It starts with an ambush. An arrow to the side brings you to your knees as your brothers-in-arms are cut down around you. After locking eyes with your commander as he gets his throat cut, it dawns on you that you are the one in charge now. Time to rally the remnants of your newly-inherited company of sellswords and fight to the bitter end. When the dust settles, the brigand’s leader (The aptly-named Hoggart the Weasel) has escaped and you are left bloodied, with only three of your men left alive. Once you drag your sorry company back to the nearby town to get paid for your miseries, you are free to do whatever you choose. You can take on another contract to finish off Hoggart and bring back his head, or you can lick your wounds and move on to another village somewhere. The choice is up to you.
This is one of the main reasons Battle Brothers shines. The open-ended sandbox approach to gameplay reminds me of one of my favorite titles: Mount & Blade Warband. The scenario I outlined earlier is one of many that can be chosen at the start of the game. These different scenarios come with campaign modifiers and a unique story opening. They can include things like better starting equipment, powerful characters, or special boons such as an increased chance of loot from slain enemies. There are also plenty of caveats to take into account as well because there is usually a downside to your choice. A great example is the Peasant Militia scenario. It starts you off with 12 poorly-armed peasants and allows you to take up to 16 men into battle, but you can never hire anyone who isn’t a lowborn peasant.
Picking a scenario then allows you to name your company and choose a banner, along with a choice of late-game crises. These are world-wide events that trigger after a certain amount of in-game days have passed, and are totally awesome as long as your company doesn’t end up getting snuffed. That’s right: if a member dies, they’re gone for good. No one ever said mercenary life was fair. The four choices are Nobles at War; Undead Scourge; Greenskin Invasion; and Holy War. If you toggle the permanent destruction option on, towns and cities can be destroyed. Zombies can literally destroy the world and end your game unless you and your men can stop them: how cool does that sound? After you finish your campaign customizations, you are finally ready to start your adventure...almost. Between the initial load-up and the loading that takes place before your world map is ready, you’ll be spending about a minute and a half staring at loading screens. This had me worried at first, but then luckily, any other loading the game needs to do once it starts is lightning-quick.
The battles are tense, high stake affairs thanks to the permadeath and high difficulty. After wandering the map for a bit, I come across a group of bandits. My men take the field in a line and I wait for them to come to me. My archer attacks first since he has really high initiative and enough AP (Action Points) to attack twice, so I choose my target and let loose. My first arrow goes wide and hits a nearby enemy but glances harmlessly off of his shield. The second arrow hits its mark and deals a good amount of damage, along with an injury to his hand that lowers his melee capabilities. The bandits cross the hexagonal grid battlefield and crash into my troops. My spearman has his spearwall ability activated so any bandit entering his zone of control is damaged and pushed back. I’m not so lucky on the other end of the line, though. A bandit wielding a pickaxe suited for efficiently rending armor gets a lucky first hit in and completely destroys his chainmail: the next bandit kills him off easily. He was with me from the beginning and he will be missed: I’ll hire a new recruit at the next village. A few of my men are having trouble breaking through the defenses of a shieldwall-using enemy, so I move one of my other men to deal with him. He has a flail, which is especially useful for striking around shields and aiming for the head. Unfortunately for the bandit, he isn’t wearing a helmet. My attack is devastating, leaving him near death and with a concussion. The next hit kills him. Soon after, the battle is over. The field is strewn with bodies and broken pieces of armor: we loot anything useful and move on.
Despite the inclusion of classic trope monsters like orcs, zombies, and a few other beasties, Battle Brothers is set in a low fantasy world. That means no magical abilities and realistic armaments. Solid tactical knowledge and a diverse assortment of armaments are the only things that will get you through the many tough encounters. You have to figure things out for yourself, though, as Battle Brothers doesn’t explain much to you, not even in the so-called “tutorial”. This gives you a fairly steep learning curve to overcome initially but feels pretty rewarding once you get the hang of it and get some victories under your belt. There is more to being a commander than “making people dead”: you’ll also need to manage your crew’s supplies. This includes making sure you have enough gold and food since your troops will need to be paid and fed daily; having a supply of tools handy to repair the inevitable damage your equipment will incur; and maintaining enough medical supplies needed to heal injuries after the battles.
Managing the troops is harder than it should be thanks to a clunky, uncomfortable menu. Even after sinking hours into the game, I still fight with it. Unless you click the left stick to enable tooltips, you won’t see any info when you hover the cursor over your items and abilities. There are many factors to consider when arming your men. Every weapon has pros and cons. Some are better suited for destroying an opponent’s armor, while others can be used at range, or have a better chance at causing injuries. Armor mitigates some damage but the more durability a piece has, the more it reduces your max fatigue, making you tire out quicker. If your units live long enough to level up, you can choose which of their stats to increase and choose 1 perk. Careful planning will go a long way to building a powerful mercenary company.
No matter what you do, your ultimate goal is to garner enough renown to become the most famous mercenary company in all the land. Traveling from village to village completing contracts is the most basic way, but completing ambitions is probably the best. Every so often, you will be prompted to choose an objective from a list as a goal to aim for. These can be difficult to complete but when you do, you gain a big boost in renown. There is no time limit to complete an ambition, but if you are having trouble with it you can cancel it at any time, at the cost of the morale of your men. There isn’t really a way to beat the game, but you can trigger an ending by using the retire option from the menu. The quality of the ending depends on your level of renown (unless there are other factors, I’m not sure as it is never explained) but usually it will shed light on the fate of the commander (that’s you, stud) and the whereabouts of some of your loyal men. While Battle Brothers may seem infinite, this review is not and has come upon its end. The battlefield is calling: a mercenary’s work is never done. Well, unless you die or retire, of course.
*Note: A copy of the game was provided for the purpose of the review
Final Score: 9/10
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