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Red's Read on Battle Brothers

Red Thomas Posted:
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Battle Brothers is another of those games that pops into my feed regularly and that I’ve kind of ignored.  The name certainly caught my attention as “battle buddy” is one of those standard Army phrases that’s loaded with instant context and the terms are close enough for those old experiences cross-pollinate to a degree.  Plus, the game reminds me in some ways of Rimworld and other games in that vein, of which I’ve long been a supporter.

Timing probably played a role in my lack of interest, as I was likely looking at other games when Battle Brothers rolled onto the scene, but I do remember just not being particularly interested in it, too.  The game looked a little like some of those survival management types that I like, but it didn’t seem to play that way and so I think was dismissed a little too easily.

After seeing it on my feed yet again and needing something to write about this weekend, I broke down and picked it up.  I’m rather glad I did, but that doesn’t mean that all’s roses with Battle Brothers.  Let’s go through some of the ups and downs and see if this is a game that you should be considering for your own collection.

Stylistic Hysteresis

Stylistically, the game bounces a little back and forth for me to the point where I don’t even feel consistent in what I like and don’t like.  Even with some of the things that I’m not crazy about, I still feel they fit the game well, so I’m stuck in this odd limbo.

One thing the game does well is instill this sense of gritty darkness to the world.  The color palette is filled with muted colors, which makes everything feel subdued and dirty.  I don’t really find it attractive, which is rather the point, and I find myself missing the light and bright colors of a sunny day.  This is one of the intelligent artistic choices I feel the developers made when creating this game.  The world is supposed to be set in a sort of fantasy dark age along the lines of Glenn Cook’s saga of the Black Company (great set of books, if anyone’s looking for something to read).

The art style supports that concept incredibly well, and there are a lot of really smart tricks employed.  For instance, the character toons update as you equip gear.  It’s a very well developed feedback system that tells you a lot about a character without having to spell it out in a UI.  I like that because even though I can’t say this game is precisely immersive, there is still a degree of immersion that comes from not having to constantly check a UI to see how well equipped a toon is, and that becomes even more important in combat when deciding which opponent to attack.

I think the muted chromatic tones do a great job of creating this sense of loss and hopelessness in the player that also permeates the world in the game.  It’s one of the better uses of visuals to evoke a desired emotional state that I’ve seen in a game, and I applaud the guys that came up with it.  My only problem is that I’m not sure I want to play a game that makes me feel bad, and thus my conflict over the graphics.

I feel like the scouting reports could be a little more detailed.  It’d be great for immersion, and it’d also help you better understand the threats you’re about to engage.  As it is, sometimes you just don’t know if you should run or not.

Audibly, the game is similarly successful.  Battle Brothers is very well scored with an appropriately instrumented and complex soundtrack that perfectly sets the mood.  Whether traveling through the dreary landscape or engaged in combat, the music pulls the player along with the emotive bandwagon to set and swing moods as appropriate to the situation.

Each track in the overall score establishes a militaristic undertone from the start, ensuring players are constantly, if subtly, reminded that their world exists within the bounds of the martial traditions.  Whether the gloomy trudge of a humid mire or cutting trail through the frozen passes of the far north, the player is constantly reminded via symphonic devices that trust is earned through blood and the bond of a shield brother is heavier than gold.

Again, I find that the team was hugely successful with the soundscape of Battle Brothers as it perfectly supplements the gloomy atmosphere of the game.  I am again impressed with the skill and greatly appreciative of how well executed this component of the game is, and yet I won’t be listening to it in the car because it’s just so bloody depressing.

Mors Omnibus

In the end, death conquers all.  That’s one lesson I found that Battle Brothers taught early and retaught with consistency while I was playing the game.  Once more, this is a theme that’s supported on multiple levels all through the game, which is the idea that life is hard and fleeting.  Warriors join your band and die in the constant crucible of battle, and one lesson I learned very quickly was that I couldn’t protect all my men.  Some were just going to die and there was nothing I could do about it.  My only recourse was to sell each warrior as dearly as possible and hope that attrition happened slowly enough that I could make ground on growing my company.

