Battle Brothers (NS) - ReviewIssa Maki , posted on 04 April 2021 / 1,229 Views
It's not hard to turn a cold shoulder on the sheer amount of ports, remakes, and remasters on Nintendo Switch. Something like Xenoblade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, with its enhanced graphics and brand-new epilogue is certainly worth consideration, but Capcom charging $19.99 for Devil May Cry 2 is absurd. The uninformed might be quick to lump Battle Brothers in with the lesser efforts, but to do so would be a great disservice to the diverse, complex gameplay and overwhelming amount of content it offers. The console that has no boundaries meets a foil of sorts in a title that itself is almost endless. It's not a perfect marriage by any means, but the ones that work the best usually aren't.
Stamped right onto the title screen of Battle Brothers is a disclaimer warning players of its difficulty, advising them not only to start on 'Beginner', but to play the tutorial. When I saw this, I began rubbing my hands together in anticipation. One of my fondest memories of Final Fantasy Tactics was simply playing the tutorial, spending an hour learning the intricacies and establishing the new boundaries being drawn for me. I wish I could say the same about Battle Brothers, except the tutorial doesn't really exist. What's worse is that if there was a game that needed a proper tutorial, it would be this one.
There are two options that are considered 'tutorials' here, and neither of them qualifies for the job. One is under the 'Scenarios' tab that immediately thrusts players into an enemy encounter with no prior knowledge about how anything works – and none is given. The other is the 'Rebuilding a Company' campaign, which is simply starting a new file with a three-man group, again with very little explanation about any aspect of the gameplay or how the various systems complement each other. How a game can be on its second release yet lack the satisfying tutorial that it recommends playing still boggles my mind. The last thing Battle Brothers wants is to be played; a shame as, once you learn how to, it becomes an addictive, rewarding experience that walks its own unique path.
Anyone expecting to find the next Tactics Ogre may be dismayed, but those who happen to have the ambition of Nobunaga, or a background with Sid Meier's brand of procedural, diplomatic commerce simulators will definitely want to take notice. There's certainly some strategic, head-lopping action to be had, but one must get equally excited about finding the best routes to trade spice fortunes and cheese. Both are linked together inexorably; their mastery is required for survival.
Battle Brothers has a slower, methodical style than many in its genre, as the fighting shares billing with the economic side of the equation. Success or failure can ride on the player's savvy to recognize business opportunities when they present themselves and capitalizing accordingly. Materials such as lumber or peat bricks will find a premium in the desert or in war-torn villages looking to rebuild. Exotic dyes and fabrics are valued in the frozen north, where animal pelts are the coin of the realm. Making a cross-referenced list of what to buy and where to sell might not sound like fun to the younger crowd, but like sock garters and foods pickled in brine, don't knock it before you try it. We also have cardigans on hand, just in case.
Without a doubt, the meat and potatoes of Battle Brothers is the combat, but even with a strong history in RTS titles there still exists a learning curve that's tough to overcome. This goes all the way down to basic movement, which is much trickier than usual. Each character has a 'Field of Control'; should opposing forces meet inside this zone, they essentially become locked together in fate's embrace, 'til death do they part. Veterans used to Fire Emblem or Disgaea where enemies can be attacked before moving for safety are going to need to lose some muscle memory in this regard, lest they expose themselves to unnecessary damage. Certain perks allow leniency concerning the FoC (and are vital in the late-game), but for the most part if two units come into contact only one will remain standing. This introduces the cruel reality of Battle Brothers, where life is a currency with limited value, and death springs eternal.
Further confusion is almost guaranteed. An activity log keeps track of all the 'behind-the-scenes' rolls made in combat (which is great), but without the proper context they mean nothing. It took me an embarrassing amount of time before understanding that a lower roll than your opponent is required for an attack to be successful, and the numbers confusion doesn't end there. The quality of a piece of armor is actually determined by its maximum durability. Combined with shields, these influence a competing weapon's effectiveness more than the game lets on.
