Battle Brothers is turn-based Mount & Blade meets XCOM

We recently, and rightly, complained on this website that Final Fantasy Tactics needs to come to PC. Yeah, we've got XCOM 2, Xenonauts, Shadowrun, Massive Chalice, and BattleTech is on the way, but fantasy turn-based tactics games where you're playing chess with customized soldiers are hard to come by.

As it turns out, a follow-up to FFT has been hiding in plain sight—a German equivalent of it, anyway.

I love games that don't imbue me with superpowers or magic from the outset.

I started Battle Brothers over the Memorial Day weekend after hearing designers Josh Sawyer and David Goldfarb rave about it on Twitter, and it's exactly the sort of combat-focused strategy game I've loved since Shining Force on Sega Genesis. 

Battle Brothers is basically an open-ended, Dungeons & Dragons-style campaign for players who prefer combat over storytelling. You roam a procedurally-generated overworld map fighting goblins, varieties of undead, orcs, brigands, and competing mercenary companies on outdoor battlefields split into hexagons. Some of these threats are roaming, and will even chase your party around the map, but most of them sit and wait for you in forts and encampments.

Orcs can stun characters as they lunge into melee range.

And it's brutal. XCOM-brutal. There's no healing available to you mid-encounter, and soldiers who fail morale checks will try to flee on their own, triggering attacks of opportunity that usually get them instakilled. Even playing carefully on the lowest difficulty, death is guaranteed.

Whenever I encountered a new enemy type, I lost men. My star archers were useless against ancient skeletons, who give zero fucks about ranged attacks. Then I stumbled into Necrosavants, teleporting vampires who dodge most attacks, drain life from your soldiers, and inflict bleed damage. I also made the mistake of underestimating Wiedergangers, squishy medieval zombies that resurrect a couple turns after you defeat them, often behind your frontline.

I got my nose bloodied. Then I started to appreciate that Battle Brothers wasn't afraid to expose me to threats I wasn't leveled for, and each victory and loss started to feel owned and personal. It reminded me of Mount & Blade, one of the other true 'bottomless' sandboxes on PC that lets you bite off more than you can chew. It helped that Battle Brothers' brutality occasionally cuts both ways: as my mercenary company grew, I started slaughtering low-tier bandits I ran into—bullying them boosted my morale, and let me grind some easy XP. Here's my two-handed swordsman Cayenne cutting down three brigands at once:

Get wrecked, highwaymen.

Brothers & braggings

The presentation wrapped around this bloodshed is modest. I like the grounded yet colorful look of Battle Brothers' 2D art, but there just isn't enough of it across the game. There's likewise little voice work, other than grunts, death cries, and the clunk of crossbow bolts. Your men are legless busts, a cute indie workaround to avoid luxuries like idle animations.

As a result, your fighters' personalities feel under-expressed. When you hit the chain and plate mail tiers of armor, your soldiers' faces are completely covered by metal, which dampened my attachment to them a bit. I had to take responsibility for my own roleplaying: once a mercenary hit level 4, I named them after a spice, like Cayenne, Cinnamon, or Basil. Into the fray, Spice Boys! (RIP Mustard, my axe-throwing frontliner.)

The injury system, of all things, contributes the most personality, as characters wear injuries that permanently weaken their stats—a collapsed lung, a missing eye, even brain damage. Bringing a battered spearman into battle and watching him get revenge on the orcs that maimed his foot (making movement cost more AP per hex) provides some simple story.

Characters can lose their nose, an ear, an eye, a finger, or break joints.

Other areas of the game are admittedly shallow. Battle Brothers' writing is great, but structurally there's little quest variety—a multi-part 'city defense' is actually just three combats back-to-back. A caravan escort is puts a few friendly NPCs on your side (who often cause more trouble than they're worth by dying, then rising again as zombies that you have to deal with). Towns have randomized facilities and recruitable pools of (variously capable) men, but otherwise don't differ much.

I didn't care. I ended up putting 42 hours into Battle Brothers because the fundamentals of its combat (elevation, line of sight, action points, fatigue, shields, and armor degradation) all work harmoniously to deliver tough, procedurally-generated fights. I love games that don't imbue me with superpowers or magic from the outset, but feel grounded, and make me earn each kill, coin and victory.

Not unlike one of my other turn-based favorites, Darkest Dungeon, Battle Brothers allows and invites you to fail. Achievements are awarded for getting a campaign to last for 10 in-game days (according to Steam stats, currently 27.4% of players), 100 days (7.8%), or 365 days (0.6%) on veteran, the middle difficulty setting. You can tap out of your campaign at any time by 'retiring,' which awards you an ending based on how successful of a mercenary company you ran. If you're good enough, you can seemingly play indefinitely, mopping all evil (or other merc companies) from the map one by one.