As gruesome as it is, this constant cycle of the mercenaries in your employ helps to keep the game interesting.  I never found a moment where I felt that I’d figured the game out and could start coasting my way to victory.  Constantly changing foes combined with the dynamic nature of my war band to ensure that each battle was unique from the others.

That’s not to say that you ever get totally blasé about who lives and dies, though. New characters are often being recruited to replace those lost in combat, and you don’t just roll into town and pickup whoever.  Each hire is a drain on the company resources, and it’s critical that each has the level of skill needed to be effective and fits the specific holes in the roster you need filled.  It’s a waste of money to just pickup another spearman when he’s just going to sit behind the line waiting to replace someone.  Better to snag another bowman to fill out your gap in ranged combat.

This means that you actually read player backstories and stop to consider each potential recruit before deciding to hire them.  Still, that cycle of deaths and new hires is persistent and definitive.  Oddly, it’s a system that also reminded me of my own time in the Army in some ways.

In any unit, you constantly have Soldiers rotating in and out, so there’s a constant stream of new faces and missing old ones.  New guys come in and some get shifted out of the unit before you even get to know them, while some stay around long enough to become part of the established cultural fabric of the unit.  There’s this odd thing that happens in military units where the core exists as the foundational nucleus of the command, even as FNGs orbit the established cadre.  Both the FNGs and that list of core folks are in constant flux, which creates an odd blend of unit tradition and constant change that’s unlike anything I’ve seen in the civilian sector.  Battle Brothers manages to establish that same sense of semi-indifference to the newbies who probably won’t last long anyway and that constant sense of missing someone else who’s moved on.

Death surrounds you in this game and you’re constantly reminded that it’s an ever-present element in your life.

I really liked how well the game captured that particular cultural element of those who practice the profession of arms, but what I found that I liked most about the game was the one thing that I don’t think was well advertised, and that’s the complexity.  Each new game starts in a dynamically generated world and things just get more interesting from there.

Besides having their own backstory, each character also changes over time, gaining both positive and negative traits from their experiences on the battlefield and random events between those bouts of combat.  Warfare isn’t safe, and some characters can become disfigured or permanently hurt through combat.  They also can be trained in several feats and skills as they level, making each game a completely new experience and building a story for each unit over time.

There’s even a dynamic economy that you can play around with as a method of supplementing your income.  There’s the obvious purchasing low and selling high, but you could also raid towns to capture goods the old-fashioned way, if that’s more your speed.  These systems and others work to give the game a hidden complexity.

Malum Discordiae

As much as I like it in general, there are a few things that stand out as being moderately problematic.  Granted, it’s possible some of these may be more my ignorance than an actual game problem, but then that’s a problem too.

One thing I don’t like is that I don’t have a good grasp of the power of my unit verses others that I may be attacking.  I attacked a group of orcs in one of my previous games and was completely wiped, for instance.  I don’t mind losing, but I attacked the orcs rather than the other way around.  This was frustrating because I had no idea these guys would kick by butt so hard and could have easily avoided them.

On one hand, that’s just part of the learning curve and every battle is a risk, but I would like some way of at least roughly comparing strengths between my unit and another, especially if I’m the one attacking.  Of course, it’s entirely possible that some mechanic exists that would answer that question, but then it’s a bit of a UI/tutorial failure that I haven’t spotted it yet.

Yes, that is the head of one of my men on the ground there.  You can absolutely dismember and be dismembered in this game.

The early tutorial in general was pretty lacking.  I had a hard time initially figuring out which characters were mine and how to use them when I started my first game.  I eventually figured it out, but I think the tutorial really needs to be better and more complete.  You shouldn’t have to go outside a game to learn about basic functionality, such as how movement works or that archers need to be right behind friendly troops to avoid hitting them.  It took me a while to realize how the ranged units worked as I’d just thought that you always risked hitting friendly troops when you fired from behind them.  That made sense to me and it wasn’t until I saw a tips video that I figured out otherwise.