I have never witnessed more attacks with a 75-85% chance to hit completely whiff than I have in Battle Brothers, for optimal conditions must be undertaken: a character's height in relation to their target, the terrain both are standing on, their 'Resolve', the amount of adjacent friends and foes, the type of weapon skill used - all of this (and possibly more) factor into each attack. Everything must be taken into account to be effective in a fight.
The gameplay in and out of battle is equally entertaining. Aside from the aforementioned trading, players will go from town to town in search of quests to complete, earning renown. These can range from discovering a rumoured location and scouting for hostile camps, to escorting caravans across the country. Non-combatants can be hired like chefs or musicians, indirectly aiding with passive bonuses. Ambitions are career-oriented goals established by the group; earning enough gold to raise a battle standard, finding legendary equipment, visiting as many places as possible, or becoming the protectors of the meek are a few examples of the tasks to be had. Surviving long enough activates a 'crisis', such as a religious crusade, orc invasion, or war between noble classes. A healthy dose of reality comes along with them, forcing you towards the ultimate truth: you're not a good guy – you're running a business.
But it's this revelation that defines Battle Brothers, elevating it well above any of its shortcomings. It doesn't take very long to get attached to your company; watching one of them get completely brained by an orc cudgel is a traumatic experience – one you'll no doubt reload to try and prevent. In the end, you'll learn that you can't save them all. Purchasing some cannon fodder to take the heat off your main crew is always fun; watching them rise through the ranks as they level up and gain perks makes you proud. Quality over quantity is a lesson that the late-game will teach, but when Elgus and Kor are on sale for 80 gold total, it's impossible not to act like you're haggling over cuts of meat at the butcher shop: “wrap 'em up, I'll take 'em!”
Regardless, no matter how you play there are going to be tough decisions ahead. Retirement might seem like the logical option for battle-hardened veterans, but if they get 'retired' in the Philip K. Dick sense of the word, they no longer need to be paid. If you can get lumber for cheap from a village with ambushed trade routes, it could be in your best interests not to get rid of the bandits. Earning the respect of the nobles can be highly lucrative, but you'd better be willing to spread the blood of the innocent. The sign of a good RPG are choices that have consequences: Battle Brothers has them in spades.
Being a port of a PC title, there are a few technical issues concerning its optimization on Switch. Aside from the tutorial debacle, nothing stands out more than having to manually select the target of every single action each character takes. With a mouse and its point-and-click precision, this would be a non-issue. Unfortunately, the right analogue stick of a Joy-Con is hardly a proper substitute; having to drag the cursor across the screen just to highlight the person adjacent to the one taking action gets old. If one of my allies is trapped in webs, I shouldn't have to choose the target of the 'Break Free' command. Doing this thousands of times per campaign flat out sucks - there's no other way to say it.
Interactions on the overworld map are also worthy of contention. When it costs food, money, health, and equipment to simply move across the screen, it shouldn't be a complete ordeal to chase down thieves or Unholds. Witnessing the framerate plummet when zooming out isn't inspiring, though considering how little of an impact this has overall, if it isn't forgivable it's at least acceptable. This is a big game to be sure, but it could have been brought over to Switch with more care than it was.
In all honesty, this is a tough call. Battle Brothers isn't for everyone and we're all in agreement about this ('all' being myself, Overhype Studios, its subsidiaries, and the rabbit who asked me about time travel). These days, it might be hard to convince people to spend 30 hours learning how to fail at playing a game, but the chosen willing to swallow their pride and cough up a few teeth have access to a very rewarding title with almost limitless replay value. It's not nearly as accessible as it should be for a re-release, and Battle Brothers would sooner take your hands from you than hold them. If you're brave enough, offer them up; you might be surprised what you get back in return.
This review is based on a digital copy of Battle Brothers for the NS, provided by the publisher.