Battle Brothers: Complete Review

I reviewed Battle Brothers on PC with all available DLC and on multiple difficulty settings.

You can find a video version of this review here: Battle Brothers Complete Review (Tactical Turn Based Game) – YouTube

Overview

Battle Brothers is a brutal game, to the degree that it took me four different attempts to review it off and on for the span of an entire year. That’s because I simply couldn’t progress far enough to properly review it. The game continually handed me my own ass, even on the lowest difficulty.

That’s not a complaint. I remained persistent because I really enjoyed the gameplay loop, where challenge is core to the experience. You run a band of mercenaries and they will die. The ones that don’t will likely end up with life-long injuries. X-COM has nothing on Battle Brother’s relentless lethality.

Take note that the lowest one reads beginner, not easy. A small but important distinction.

Your brothers aren’t super soldiers. Many of them might come from simple backgrounds, such as fishermen or tillers. Death can come for them at any time, even from a single attack depending on the situation. Those that survive continue to grow in skill. This can make it all the more heartbreaking when your longtime veteran swordsman ends up with a crippled arm, or your crack shot archer loses an eye.

Toss a Coin to Your Brother

Battle Brother’s open world is somewhat similar to Mount and Blade. While you can pause it, the world runs in real-time. Traders move between towns and cities while bandits and beasts run amok. The world moves with or without you, and your band of mercenaries is not the centerpiece. You simply exist there.

Battle Brothers offers many settings that you can tweak, including difficulty, and numerous ways to start the game. You can begin as simple mercenaries, monster hunters, barbarians, or even gladiators. All of this can drastically alter how the game feels, especially early on.

Regardless there is one objective truth that follows you no matter what you choose. Gold is your lifeblood. You need to visit various settlements which are owned by different factions to find yourself some contracts.

With the expansions you have all kinds of starting scenarios to choose from.

Contract payment can vary on what they require you to do, but are also influenced by your renown and relationship with whoever has the contract. You can always try to negotiate the terms, but you have to exercise caution as the lords of the land are stingy and self-serving. To them you are simply a hammer for them to drop on a problematic nail.

Ideally, you return with as many men as you left with. Then use those funds to further your group by hiring more brothers and outfitting the ones you have with better gear. Contracts can range from hunting down bandits and beasts, escorting caravans, or simply finding an uncharted location. But they are never safe. Even seemingly simple missions can go sideways quickly.

Contracts aren’t the only way to make money. You can conduct some trading by buying goods cheaply in areas that make a surplus and selling them in settlements that need them. In addition you can sell off old gear, explore locations for loot, or fight in gladiatorial arenas. The world is randomly generated, which means each settlement and its surrounding areas vary between playthroughs.

Guarding a caravan is easy money if nothing attacks, but you never know what’s lurking out there.

The world is always changing too. Traders that make it safely to a town supply it, while a recently raided one will be short on supplies. Either way, you have to figure out how to turn a profit, and that’s far more difficult than you would expect.

You have to pay and feed your brothers. And you need to keep a stock of tools, first aid supplies, and ammo to keep everything in working order. All of this takes gold. That’s without factoring in new brothers and gear. If you take a contract and lose a brother, you just lost a chunk of profit since you need to replace that body with another.

In fact, managing your time and finances is every bit as important to your success as the combat. It was where I really struggled. In my first few attempts, I just bought food and supplies whenever I needed them, which meant I constantly barely broke even on my contracts.

It’s far more efficient to carefully plan what contracts to take and where so that you can buy food and tools where it’s cheaper, which always changes based on what’s happening in the world.

I learned to have brothers sitting in reserve so I could swap them out with wounded ones rather than simply waiting for them to heal, burning food the entire time I waited with no money coming in. You have to learn what gear is worth using tools on to repair, and what to sell and what to keep. This can also vary based on your own personal strategy.

You have a lot to manage, but it’s pretty painless to navigate it.

Outside of combat Battle Brothers really nails an impressive balance of simplicity and depth. No matter what, you are a just band of mercenaries, and you only control one group. You don’t manage towns or settlements, just your brothers.

It’s simple. Yet in practice, you constantly have to think about what you’re doing and how. Which contracts are worth it, when and where to buy supplies. Can you afford to do some trading or should you go looking for some artifacts without a contract at all?

