Tutorial. Noun. An account or explanation of a subject, printed or on a computer screen, intended for private study. This is something that Battle Brothers, an RPG from Overhype Studios, seems to completely misunderstand. Straight from the off, you’re trying to navigate menus and choices that are left unexplained. There are options that are labelled for newcomers (Rebuilding A Company – Tutorial, one scenario is labelled), but following them is like trying to punch fog. Do so and you’re thrown into the deep end anyway without guidance or anything even resembling a ‘tutorial’. You begin in the middle of a fight with no explanation of who’s on what side, the process of character movement, attacks or anything else. You’re left to fend for yourself in a medieval-esque fantasy world. Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I was watching the game over screen. If I wasn’t reviewing Battle Brothers, I probably would have put it down there and then and never come back to it.
It’s a shame that Battle Brothers doesn’t spend enough time getting players acquainted with its finer points right away because there’s a lot more to it than this first impression relays. The first half an hour with this game is confusing because nothing is explained. The next few hours are bewildering, as you start to learn what everything does through trial and error. Eventually, the game clicks – but it’ll be much too late for some players.
When you start a new game of Battle Brothers, you begin by choosing your opening scenario. In the aforementioned “tutorial”, you’re leading a company that has just suffered some disheartening losses and failed to kill a target. in other scenarios, you begin with a trio of hardened gladiators, a group of deserters or a peasant militia. Each starting situation comes with their pro’s and con’s, bonus’ and limitations. Some set-up’s won’t let the player recruit more than 15 people into their merry band. Others will set you up with a large starting party but with random events which require irregular sacrifices to a dark god.
No matter what you choose, the aim of Battle Brothers is to survive as a band of warriors in a hostile world. This is easier said than done. Every member of your party needs a daily meal and draws a daily wage from your gold total. As time progresses via a day/night cycle, the players gold and food reserves will deplete according to the demands of the tribe you’ve assembled.
In order to keep your team fed and paid, you’ll have to take on contracts found at towns and cities. Escorting traders around the world map. Following markers across the map to find vagabonds to vanquish. Clearing out area’s filled with ne’er-do-wells, wild beasts, deadly serpents or giant spiders. There’s a wide variety of contracts with three levels of difficulty to take on in this game. What contracts you take on or from where is totally under the direction of the player.
The higher the difficulty of these contracts (from 1 to 3 ‘skulls’), the higher they’ll pay. Your starting group won’t have a chance at fulfilling the more difficult contracts so you’ll need to expand and gear up your tribe. You can recruit new mercenaries from towns but each new member comes with a cost. The better they are, the higher their initial signing on fee and daily wage. You’ll need to equip them with weapons and armour, either looted from those defeated in battle or purchased from traders or at marketplaces. Gear degrades in quality as it’s used but if you’ve got the materials, they can be repaired while camped out. Your group members can take injuries – some temporary, like a gash to the hand, and others permanent, like losing a nose. The temporary wounds can be healed while camped out, but you’ll need the right equipment to do so. As each member of the group experiences battle, they’ll gain experience and will eventually level up. Here you can grant them a few extra points to their characteristics, making them more difficult to kill or more adept at battle.
It’s a cunning game play loop that develops in Battle Brothers. To feed and pay your group, you’ll be completing contracts but to do so you’ll need to invest in new members or better equip and take care of the members you already have. It’s a constant juggling act of expansion and resource management as you make choices on what’s best for the group. Go into battle under-armed and outnumbered and there’s a high chance you’ll take massive losses or even see that dreaded game over screen. Invest in the group upfront but run out of money/food before you can complete a contract thus refilling the coffers and morale will drop.
Morale plays an important part of the combat in Battle Brothers. Beneath the deceptively simplistic art style during battle is a deep, strategic system. When you’re transported from the world map to a fight, each group faces off against one another on a grid bound battlefield. Turn based battle then unfolds based on the stats of each unit. Each band member or enemy has so many actions they can perform each turn they’re active which includes movement and attacks with their equipped weaponry. Positioning in Battle Brothers is just about as important as actual back and forth fighting. The spaces around each character are dangerous to move through for the opposition and can result in a pot shot attack. Flank an enemy or defeat its companions and their will to fight will ebb away until it turns and runs. Similarly, get flanked or lose a number of your own band in a fight and the rest of the crew might raise a white flag and turn tail. The lower your companies morale, the more likely it is they will do a runner when things get tough. The combat in Battle Brothers is easy to pick up but there’s a chance that your first few runs at the game will end in disaster because of the lack of tutorial or guidance. It took me 6 restarts at the game before I found my foothold in the system and made it past 9 days into the game.
The lack of guidance in the early game isn’t the only sticking point with the difficulty of Battle Brothers. The balancing and structure can be difficult to wrestle with at times too. Each time you start a new game, you begin on a procedurally generated map that’s different every time. There are a few persistent elements – you always begin near to a town which has low difficulty contracts and towns/cities are aligned to separate factions you can get cosy with – but the structure of each new map is different. It’s possible to get landed with a truly horrible starting situation because of the random elements. In one run, I spawned with a long and wide body of water between my crew and the nearest town. My company couldn’t cross this water so had to go the long way around, wasting a days’ worth of wages and food on simply getting to the nearest location. This wasn’t helped when we were set upon by a group of massive spiders which killed 2 of my 3 heroes.
This starting situation also highlighted an issue with Battle Brothers. The pathing when navigating the world map can be really poor. Zoom out and click on a town and you’d expect the company to make their way there. Unfortunately, the company will sometimes do something daft like walking into a body of water and simply stop for some unknown reason. Asking the band to travel long distances becomes unreliable because of this which means a lot of checking on their progress or clicking, moving the map and then clicking again.
While it might seem like I’ve highlighted a lot of negatives with Battle Brothers, I’ve come away from my time with the game with a positive feeling about it. That’s purely because of one reason – a real feeling of freedom. Sure, the first hour of any run at this game can be gruelling and there will be many failures before you eke out success. When you finally manage to string together what you’ve learned and can get out into the big, wide procedurally generated world, the lack of restriction on the player is very refreshing. You can travel where every you want so long as you’ve got the gold and food to do so. How you navigate the dangers and the late game crisis’ is up to the player. Want to align yourself with one faction? Go for it. Want to spend the whole game as a company for hire like a bunch of drunked Witchers? No problem. Fancy spending your days buying cheap goods in the South and selling them for a profit in the North? That’s possible too.
The porting journey from PC to the Switch has been rough on Battle Brothers though. All of the control schemes implemented here feel like decent alternatives to a mouse and keyboard. They just needed to be better explained and the important aspects of the UI changes highlighted. Y’know… what a tutorial should do. The loading times are the kicker though. When starting a new campaign, the load times can be frustratingly long. I timed one instance – 7 minutes before the game started. I genuinely thought my Switch had crashed.
Battle Brothers has remarkable freedom that’s rare to see in the RPG genre. It truly feels like your decisions and actions have weight and that the responsibility for your band of warriors rests in your hands – quite literally on the Switch. That’s backed up by a deep turn based battle system that’s deceptively strategic. Unusually long load times and a frustratingly steep learning curve, compounded by a lack of an adequate tutorial, means that some players will bounce right off this game however, never getting to experience its best aspects.
Battle Brothers is available now on the Nintendo Switch (review platform) and PC.
Developer: Overhype Studios
Publisher: UKIYO Publishing
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional copy of the game. For our full review policy, please go here.
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