Many a man will be killed for glory
I’m all for tactical RPGs continuing to creep their way onto the Nintendo Switch—give me as many experiences as possible that I can play untethered from my desk and in my hand. Battle Brothers, which was originally released in 2017 on PC, is the latest offering to find a new home on Nintendo. This middle ages-themed game touts itself as both dark in tone and tough as nails, so much so that it warns you in the menu to start with beginner difficulty, and it isn’t lying.
While there is no traditional story campaign, Battle Brothers offers a nice selection of different starting scenarios, giving the option to modify difficulty and containing an end-game scenario meant to act as a sort of final encounter. What the game lacks in overarching story, it more than makes up for in robust narrative-building through character interactions. The start of each scenario has a healthy bit of text to set the stage of who you are and what you’re trying to accomplish. New characters you encounter all have dialogue that not only gives direction of where to go, but also provides a glimpse into the kind of person they are. Because of this, the absence of a larger story doesn’t feel like a meaningful omission.
For your battle brothers to survive the harsh world, as commander you need to master not just conquering opposing militias and orcs, but also travel across long distances between towns and sustain your ranks with diligent resource management. The overworld map is nicely detailed: the landscape shifting from grasslands to snow covered terrain, and littered with the occasional town, one-off buildings, or enemy encampments. Your brigade will travel these lands, making contacts within towns and building relationships with them to open up paid contracts to take on, including routing enemies and acting as an escort for traders.
The battles themselves are very traditional tactical RPG. Your soldiers and the enemies start off on a field and have a turn order based on who has the highest initiative attribute. Action points dictate how many move spaces on a hexagonal field units can travel and how many attacks or other actions they can take. Permadeath is the name of the game here, but unlike a Fire Emblem, it’s an often necessary sacrifice to make it through a grueling battle. Soldiers are a commodity that gets churned through and replaced as much as food or tools. After battle, you take the spoils, and survivors can slowly regenerate health over a span of a few in-game days. Leveling up lets you apply points to attributes like initiative or defense and select a wide array of perks, making those warriors a precious commodity and a painful loss if killed.
Supplies can be picked up at any town - the Market has food, tools, and some cheap weaponry and armor. Blacksmiths sell better weaponry, you can purchase armor from armories, and the pubs let you pay for leads to new bounties or buy a round to raise your brothers’ morale. Need to re-staff your ranks? Recruits range from wholly inexperienced farm hands to battle-tested potential brothers. Those recruits each cost a one-time payment as well as a daily salary, and their cost matches their experience. Your company burns through food daily and tools each time weapons, armor, or shields need repair.
Unsurprisingly, currency (called crowns) is the driving engine of the systems. To illustrate, I’ll provide a lengthy example. Imagine your company escapes a battle with only three of the eight soldiers you came with. You gain 400 crowns for completing the contract, but refilling your supplies eats up half of that. Replacing the fallen and arming them takes half of your savings, and that is even going budget by recruiting laborers, adorning them with cheap leather tunics, and equipping them with repurposed cleavers and pitchforks instead of weapons proper. The next contract is only for 140 crowns up front and 200 upon arrival at the next town; you just pray now that it’s uneventful to make up for the last battle’s losses. I appreciate how transparent and honest those systems and the way its gears churn people into dust, as dour as that might sound.
Battle Brothers has exhibited a clear vision in what it wants to be: a painfully grueling and dark world with a system of commerce that’s equally punishing. This is a system where crowns make the world go round and everything is replaceable, for a price. The breadth of dialogue, world-building paragraphs, and light agency in storytelling let you build the world according to what you hear. It’s a world I want to dive into again and again, even if I know this incarnation will be just as taxing.