GAME ON: Turn-based 'Battle Brothers' is rewardingly difficult

(Overhype Studios)
(Overhype Studios)

In "Battle Brothers," being a mercenary is a gritty, thankless line of work, high risk for mediocre rewards. The path of most who go this route will be cut short, but for the few who do survive, glory and honor await.

Based on a medieval Germany setting, "Battle Brothers" is an unforgiving, low-fantasy slog.

As with many turn-based games, there are two main parts: turn-based, tactical combat on a hex-tiled battlefield, and real-time traveling on an overland map, visiting settlements and going toward quest objectives.

It's also a bit of a rogue-like game, as the death of members of your mercenary squad is permanent, and each new game spawns a unique map and setting.

Your mercenary group is small to start — three brothers. A spear-and-shield user, a two-handed ax wielder and a crossbowman. With a handful of starting funds, you'll visit settlements, find more mercenaries to come under your banner, and seek glory and riches. What your band will most likely find, however, is death.

I took this game too lightly at first, choosing "normal" for the various difficulty settings, and it felt like I barely made it out of the starting gates before my whole crew was slaughtered, time and again.

Here are some tips if you try this game out:

1. Play on beginner difficulty. "Battle Brothers" has three main difficulty settings: economy (how much your crew gets paid for completing contracts), combat (self-explanatory), and starting funds. A fourth variable is Ironman Mode, which makes the game save automatically and prevents save-scumming, making any failures permanent.

2. Don't get attached to your men. Most of the units you recruit will be pretty poor at the start, and replaceable. You're going to be hiring people who aren't good warriors at first -- farmhands, beggars, thieves on the run from the law, and the like. Eventually, when the money flows in, you can hire premium units that already are skilled in combat, such as squires, swordsmen and retired soldiers. Those units are very expensive but will have the higher base attributes necessary for the late game.

3. Grab swords and spears, which have a bonus to hit chance and can punish enemies for closing in on you. Get some beefy boys up front in the heaviest armor possible as well, and keep your squishy fellas in the back with ranged weapons.

4. Find war hounds and equip everyone with them when possible. They can effectively double your fighting force. You can only take 12 men to the battlefield but might have to face two dozen enemies. War dogs can even the odds.

5. Every unit will come with three "starred" attributes. Every time a unit levels up, each attribute can be increased by a few points, but you can only pick three to raise. If a stat has stars, that bumps the increase. Your best units will have three stars on key stats, such as melee attack, fatigue, resolve or health. The fatigue and resolve stats are crucial to success.

Units with a low resolve are prone to panicking in battle, and when bad things happen on the battlefield (such as being surrounded or seeing someone die), a unit's resolve drops. If the resolve gets too low, the AI takes over that unit (which usually makes it die, causing a chain reaction of resolve-drops and panicking). Actions such as moving and attacking cause fatigue and special abilities such as shieldwall to increase defense can take a lot. A fatigued unit will have to skip its turn to rest, which can be fatal.

Switching to the easiest settings, I finally was able to achieve some success in the game. My mercenaries were leveling up, and I'd managed to fill the maximum squad size of 12. Then, for the first time, I encountered nonhuman enemies — a roving band of orcs.

It seemed like a fairly simple task. Four young orcs and one berserker orc. I outnumbered them more than two-to-one — what could go wrong?

Everything seemed to go my way at first. The young orcs were swiftly dispatched with minimal damage, leaving just the berserker. And then things went downhill, fast, as the lone berserker decapitated first one merc, then another, then another, as it shrugged off my attacks and butchered the entire squad.

Game over, back to the drawing board. My boys were not prepared.

There are many enemies in the game — brigands, orcs, goblins, wolves, goblins riding wolves, undead, witches and more.

Graphically, "Battle Brothers" is not a gem. The brothers themselves have a bit of a weird look — sort of normal from the waist up, but below, just a round base, kind of like a chess piece. In many ways, chess is sort of how battles play out, as units jockey for position behind obstacles or on elevated tiles. In addition to the base game, there are several downloadable content options available and a large selection of community-created mods that can really enhance the game, such as changing up the starting selection of warriors or adding weapon crafting.

I was really surprised by the depth of gameplay and how much strategy and patience is required, and with every game being a new experience, there's a ton of replayability here.

I had a great time with this game.

Title: “Battle Brothers”

Platform: Windows, coming soon on Nintendo Switch

Cost: $29.99

Rating: Teen for fantasy violence

Score: 8 out of 10