Thorismund wasn’t very special. As our campaign started, as they all do in Overhype Studio’s Battle Brothers, with our band being slaughtered by Hoggart and his men, he was one of the three that was left. [[EDIT: This is a mistake, as pointed out by one of our eagle-eyed readers – he was obviously one of my hires from the first town, rather than one of the three you start with. Whoops!]] In our very next fight, where he was one of seven in the band as we took revenge against Hoggart, Thorismund was struck down with a permanent injury. Brain damage, the game told me; one of many injuries your men can take in the line of duty. So be it, I thought, and armed him with a two handed axe. He can go at the front, take some damage, and die valiantly for the company. That’s all he’ll be good for. Yet Thorismund, despite his addled state and lack of understanding about colours, standing and which way is up, had other ideas. He took three heads off at the shoulders in that battle. Then another two in the next fight. Whenever Thorismund got a kill, the head came off. Every. Single. Time. Thus, Thorismund Headtaker was born; and he would not die.
I love a game that lets me tell a story. Battle Brothers does that in spades. Look at Thorismund up there. He’s just one man, from one band. I’ve not told you about Sigmund the Younger, who lost his nose in a fight, then smashed the head in of his opponent with his warhammer. Or Englebert, the daytaler who had nothing going on with his life until he joined us – now he’s got 97 kills. Eberhard the Wise, who has been with us since the beginning, and has a crossbow that hits so hard it sends enemies flying backwards. You get the point; as your game continues, your men develop and it’s hard not to develop an attachment. Whether you’re fighting orcs, humans or the undead, you’re rooting for your guys not necessarily win but just to survive. Battle Brothers just gets storytelling so right.
The game itself is set in a quasi-Germanic country. You are but a player in three eventual end-game scenarios, but you have a good chunk of time before one of the three scenarios triggers. This means you have plenty of time to build up your band, if luck allows. Your band can number up to 20 men, with 12 fighting at any one time. In Battle Brothers, firing and hiring men is crucial to your success, and hiring is very much blind. You’re given a backstory for each one and can make some connections that way (farmhands are likely strong, poachers will have some marksmen skills etc.) but you can also have some interesting choices to make. Grab a tailor, for example, and he may sew you some armour from wolf hides. Choose a thief and he may cause a stir in the next town. There’s even a silent, Game of Thrones style silent Hedge Knight if you can find him. Each man has different statistics which are then useful in battle, and as they gain experience they can improve these stats and gain perks. For instance, Thorismund above has perks that make him more likely to cripple his opponents, while increasing the damage he does to anyone who is crippled. His attacks stack and frighten people, making them more likely to panic and flee. He’s got a reach advantage with his axe, too, meaning you can’t really avoid him. But he can avoid you – he’s got a huge bonus thanks to the dodge perks. You can build your guys to fit any type of fighter that you want.
A large map is procedurally generated for each game, with a seed system in place if you wish to use maps that others have previously used. You move around this on real time, as the days progress through. The day/night cycle is well used, with there being advantages and disadvantages for attacking at certain points. For instance, attacking an undead camp during the day means you can bring your archers to bear as they have no ranged units. However, taking on a goblin camp at night is preferential so they can’t pincushion your men with their fast acting units. You can establish a camp to speed up time and to heal your men, but they will also heal your Battle Brothers as you move around. Quests are gained from local towns and range from recovering items, wiping out local bands or going on a patrol and gathering as many heads as possible. These will reward you with renown, which unlocks even better quests, and the all-important gold with which you pay your men.
Battles are fought to a superb musical soundtrack on a hex-grid, and despite the simple graphics are impressively bloody. Heads fly off or are mashed to a bloody pulp by sledgehammers. Arrows litter the ground, or remain embedded in the corpses of your enemies. Your own men rise from the dead if summoned by a necromancer. Each man has attacks that befit his weapons, from axe-sweeps which hit everyone around them (even friendlies) to a sword hit that is designed to decapitate your enemy. The concept of RNG-Jesus is alive and well within this game, similar to XCOM. Sometimes luck is with you, sometimes you miss a 90% hit. For some, this is hugely frustrating, but I’ve not found it as punishing yet as XCOM or similar.
For some, the game does feel grindy. You go to a town, do a quest from it, spend the money you gain from that, and repeat. However, the perk system, levelling system and the random items that you can gain add enough flexibility to things to keep it interesting. Never knowing whether your best fighter is going to survive the next battle also keeps things fresh. Random events that happen to your men on the walk between towns also adds variation – we’ve rescued cats from trees, mugged people just going about their business, and who can forget the event which ends up with one of your men known as the “Filly Fiddler”.
There is some frustration in the sudden, unwinnable nature of some battles. Through the tool tips, the game is very clear in that “not every battle is winnable”. You can retreat from every battle, meaning you survive but take serious, permanent wounds; but it’s very easy to wipe entirely and lose your company. I have had battles where I have led my group into what appeared to be a simple fight, only to be met with 30+ goblins; but these are rare and I’m too much of a wuss to play on iron man mode anyway.
I plan to stream a run of this soon, but for now I recommend the excellent series that Aldrahill has begun, wherein he clearly and carefully explains the game to you as he plays (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ly1ZZYwQIs). Further support can also be found on the subreddit, http://www.reddit.com/r/battlebrothers, which has become a very reliable community for everything from event discussion to in-depth stat analysis.
Battle Brothers is available on Steam for £22.99.