really, really want to watch a movie version of Battle Chef Brigade. Who could resist this treatment: It’s Iron Chef meets Lord of the Rings! The mythical kingdom of Victusia is tragically overrun by monsters, a scourge kept in check by an army of warrior-cooks, who spend half their time hunting monstrous game and half their time competing to see who can turn their kill into a better dinner. It’s a fun, weird, totally intriguing fantasy world — I just wish it made for a slightly more exciting game.
Our story takes place at Victusian boot camp, where aspiring chef-fighters train to qualify for the brigade. Deep bonds of friendship are forged among a ragtag team of deeply characterized newcomers (you’ve got your orc with a heart of gold, you’ve got your science-minded elf princess, you’ve got your class-clown necromancer, you’ve got your human girl with low self-esteem and an overbearing mom), who join forces to help each other pass various Food Network-style timed cookoffs, and also deal with personal issues, and also both uncover and solve a mysterious, treasonous plot. There’s a rich supporting cast, including a bumbling old professor, a comically nearsighted innkeeper, and a depressive, alcoholic, devastatingly sexy orc huntress/taxidermist named Thorn, whose very first dialogue bubble references her ex-girlfriend. (She seems, and this is a compliment, flawlessly engineered for Tumblr fandom obsession.)
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All of this would be a great movie. And it would be a beautiful one: Battle Chef Brigade is a flat-out gorgeous game, with expressive 2D animation and a fluid watercolor style that makes everything from sprites to backgrounds to static cut-frames feel extra special. Glowing and glowering under washes of light and shadow, and with a distinctive Middle Earth-meets-contemporary-Japan-meets-Regency-England aesthetic, it owes no small debt to Studio Ghibli, right down to the cute little one-eyed, two-horned bird-monster that does double duty as a killable foe and the save screen mascot. I’d love to spend two hours lost in the darkness of a movie theater, watching Miyazaki’s version of this tale unfold.
Battle Chef Brigade isn’t a movie, though — and as a game, it suffers from an overload of storytelling, or maybe a shortfall of interactivity. We play as Mina, the human (and later on, replay the same timeframe from the perspective of Thrash, her orc friend), ticking through calendar days of training and dueling to join the Chef Brigade. The game’s developers, Trinket, have thrown around the phrase “fantasy cooking show,” and that’s pretty accurate description of Victusia’s food-obsessed military dictatorship: Most of the gameplay takes the form of timed competitions between the player and a mostly-offscreen NPC opponent, complete with a judge expressing their taste preferences, and a grandiose master of ceremonies declaring a theme ingredient that needs to appear in each dish.
This manifests for the player as a combination of platformer combat (hunting the monsters with a mixture of magic and melee attacks) and a Bejeweled-style puzzler (cooking the monster parts into dishes by way of a match-three game). You’re able to talk to certain characters as you walk through town, and can upgrade your tools and advance your techniques with coins earned via hunting- or cooking-related odd jobs. You don’t have to know a soupçon about actual cooking to make your way through the game, though there are plenty of winks and nods for players who do, including the hilariously over-the-top dish descriptions and offhand references to a mysterious Chef Robuchon.
The version of Battle Chef Brigade that hits the market this month is a major evolution from what was teased four years ago, when Trinket first announced their plans for a “light and goofy” fantasy RPG wrapped around a cooking show. Folks who’ve followed Trinket’s blog and regular Kickstarter updates (the game was funded in 2014) know that Battle Chef Brigade’s scope has expanded and then contracted, with the developers scaling back components of both fighting and cooking in favor of more intuitive, rewarding gameplay. It was a smart call: The hunting and cooking mini-games are easy to pick up and quickly scale up in complexity, the technique hovering just this side of button-mashing.
Trinket also invested heavily in art and world-building, which — on the story side — pays off beautifully. Novelistic editing tricks and show-don’t-tell dialogue make it easy to become invested in characters’ backstories, motivations, and challenges, and Mina and Thrash’s fighting and cooking styles differ in ways that reinforce the dimensionality of their characterization. The whole thing is funny and weird and — at least as a story — intensely engaging.
As a game, though, the engagement just isn’t there: There simply isn’t much for the player to do, outside of short bursts of hunting and cooking, the same mini-games over and over again, in various combinations. And even enraptured by the story as I was, I found myself speeding through the dialogue on my first playthrough — which broke my heart, since so much of it is fully voiced, a rare and wonderful thing in games of this sort. When I went back to replay on hard mode (times are shorter, monsters have higher hit points), I was so overwhelmed by the lopsided ratio of flavor text to gameplay — and the frustratingly frequent, frustratingly long save screens — that I kept just sort of … putting down my Switch and wandering away to do other things.
Much of my lost motivation may have been because the steaks (stakes! sorry!) are so low. To keep its complicated storyline humming along, Battle Chef Brigadenever really lets the player make any meaningful choices, and virtually none of the interactive gameplay has any bearing on the plot. There are no side quests, no stats to pump, no bonus secrets to unlock (at least, none that I found). The extensive inter-character dialogue is fully scripted; Mina and Thrash always say exactly what they need to say to retain their characterization and move the plot along.
For players who couldn’t care less about the plot, and just want to smash and stab and cook, there are a handful of challenges outside the central narrative. Daily cook-offs give you a randomized set of equipment and a random opponent, judge, and ingredient; cooking challenges test your short-order jewel matching ability; and timed trials give you a chance to hone your platforming and hunting skills. But there’s no leveling up, no accumulated rewards, not even some extra-chirpy victory music for crushing a personal best in a plate-breaking exercise. Like the gaming interludes in the main storyline, the dopamine hits are few and far between.
But for all these shortcomings — and there are plenty of them — I still feel warm about Battle Chef Brigade. If you’re getting a sense that I’m waffling here between love and meh, you’re reading me right. I love the premise of this game, which folds together so many of my favorite things: platformers, mobile-style brain-suck puzzles, sexy orcs and overly complicated meals. And I love so, so much of its execution, especially the gorgeous art and music.
But everything feels, from top to bottom, like it knows it ought to be a movie instead of a game — at times, it even comes off like it’s apologizing for not being one. Some titles can walk this line between movie and game, soaring with cinematic intensity while the gameplay itself enriches the plot. Battle Chef Brigade, sadly, isn’t one of them.
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