Tactical RPGs are often hard to come by nowadays, mostly because they are difficult games to master by design. Some (like the Fire Emblem games) are deceptively simple. For the most part, the glut of mechanics and options found in a tactical game is often a major turnoff for players. The indie gaming market has its own share of tactical games, but very few seem to really hit that sweet spot of being challenging without compromising its own mechanics. Thankfully, a game like Battle Brothers, the first major title from the small German indie team Overhype Studios, is an exception to that rule.
Battle Brothers is a tactical RPG where the player is put in charge of a fledgling mercenary company. The world is based on German folklore with a gritty and dark fantasy twist, but the game is all about building up your ragtag team of mercenaries to take on bigger and better contracts for piles of gold. What will ensue is a campaign that ends when you decide. A campaign where your men’s steel will clash with insurmountable odds as you hopefully lead them to fame and fortune.
The game has been in development for some time, with an Early Access release and previews running as far back as 2015, but Overhype Studios has continuously polished the balance and content of Battle Brothers to a fine, shiny finish. The game is impressive in a lot of ways, right down to the dark, macabre prose that accompanies in-game events and quests you can encounter. The writing is very good at setting the mood with its descriptive prose that reminded me of dark fantasy novels such as Glen Cook's Black Company series.
The world of Battle Brothers is presented as a dreary and unforgiving place. The game is deceptively simple in its graphics, with characters looking like customizable chess pieces on a hexagonal board. Despite this, the fights along the battlefield are often long and brutal. Blood splatters with each hit, bodies lie bloody and broken on the floor, and heads fly high in the air when a character is decapitated before your eyes. Battle Brothers doesn't pull its punches when it comes to presentation, going all out with its own style of brutality to help sell the illusion of a bloodied band of mercenaries.
One of the more daunting issues with Battle Brothers is how brutally difficult it can be. Even on beginner difficulty, you will encounter tough fights and supply shortages. Your men are in it for the money, so you need to not only have enough gold crowns to pay them, but enough provisions to keep them fed and healthy. Often you will run out of these supplies fast, using up all your crowns just to keep your band fed and alive.
Many fights will leave you with depleted squadrons and broken equipment too, so hiring new bodies and fixing up weapons and armor costs even more money. In a lot of ways, Battle Brothers also doubles as a resource management game since properly maintaining your supplies or knowing when to be more frugal is just as paramount to your success. This does create a second layer of difficulty on top of the combat itself, but it is one that complements the games overall challenge nicely. Spending money to make more money is a fair balancing act, and Battle Brothers skillfully walks that tightrope by providing just enough of what you need to get by, even in the direst of circumstances.
Players will need to build up a callousness to their men to succeed, as most of them will fall by the wayside as you play through the game, while others will desert you if treated poorly or were underpaid. The death of your characters is often inevitable in Battle Brothers, but the rewards for surviving against insurmountable odds are often great, giving the game a good challenge without being purposefully punishing.
Part of the games uncompromising difficulty lies within the battle mechanics. As a tactical RPG, each mercenary has a large block of stats that determine their total health, fatigue, resolve, and attack and defense modifiers. You can also select perks upon each level increase that provide beneficial bonuses, such as more health, resolve, or a weapon class mastery, to make your men more durable or deadly. Characters you hire may also get background bonuses based on their previous profession, or have extra traits that bestow positive or negative bonuses to their core stats, or even injuries from previous battles that leave them with both temporary and permanent stat decreases.
As you can probably tell, Battle Brothers is a stat-heavy game that provides a crunchy tactical experience. Unlike most role-playing games with excessive or unnecessary mechanics, the implementation of these stats is well planned. Fatigue, for example, measures how many actions you can take a turn, from movement to attacks. The thing is, a mercenary with low fatigue but high defense and hit points is just as viable as a character with loads of fatigue, allowing for a lot of different ‘builds’ for your mercenary band. This all depends on the tactics employed by the player, as well as the builds they try to create in the process.
Other options also come into play. Taking on contracts builds your renown, which makes your company more famous in the towns and cities you visit. Some contracts are simple escorts or bandit raids, while others have you working for nobles or helping fight in a war against invading orcs, undead or other noble houses. If that doesn't sound up your alley, you can take up investigating old ruins and abandoned farmhouses for treasure and fighting the enemies within for quick experience.
Despite the large number of options presented to you, the battles do begin to blur together after a while. Often when it comes to a fight, enemy troops will charge your front line, especially if they outnumber you heavily. Enemy troop types are not often that varied in battle – you fight a variety of brigands, orcs, goblins, and undead throughout the game, but they rarely, if ever, mesh together in different combinations, save for tougher “boss” fights found in the later stages of your campaign. The contract jobs are also not as varied as you would hope, almost always combination five or six different archetypes for varying reward and difficulty. This does make the game repetitive in the long run.
Despite that, the monotony is not necessarily a bad thing. Tough fights in of themselves are big rewards in Battle Brothers. Whether you're trying to get through a long, difficult battle against a necromancer and his undead army or keeping an invading orc warband at bay, you'll find plenty of reward from the in-game riches and your own personal satisfaction. Titles like Dark Souls and Salt & Sanctuary are often heralded for their difficulty and design, but Battle Brothers offers the same feeling of achievement without the nagging issues of purposeful death. You will die in Battle Brothers, but it will mostly be your fault due to poor tactics or contract choices.
The game is also complimented by a lovely orchestral soundtrack. From uplifting folk tunes to more sinister, disturbing battle music, the duo Breakdown Epiphanies should get a ton of credit for their work on the game's musical score. The sound effects and overall design is very well polished, especially when compared to most indie titles on the market today. Overhype Studios should be commended for their attention to detail found in their games presentation and sound design, something that is often sadly lost in the shuffle when developing an indie game.
Overall, Battle Brothers is a solid, exhilarating experience that might turn away some players due to its difficulty, but attract others because of its challenge. The strategic options and statistics are complex, the gameplay is tough but not overly difficult. At its heart, the game provides a deep, tactical experience that is both challenging and rewarding for players to enjoy.
Our Battle Brothers review was conducted on PC with a code provided via our partners at GOG. It is also available on Steam.
- The Right Amount of Challenge...
- Complex Mechanics that Make Sense...
- Excellent World and Sound Design
- Appropriately Brutal and Bloody
- ...that Might be Daunting for Some.
- ...Monotonous Contract Quests and Battles.