Leading a group of men for hire doesn’t just mean telling them what to swing a sword at. It is also managing the logistics to make sure they don’t starve on the trip between towns, or their gear doesn’t fall into disrepair.

It also means knowing when to retreat…

Death by Blade, Fang and Claw

The combat in Battle Brothers is turn-based. Pitting your band of misfits against man and monster alike. An interesting feature of Battle Brothers is the synergy between your men and the gear they carry. Brothers have various stats such as hit-points, resolve, fatigue and accuracy, but their equipment dictates most of what they can do.

Spears, swords, and axes all have their own attacks and abilities. Put a shield in a brother’s hand, and they can raise it in defense or slam it into an enemy. Damage is completely dictated by the weapon, not the brother. Some brothers might have a perk that affects it, but there is no damage stat on a brother. A hammer deals the same in Baelin’s hands as it does in Bodger’s

Controlling choke points is a great idea.

Armor and helmets are equally important. Without them your brothers will definitely die. With them, they will probably still die just slower. Armor absorbs damage when hit. Some weapon types deal a chunk of HP damage past the armor, but for the most part, armor has to be broken before you or your enemy starts taking a ton of damage.

But it’s not as simple as just stacking your whole team with the heaviest stuff you can find. The more your men carry, the faster they are fatigued and the lower their initiative. Every action from movement to attacking uses action points, but also generates fatigue. A tired brother who would normally be able to attack twice a turn, might only be able to swing once, or not at all.

How you outfit each brother has a massive impact on your strategy before the fight even begins. Having some knowledge of ancient battle tactics is actually really helpful in Battle Brothers. I used to be in the SCA, so I have first-hand knowledge of how to use shield walls, spear walls, and how to make backlines and frontlines support each other, and it really helped.

There isn’t a one size fits all strategy, however, and you will constantly have to adapt. It can be handy to have a brother carry a secondary weapon in their bag to adjust on the fly, as long as they have the fatigue to carry it.

They all died, I was not prepared…

A decent spear wall can hold back low-grade bandits. but come up against some skeletons, and you will find that spears are toothpicks. A big guy behind a shield might block a dozen or more strikes unless you bring an axe and split the shield. If Dire Wolves are hounding you, a well-placed net can pin them down before they rip out your front liner’s throat. Did a massive Desert Lindwurm catch you off guard? Run the fuck away. Trust me on this…

Morale affects both sides, and it’s a perfectly viable strategy to try and make some enemies flee. But some enemies are immune to fear, while others are great at frightening your own men.

The battleground itself also matters, different terrain requires more actions points to traverse. Archers have trouble shooting at night, and you should learn from Anakin’s mistakes, the high ground matters. Chokepoints can bring bring you victory or defeat

Every battle is an intense game of super complex chess where one wrong move will cost you the lives of some of your brothers. But it goes even deeper than merely surviving. You can collect unbroken gear that an enemy had after a battle. Do you see a knight wearing an expensive set of plate armor? Figure out how to take him down without breaking it, and it’s yours.

That’s always risky, and you might lose a brother for it. At the same time, that armor could be worth more than a brother. It’s morbid, but I’d be lying if I said it was not a trade I had made more than once. The world of Battle Brothers is a harsh one.

No Rest For The Weary

Another impressive aspect of Battle Brothers is the fact that it’s entirely a mercenary sandbox, yet the world evolves continually pushing you forward. While you are free to run your company in any way you wish, you can’t simply fool around. There is nothing stopping you from running into a situation you can’t handle, even at the start of the game.

You can’t scare the dead, they will never retreat.

Eventually, you and the entire world will face a crisis. An undead scourge, green skin invasion, holy crusade, or faction war. If you survive it, another will appear later. There’s even an option to allow settlements to be destroyed, adding another factor to concern yourself with. You can’t make money if there’s no one to pay you.

You don’t truly win Battle Brothers. It ends when you die or choose to retire. If you retire on a fat stack of gold having survived multiple calamities, you can consider that a victory.

Each play-through feels pretty unique, given the procedural nature of the world and how you choose to start and play. I’ve never experienced the game without the expansions, but I can safely say each one added a great deal to the game. From turning monster parts into items to an entire desert faction complete with arenas and very primitive firearms.

