from the way he cut wheat (that bit of writing I never forgot, even after all these years) to a cultist causing trouble due to… well, being a cultist.
But at the end of the day, with everyone drawing from the same trait/ability/skill tree, your dudes are all kind of the same. At most, you’ll be able to identify them by the gear they wear, and by remembering which ones always underperform in battles – whether it’s two-hander wielders always attracting attacks or newbie archers consistently missing.
Taking in the sights
The world of Battle Brothers is, however, a grim, low magic place. It’s all obvious via writing, and gameplay, and hits especially hard in special encounters and the “Where Are They Now” segments after you retire your company. The people are beset by bandits, monsters in the wilderness, and nobles. Your own dudes can meet some harrowing after-the-game deaths if they don’t get cut down on the field. Best to stay alive and get rich.
What also aids the game is that Battle Brothers is beautiful. The interface is nice, the world map is cool, and the character busts reflect the gear they have, the state of said gear, and how wounded they are. Even without health bars, you’ll be able to tell how well (or badly) a soldier is doing just by looking at him. This is matched by some good sound design, which includes some especially satisfying hit effects.
Now, I haven’t played the DLCs, but I think if you find yourself enjoying Battle Brothers during the 2-hour refund window, you should spring for the DLCs. I was sold (ematphorically) for the Middle East one by the menu background itself, but it’s more than that. There are alternate start options (sorely needed), new regions, new weapons (guns included), new everything! I think the added content is well-worth the price.
Overall, Battle Brothers is a fine game. Sure, the enemies can get a little boring if you play for an extended amount of time, but if you’re playing Ironman, everything is a bit more thrilling. Besides, if you ever accidentally run into, say, a group of ragtag bandits while you’re rocking a group of veterans, you’ll have one of the most satisfying slaughters in video game history on your hands!