Oi! You there. Come here.
C’mon, I wouldn’t hurt you. Let me get a look at your face. Ah…Ah ha! You’re not from this land! Y’see people here get that look around these parts. Yes! That look! Keep that look of being faintly dazed and confused and you’ll go far here! Come with me, around the bar to the back, don’t be shy. I’ve seen your hand cradled upon your hilt since you walked in. I best explain what goes on around these parts.
Now, with that semblance of an introduction out the way, let’s get to the meat of things. Battle Brothers, created by Overhype Studio, has the type of pitch that I admit sold me instantly: You become a mercenary captain after your predecessor returns back to the mud after a battle goes awry. You must build your company back up, introduce your sword to your ex-captain murderer’s throat, and then proceed to wander the land for money. What more could I even want? Especially as my late teens were mostly spent playing Mount & Blade: Warband, trying to conquer the land with my female mercenary leading the way enticed me (which I never managed to).
That isn’t to say Battle Brothers isn’t its own wild beast and one that brings orcs, goblins, and undead to the party. Rather than the familiar terrains of third-person combat, it focuses more on turn-based strategy. You spend ability points to move a limited number of spaces and to activate abilities (which includes various combat moves), although the amount of points depends on the different terrains you’re traveling through and the ability in question. There is also fatigue to consider that risks a character sitting out for a round or three. This combat is done with each person on the field separately taking their turn depending on their initiative in the cycle –something that gets rerolled after every rotation.
You can also decide to equip your mercenaries with things like alternative weapons and even dogs to sic on people. Each item of equipment, including various weapons and armor, have their own fatigue stat as the more items you’re lugging about in the field (and the larger they get), the more you’re slogged down by your own weight.
Phew, I bet that sounds complex. Like you’re operating some thick stodgy title that is as friendly as high-fiving a bear-trap. Worry not, however, as it operates simply with only fatigue lurking in the background ready to pounce on you at an inopportune time. Let’s not fool ourselves, though: It isn’t the simplicity of the game that will draw people. Otherwise, why stray from Pong, Noughts-n-Crosses*, and Hacky Sack with a rock? Generally, I enjoyed the tactical positioning of sending your men out carefully to poke my foes with arrows (which are expensive to refill) before utilizing my wall-of-swords to down them.
For better and for ill, combat was often less an on-going struggle and more flashes of brutality. Either I was getting my lungs punctured with a broken ribcage or I was lifting an enemy up into the air with a spear, usually achieved in a matter of two to three turns but sometimes in just one unlucky/lucky shot. This lead to the bizarre situation where, no matter how much gear I was lugging about, I could only count a handful of times when my fatigue got too high to do anything.
Although that’s okay! Battle Brothers isn’t about your men staying alive from beginning to end, but rather trying to keep them around as long as you can until an unlucky moment happens. You’ll then be stumbling into a town to recruit more, each person having their own traits depending on their profession before taking up the sword. There will be plenty of coin-counting though as each mercenary will have their own buying costs and upkeep cost.
You’ll also be getting missions from these towns, varying from “go to X, kill them all, come home” to “walk this path between multiple cities, you get X per head you collect along the way”, with a difficulty of one skull to, seemingly, three skulls. There is a bargaining aspect to Battle Brothers although, frustratingly, there is currently no real indication of if you’re pushing your luck too far. One second you’ll be in a good position increasing money, the next you’re told to naff off as though you eyed up the village’s prized goat. A simple percentage chance of success, determined by factors, could have been useful.
Speaking of being useful, there is one Achilles heel to this entire experience, although it is one I suspect is due to its developmental status (i.e. Early Access). As you hoard your money up into a mound that would make a dragon blush, gather mercenaries greater and more grand than the military, and tame the wildlife to absolute order, what is the end goal? Unlike Mount & Blade: Warband, you don’t have the opportunities to foster a kingdom as you develop villages and keeps, slowly sweeping control over the land. Instead you keep collecting the means to the end, without the end existing.
Another thing I’d like to see is the appearance of female mercenaries, especially if they are seen unfavorably by other NPCs. I suspect my feelings on this are born from the gleeful struggle I sometimes get to have by being a female character in a world that takes cues from historical representation (e.g. in medieval Western Europe, women weren’t considered much more than objects with a pulse). It offers an extra ‘atypical’ difficulty layer that adds a tactical approach to social maneuvering that I end up appreciating, even in titles that are socially light.
Overall, I went in hoping it would scratch the mercenary warband itch I have occasionally and it scratched that itch splendidly. While there is the usual fog-horn-esque whine of “if only there was moooorrrreeee” associated with Early Access titles, it did feel plentiful enough to keep me always pushing on to see if I could get more or even just fight to keep my unit in good employment.
If you are hunting for a light-strategy title that allows you to forge a group of medieval swordsman/archers in the hopes of amassing a swimming pool of gold to dive into Scrooge McDuck style, then Battle Brothers is the mercenary company you should sign up to. Although, if you need something to aim for when playing, perhaps it’ll be best to wait it out and see if an end-goal emerges prior to release.