Do you enjoy taking ice baths? Is punishment the only thing you’re a glutton for? Do you like to run marathons in the rain with your shoe laces undone? Do you regularly shave with a rusty razor? And, finally, do you love video games that seem to hate you? If the answer to all these questions is yes, then you should absolutely play Battle Brothers. It is, without a doubt, the most unforgivably difficult game I’ve ever played.
Battle Brothers is a turn-based tactical RPG, set in a Warhammer-like fantasy world. You are the poor fool who’s left in charge of a rag-tag band of mercenaries. Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to turn your mob of mercs into an award-winning crack squad of heroes for hire. Though, considering the aforementioned level of difficulty, your true objective is to simply survive for more than a day or two.
Let’s get to the meat of the matter; why is Battle Brothers so bafflingly difficult? First off, the game explains none of its complex combat systems and mechanics. Let’s say that on first booting up you opt for a cautious start. To that end you select beginner’s mode and say yes to the option of including gameplay tutorials. Thing is, Battle Brothers cares not one jot in your demand for a hand holding experience. Instead it will throw you in at the deep end and then hold you head under.
In fact, on a first play through you’re unlikely to make it through more than a handful of battles. That’s likely because the tutorials explain only the bare minimum and the on-screen HUD explains little more. Heck, I didn’t even know how to end my turn until I accidentally fumbled on the button, prematurely ended my turn and had the miserly experience of watching my entire team get eviscerated. Sure, there’s plenty of online guides and videos to check out but it’s a less than ideal solution.
Essentially, you are playing an unforgiving game – the AI is just plain mean – without knowing any of the rules that govern play. The only way to figure it all out is trial and error. How much you will enjoy the game will directly correlate with how much you enjoy the experience of trying, failing and then trying again. Ultimately, with enough time, you will understand zone of control, why maces come in to their own against armoured foes and how to influence troop morale but it’ll be a grind. And due to perma-death, that grinding can be a painful experience indeed.
Still, stick with it and you’ll be amazed by the freedom of choice and exhaustive options Battle Brothers provides. You’ll travel the procedurally generated land between battles on a vast map screen. There’s towns to visit, quests to undertake, people to influence and thousands of items to purchase. Other than a slight nudge in the right direction, Battle Brothers lets you get on with it. There are no restrictions, you can travel anywhere and do anything from the outset. Despite this freedom, developers Overhype Studios do a remarkable job of creating an intriguing narrative for the player to follow. Battle Brothers is an RPG done right, offering the player genuine and varied ways to express themselves and influence the world around them.
Even better, when the combat finally starts to make sense, there’s an addictively compelling strategy game to be found here. Every element of your band can be tinkered with, from a wide-range equipment, to varied abilities and battle-winning formations. The slightest change to your load out can have a palpable influence on your chances of success. So, even when you’re banging your head against a wall trying to defeat a certain foe, there’s always another idea to try.
Visually Battle Brothers is a little savoury food spread made from yeast extract. In combat characters are represented by little more than a pixelated head and a weapon. It’s cute – at least until those aforementioned heads are hacked, bashed and smashed in messy squirts of blood – but also the borderline ridiculous aesthetic makes it hard to connect with your team’s personalities. Units all tend to blend in to one, lacking the distinction necessary for quick identification on the battlefield.
Animation suffers from the same issue, other than the gorily brilliant deaths, it’s often hard to see what is going on. The lack of visual feedback causes combat to be nothing more than a confusing stream of text box messages and the occasional sword swing or flying crossbow bolt. With this being a PC conversion, the controller inputs leave a lot to be desired too. Menu navigation is awkward and fiddly, creating yet another obstacle to overcome in order to enjoy the game. Battle Brothers really makes you work to have a good time.