Battle Brothers hit early access on April 27th, and since that time it has seen 12 updates ranging from bug fixes to balance changes. Smaller details of the game are changing often, but the overall feel has remained consistent.
Make no mistake: Battle Brothers is still in early access, and there is no telling if this consistent update schedule will continue going forward. For the time being, it is just a sandbox strategic RPG, with no end goal or overarching story yet implemented.
Battle Brothers is a tactical, turn-based RPG that shows a great deal of promise but is currently held back by a number of flaws.
The title menu is very lackluster in terms of options selection and has a concerning lack of rebindable keys. The only in-game hints are found on loading screens, which can make it difficult to even realize what keyboard shortcuts exist. It was not until many hours into the game, for instance, that I realized the shift key could be used to center the world map on your character.
The premise of the game is simple – you run a company of up to 12 mercenaries, roaming the land and taking quests from people in need. The majority of this time is spent on the procedurally generated world map, where you choose your destinations freely. Wandering aimlessly is limited by a daily drain on your gold and food stockpiles, with each mercenary in your company increasing the cost. In most cases, the better a specific mercenary is, the higher his daily cost is to compensate.
Money is earned through completing missions and from collecting loot after battles – in the early game, it is a very limiting resource, but the scarcity declines later into the game, until it is almost negligible towards higher levels. It becomes almost too easy to acquire once the majority of your team is pushing the level cap, especially if you can find a safe spot to farm weak groups of bandits. Even playing on the hardest difficulty only delays the inevitable mountain of endless cash.
The world map is mostly uninteresting – it does its job and is easy enough to understand, but there is little point or reward for going off exploring into the wilds. What should be an exciting trip into the northern wilds is nothing more than a boring trek where you desperately search for a fight but rarely find one.
Instead, the map is just for moving from town to town and finding missions to undertake. The missions, currently, are fairly limited. They involve going to a certain town, escorting a caravan from the current town to a random other town, finding a certain location on the world map, or going to a location and winning a battle there. In practice, they are only really necessary in the early game. Once your merry band of mercenaries is experienced and well equipped, you can spend your days ambushing bandits and orcs to cover any monetary worries you may have.
Despite the narrative focusing on the activities of a mercenary company, the actual missions you undertake are not the core of the game. It is in the combat encounters that the true meat of Battle Brothers can be found.
Battles take place on randomly generated fields that are displayed as hex grids, with your units represented as busts facing to the right, and enemies facing to the left. Turn order is decided based on a number of factors, such as each character’s initiative and current level of fatigue.
The types of maps vary depending on where an engagement happens on the world map, with most battles taking place either in plains or forests. Every type of map has different features that may block movement or line of sight, or offer disadvantages for being on poor terrain. In the grand scheme, victory or defeat will not be decided by map type, but by your party composition and tactics.
Achieving victory for being defensive when it counts and pushing your offense at the right opportunity are what makes the combat in Battle Brothers feel rewarding. From the very start, the odds are not tilted in your favor, and it is very clearly balanced around losing multiple men in every engagement. At first, it may seem unmerciful and unfair, but make no mistake - every death is your fault, and there probably was something you could have done to prevent it. The game is uncaring and brutally difficult at times, but if you are up for the challenge, overcoming the odds is almost always a possibility.
The tactics you use are based on what weapons and armor you outfit your Battle Brothers with. Spears allow you to set a spear wall and take a swing at anyone who enters melee range, while axes let you deliberately destroy enemy shields to expose the target to your heavy hitters. You can choose to give your entire front line shields, and create a defensive shieldwall to outlast your opponents while pike men attack from the back line. You can go heavy on archers and hope to pick enemies off before they can close the distance, or you can run a band that focuses entirely on melee units, with two-handed sword wielders cleaving down multiple enemies at a time. No specific set up seems nonviable, but having a little variety and more options will typically increase your win chances.