There’s also a serious lack of tool tips, which could provide a great deal of missing context.  There’s a lot I like about the game, but I also constantly struggle with what I don’t know.  Worse, there’s the things I realize I don’t know, but also the things I didn’t know I didn’t know until I stumble onto a video or guide about it (such as not shooting your own troops in the back of the head).

These are things that I eventually will figure out, but there’s an element of frustration every time you realize you could have pulled through a battle if you’d just understood how some basic mechanic worked in the game.  More than anything else, that’s the frustrating part of the game.  It’s exacerbated because the game is so wonderfully complex in so many ways, and you have to fight through the lack of information to be able to enjoy them, and that just adds to the frustration level so much more.

Red’s Read

Battle Brothers is a bit of an emotional rollercoaster for me.  There are so many aspects to the game that speak directly to me and on so many levels that I just can’t help but be drawn hard to the game.  Yet, there are so many things about it that frustrate me or make me not want to play it.  To add even more confusion to the conflict is that some of those contrary positions are created by the same thing.  Music and visual design that make you sad even as you hugely appreciate how appropriate the emotional place they take you to is for the game.

It is that very juxtaposition that makes it so hard to recommend this game.  There’s the part that’s impressed and wants to encourage others to have that same intense experience, but there’s the part that really doesn’t want to expose other folks to the same levels of frustration.  Then I’ll further confuse you by pointing out that this very conflict is one of the fascinating things about game and itself something I’m both loath to push on to others and yet think many would appreciate experiencing.

I think this’ll come down to one of the few times that the price tag really ends up making a different.  At the $30 price-point on Steam, I don’t think I’d recommend the game to readers.  I think that technically and artistically, the game is likely worth that.  I also think I’ll play enough to get my hour per dollar value from the game, but the frustrating lack of tool tips and tutorial pull the value down.  Too much of those hours are spent making mistakes out of ignorance, and I think that’ll stop a lot of players before they really get to where the game is more fun.

You won’t be hiring just any villagers, because hiring them costs money and then they’ll be a drain on your finances until they die or are dismissed.

With some improvement to the new player experience, I’d have no trouble giving the thumbs up at this price.  As it is, I think I’d have to recommend waiting for it to come on sale.  If you catch it on sale for half off, and which historically hasn’t been uncommon, then I think it’s an easy pick when it’s only $15.  That appears to happen every couple months, so I’d definitely suggest putting it on your wishlist and keeping a tab on it.

I’d also caveat that this is definitely one of those create your own objective kind of games.  If you want a game with a linear story, stay clear.  On the other hand, if you’re like me and really enjoy these games with dynamically generated content and semi-complex mechanics that are hidden behind an unassuming exterior, this should definitely be on your list.

Battle Brothers is also relatively unique in that I don’t really know a lot of management style games that are built around operating a medieval mercenary band in a dark fantasy environment.  It’s niche, but it’s a pretty cool niche that I think adds a lot of value for those who enjoy this genre of games.

Basically, this is a surprisingly complex game that manages to elicit a moderately complex review.  Like the game, it was more work than I’d expected and also unexpectedly nostalgic in odd ways.  Between my own experiences in real life and through fictional literature, I just find myself taken back to so many forgotten places by Battle Brothers that I can’t help but expect to give it more of my time going forward. 

Maybe not the best place to get to in trying to write a review, but you know… if you asked me if you should join the Army, you’d probably find the advice similarly mixed.  All I can do is try to explore those conflicts with you and hope you come out better armed to make your own decision on the other side.  At least in this case, it’s just a few bucks and not several years of your life if you decide wrong, though.


Red Thomas

A veteran of the US Army, raging geek, and avid gamer, Red Thomas is that cool uncle all the kids in the family like to spend their summers with. Red lives in San Antonio with his wife where he runs his company and works with the city government to promote geek culture.