Something to note is that the world itself is joyless and brutal. Happiness is fleeting, and many random events showcase that reality. This is neither a pro nor a con, just something to be aware of. Not that I don’t have a few complaints, of course.

Battle Brother’s interface is a bit stingy with information. Friend and foe alike can be severely wounded during battle, and each wound has a massive impact on that character. While I can see if I cut a foe’s arm, or pierced their chest. I have no idea what penalty that imposed unless I stop and wiki it. Given the precise nature of the game, tooltips would have been welcome.

One thing I do love is how you can see what an enemy is wearing and wielding. If I see an enemy wearing chain mail and using a spear, I know to some degree, what that enemy can do. As long as I personally remember since there are no tooltips.

It’s over, I have the high ground!

This can be a double-edged sword with some enemies. I’ve had to learn how to fight Dire Wolves, Undead, Orcs, and many other monsters purely through failure against them because the game doesn’t give you any clue what they can do, statistically or otherwise.

On one hand, I did enjoy the learning experience. The first time I learned how to fight an Alp, I felt accomplished. On the other hand, I straight up lost several campaigns with many hours into them when fighting an enemy for the first time. Especially if that enemy was fast enough to run down my fleeing brothers. Given the game’s unforgiving nature, that can feel really bad.

Each brother is distinct through random traits, backgrounds, and stat’s that they have an affinity with. When they level up you can acquire perks for them that have a huge impact on their ability and playstyle. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel like it was still hard to differentiate them since a good deal of who they are is dictated by the gear they wore.

I like to name characters after people I know, or fictional characters I like. It was still hard for me to actually remember them. It was more likely that I’d get to know one as awesome spear dude, or mega tank, or the axe guy.

Those who do manage to survive level up and gain perks.

Don’t get me wrong, I still got attached to some of them. Losing awesome spear dude definitely hurt. But I didn’t have the same attachment to them that I would in a game like X-COM since it was difficult to make them stand out.

There are no Battle Sisters either, or any woman portrayed in the game at all. Sure, it’s based on Germanic History. But when there are orcs, necromancers, and giant spiders, are those really more realistic than a shieldmaiden? Modder’s have you covered though.

Verdict

Battle Brothers is a pretty great game. The fact that I came back to it four times should tell you that. It’s harsh, brutal, and unforgiving, and it plays off of that concept in beautiful ways. It’s a game that’s simple to understand on the base level but contains an incredible amount of depth.

I really enjoy its no-nonsense approach to its creative vision. It’s a mercenary sandbox. There’s no main plot or story shoehorned onto it. It places you in a role and tells you to make it work. There is no fluff in Battle Brothers. Every piece of it works together to form a cohesive package, nothing is out of place.

The logistics of your company, while incredibly important, are quick and simple to manage. The combat is tactically brilliant and is one of few games I’ve ever seen lean into historical battle tactics.

Never have I been more afraid of Goblins

The interface could do more to relay information to you in battle, and the game can definitely pull the rug from under you in ways that feel unfair. I do also wish I could make each brother more unique, given the importance of permadeath.

None of my complaints are enough to dissuade my stance. Battle Brothers is a must-have for turn-based fans, and I highly recommend the full package as every DLC adds meaningful substance to the experience. Despite being released in 2017 the game is still being updated, and I’d pick up a new DLC without question.

Clever management mixed with highly tactical combat makes this band worth the price of admission. Just be aware the grim difficulty might make you sing the blues while you learn to accept its brotherly love.

You might also enjoy my review of Wildermyth

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Pros

  • Clever mercenary management
  • Fantastic combat system where historical tactics can be viable
  • The variety of weapons and gear have very different roles and abilities
  • The brutal permadeath and injury system makes combat intense
  • Difficulty settings present
  • High replay value
  • The dynamic world changes and moves on independently from you
  • Large variety of enemies
  • A great sandbox that allows you to decide how to run your mercenary band

Cons

  • The interface lacks a lot of tool tips that could mean life or death
  • Some losses can feel unfair due to lack of information
  • It can be hard to make brothers unique beyond the gear they carry
  • There are no women portrayed in the game at all, despite the inclusion of fantasy creatures