Review: Battle Brothers02 May 2017 0
Review: Battle Brothers
Released 24 Mar 2017
The title might not be that imaginative – while also being highly evocative of Space Marines – but the game behind it is fairly great. If nothing else, it reminds me of Warhammer Fantasy RPG, where you start out as a group of charcoal burners and ratcatchers before dying from random reasons. The biggest difference is that in Battle Brothers you don’t have a wizard to accompany you.
Battle Brothers is set in a randomly generated low fantasy world of vaguely German origins. The map looks big, yes, but it only has a handful of towns and fortresses. All those places are divided between three randomly generated noble houses that have their own sordid histories. As Captain Not Bodily Appearing On The Battlefield, you take over the leadership of your mercenary company from the previous captain who was struck down in an ambush by bandits. Now, it is up to you to lead the men to riches and glory!
Unfortunately, there’s no way to skip the short battle tutorial, so every new game starts with you seeing the last of the company cut down by bandits while their leader flees. Then you take command of the last three soldiers – one of them armed with a two handed axe, an another being a crossbowman – kill the remaining two bandits, hopefully don’t get mangled too much, and proceed forward. You can then op out of the remaining tutorial (which involves hiring enough men to chase down the bandit leader) and go on your merry way.
I am, however, using some of the terms loosely here. For example, the game doesn’t have actual tutorials. Instead, it takes you to YouTube, where you can watch 40 minutes of explanations in heavily accented German. I am sure that all of that could be done in a much smoother and quicker way, yet here we are! And speaking of us, the mercenary company is not exactly company-sized. Your band of hobos or day laborers can number 20 strong, yet only 12 of them will be able to take to the field of battle. Of course, the enemy might and will appear in numbers greater than that, so the battles aren’t exactly balanced affairs.
Meanwhile, the captain of the company and player character does not make appearance outside of dialogues and event texts. Instead, you will be hiring random people from the cities and towns, and they will hopefully grow into great warriors. You can literally make a band of murder hobos, since beggars and refugees are actual backgrounds for some of the hires. Others might be masons, hunters, cultists, historians and so on. Each of the backgrounds has different stats and stat increase schemes, as well as possible wold map events. Some of them even join your group with decent gear. Of course, later in the game, you will want to hire people who already have several levels under their belts – but they are understandably more expensive.
Speaking of which, you keep paying the wages for these folks, and you also buy them food, armor and weapons. Where does the money go, then, when you pay out your daily wages? You certainly can’t pick it off their corpses if/when they fall in battle against German zombies or something!
And fall in battle they will if you start the game on veteran (which is basically the normal difficulty level, as it doesn’t modify the game in any way). The battles will be much harder and anyone who falls will almost invariably end up dead. If you burst into veteran with no experience in the game, your company will always be on the bring of bankruptcy and dissolution, your warriors crippled or dead. Such is the life in this 2D German Mount and Blade.
In battle, your mercenaries and enemies will take turns according to their initiative score, which is impacted by their arms and armor, too. Equipped weapons give the soldier abilities (a simple attack a fancy weapon-type special attack), with weapon choices being the closest this game gets to classes. Spears, for example, can be extremely defensive when combining the “Spear wall” ability (the character attacks anyone who steps into their zone of control until he misses) with shield’s “Shield wall” (increases defense/block chance, especially if a friendly character nearby also uses Shield wall). You can also use the weapons one handed for increased damage, but that’s fairly suicidal. The best formation in my mind is seven shielded guys in the front line, shooters and guys who can reach over the line in the second. That way the shields hold back the wolves and zombies and arrows.
However, Battle Brothers won’t allow you to simply shield wall your way to fame and plunder. For each warrior gains fatigue from their actions, be they walking, striking or unleashing a war dog NPC. As the battle goes, you might find yourself flush with action points (all characters get 9 of them), but too tired to lift either sword or shield. And if your shield can’t block the attack, it is likely to strike your armor (separated into head and body) and your health, which can lead to gross injuries, falling morale and death. There’s really no way to restore hit points, armor or broken shields (unless you carry a spare one on the character) during the fight, so you have to be really careful.
The enemy also displays some care about their well-being. Anyone with a shield will use shield wall whenever they can, and it will take you some time – or people armed with axes – to get through them. This gets worse when you get to supernatural enemies like zombies (who can stand back up unless the RNG blessed you with a decapitation), skeletons (immune to fatigue and morale just like zombies, resistant to arrows - however, they stay down) and orcs (big, hulking, brutal). I have yet to determine why some of the men in my battle line are more attractive for attacks than others (save for those who don’t have a shield – they are a perennial favorite of archers), so you can’t easily kite the enemy. Holding or slowly advancing the shield wall is a workable tactic in most cases.
You will be doing a lot of fighting, too, because this is a game about being a cut throat mercenary. Or just a mercenary: while you can attack peasants and merchant caravans, the legal way to make the big bucks is contracts. Your rowing band of slaughter vagabonds will drift from town to town, where the officials might task them with returning stolen goods, clearing a villain hideout and so on. These missions are all clear cut and end in a single battle (unless you run into something else along the way). Sometimes, you might be asked to deliver and item or escort a caravan, in which case you might not even end up fighting anyone! Much later in the game the noble houses will start paying attention to you, offering more varied, dangerous and expensive missions, but for a simple mercenary, living hand to mouth will be a lot more important than later goals.
If Thirty Year War has taught us anything, it is that keeping a mercenary army paid, supplied, non-looting and not suffering desertion is nigh impossible. You will be met by similar concerns. Money is necessary for daily wages (not paying them might lead to desertion), to purchase food (individual stacks of food spoil at different times), tools to repair weapons and armor, and medicine to (slowly) heal the wounded. Mercifully, Battle Brothers doesn’t pull a Phoenix Command on us, so you don’t have to wait months for split hands to heal. However, your soldiers can get ghastly permanent injuries – my sergeant and banner bearer has a collapsed lung – as well as other conditions that might develop randomly during travels. A glutton might grow fat, a flagellant can get into a fight with a cultist, - or a dayhand may realize that his dad’s hay turning technique is great for stabbing people!
It’s a good thing that this mercenary world of misery is recreated in beautiful 2D. I really have no complaints about visual side of things, though the busier swamp and forest maps might be difficult to navigate, since you can’t always tell if a hex is impassable. The characters are represented everywhere as busts that show their arms and armor, and even their condition. Meanwhile, the music is OK and the game doesn’t really feature unit barks, which might be a blessing if we consider the overall history of voice acting in non-English-as-first-language countries.
Overall, Battle Brothers is dark and gritty game about eking out a life as a mercenary. You will win, you will lose, you will retire just to read that one of your soldiers, a former beggar, got back to begging before being driven out a city by a cruel lord and dying in the northern wastes with his tin cup frozen to his finger. Life is cruel, but at least you have the shield wall!