The enemy types are also diverse. In the early and mid game, you will mostly be fighting bandits, but taking on more dangerous fighting missions or discovering an undead nest can result in some extreme challenges. Orcs may inhabit a nearby swamp, and put up much more of a fight than your typical gang of bandits. A forest could be home to a roaming band of werewolves or undead, where the battle may become so extended that the fatigue of your units becomes just as dangerous as the enemies themselves. Some undead enemies may rise from the grave if you do not behead them on a kill, and ghouls will eat the corpses of their fallen kin to grow stronger, making each new wave stronger than the last.
Another point in the combat’s favor is the persistent damage that appears visibly on individual units. This feature has little effect on actual gameplay, but adds heaps of flavor to every fight. A damaged helmet looks battered and dented, broken armor takes on a different appearance, and a character that has taken health damage gets more bruised and bloody the more severe the wounds become. This is coupled with clattering metal and painful grunts that are almost too satisfying – hearing a bandit groan out just before his head goes flying off is a little touch that just never gets old.
The combat is exciting, but the pacing gets rather slow towards the end of a fight. When you have an enemy routed, you still have to click through most of your units who are too far away to offer any help in scoring the final kills, and chasing down bandit marksmen for several turns before finally cornering them is a fairly common and vexing occurrence. Beyond that, the combat in Battle Brothers offers many nail biting moments, with many desperate prayers to spare that one unit you have grown so attached to.
And Battle Brothers does just enough to get you invested in your characters. Every unit has a background which offers a generic little blurb of story in addition to altering their stats. These backgrounds range from beggars and thieves to retired soldiers and sell-swords. The varied occupations and ability to rename (and give titles) to your Battle Brothers lets you decide how attached you want to be to these men – on more than one occasion, I’ve caught myself attributing personality traits and background motivations to some of my longer-lived units, despite the game doing absolutely nothing to validate this. Female units are likely to make an appearance in a future update, but are currently absent.
This is without even touching on the actual customization that affects gameplay. Every mercenary has access to a wide variety of perks and equipment that allow you to decide which units are good at what roles. Gear needs to be balanced with fatigue, however. While stronger armor will keep a unit alive for longer, it will also weigh them down and make their longevity suffer. This balancing act works well in theory, but in practice it makes increasing fatigue on every level up mandatory – one of the main problems with customization is that level ups will need to target the same stats for the majority of your crew. Additionally, the perk tree has some talents that are too powerful in relation to others, while some perks are near worthless. The offensive tree does not offer enough benefit for it to outweigh the versatility that a utility tree focused unit provides, and the top tier picks from the defensive tree are essentially useless except in the most dire situations. Most of the perks are not enticing enough to make level ups feel like big events, but they are inarguably worthwhile in keeping your group alive.
Another gripe with customization is that weapon types are interchangeable. Someone who has used a sword from level one to max level can switch over to using an axe or spear with no penalty – there is no way to specialize for a certain weapon outside of generic ranged weapons or two handed ones, and even then, a unit can swap between a greatsword and a greataxe and be just as effective with either one. Gaining some sort of benefit, or having separate weapon experience and leveling would offer greater specialization for units.
There is also no dual wielding, which takes away a lot of the focus on the offhand. Your melee will either use a two handed weapon or a shield, as the benefit of not equipping a shield in a free hand does not even come close to making it worth the risk.
Despite these complaints, every unit still managed to feel unique and could contribute in a meaningful way. There is enough viable variety that each character can alter which perks are taken, though there are some early-tier utility perks that every unit should take.
Battle Brothers is a satisfying experience if you can motivate yourself to play something that lacks a clear end goal. There is just enough variety in unit customization and enemy type that it stays fresh. The missions are also short enough that every gameplay session does not need to be even an hour long, but the combat is engaging enough that playing for hours at a time is not uncommon.
Battle Brothers certainly shows a great deal of potential, and if the developers continue to update it as frequently as they have been, then this game could certainly evolve into a fantastic tactical RPG. For the time being, it is an above-average experience that is worth keeping an eye on.
The previewer bought this game in early access from Steam on PC. This review was written after 26 hours of gameplay.