I’ve been describing Brigandine: The Legend of Runersia to my friends as “What if someone made Fire Emblem, but with six houses.” Throw in a dash of grand strategy (e.g. Crusader Kings) and it’s honestly a phenomenal pitch. This was a game that, when Managing Editor Steven described it to me, I all but begged to cover it. I was not disappointed. By combining relatively well-written and characterized visual novel storytelling with great tactics that boast an engaging — if not always clear — strategic layer, this is a product designed to appeal directly to me. More than anything though, Brigandine gives you just enough of a canvas to tell your own stories. This is often one of gaming’s greatest strengths, and particularly apparent in tactics games like this and XCOM. To really understand Brigandine you have to first understand the kind of stories its trying to tell.
That’s where Rune Knights come in. They’re the primary units and most essential characters in Brigandine. Rune Knights are usually humans (there’s one automaton and a… dog-ish man), with the ability to summon monsters that fight by their side and to use magic of their own. They’re incredibly powerful, almost mythical figures in The Legend of Runersia. And they carve those myths out on the battlefield.
In the hex-based tactical layer of the game, the monsters Rune Knights summon all fill specific roles, but their job is to supplement the summoner — not supersede them. Most Rune Knights fall into one of 12 gendered class lines. Men (and an intersex character named Charlotte, whose gender designator in-game is Maiden) can be Monks or Barbarians, for instance, while only women have access to Lancers and Bards.
Each class’s specific function in combat mostly adheres to genre conventions. Lancers, Fighters, and Barbarians make up your tanks and high DPS units. Whereas Thieves and Dancers use hit and run tactics mixed with status effects. Though there’s plenty of variation in between.
At face value these classes aren’t particularly exciting. The weirdness and specificity of the classes are a big part of why I love Etrian Odyssey, for example, but these seemingly boring roles get more interesting once you start switching classes. You can change on the fly while carrying over spells and passive buffs they learned.
One of my favorite combinations is Barbarian and Thief. The Barbarian has a passive that boosts the damage they deal when countering enemy attacks, making them incredible frontline fighters. They always win damage trades even while on the defensive. The problem is that their defenses themselves are… lacking. They have the potential to be the most destructive unit in play, but can’t stay alive long enough to do so.
That’s why you multi-class them as a Thief. Thieves have a passive trait that significantly increases their evasion chance. Couple that with lots of extra agility every time a Thief levels up, and you have an incredibly hard-to-hit unit that bites back twice as hard. While a Barbarian-Thief lacks the might of a pure Barbarian or Fighter-Barbarian combo, they more than outlast their fragile peers.
Getting Rune Knights beyond your starting handful of units is difficult. The only way to actually get new Knights is to send your extant troops on quests during the game’s Organization Phase. These quests are designed to provide items, experience, and, on occasion, new units.
Now let me tell you about one such unit: Hughes, my favorite Barbarian-Thief who, I would argue, brings into clear focus the way Brigandine understands the interplay of story and combat.
Hughes likes to tell himself that no one was prepared for the war. He’s wrong about this, but it isn’t worth the effort to convince him of that. Though he and many others were not ready. They found him picking pockets in a border city, threat of invasion thick and wet in the air. He was a good thief — too good. Excellency draws attention. Anyone deft enough to steal from a Rune Knight had to have some kind of potential. When Charlotte, the heavily armored woman whose bag he had been slashing, calmly turned to face him he felt seen by someone with real power for the first time. It was dreadful. He was given a choice: exile, imprisonment, or enlistment. He chose the one that would give him the most comfortable bed.
Getting a new Rune Knight combat ready can be an… arduous process. Low-level units aren’t strong enough to hold their ground in actual battles. Instead, you’re forced to go through Training Quests to level them safely. These quests only provide XP, and do nothing for your army’s weapon stockpile.
The difficult thing for Hughes in particular was actually training him as a barbarian. Halfway through this particular arc of his career I had him switch classes. I can imagine how that went… He would have laughed in his commanding officer’s face the first time they told him to put on armor. He was a thief, not a berserker. Heavy armor and a heavier axe just wasn’t his style. That is until he learned the order came down from her. It certainly wasn’t that he respected the woman who dragged him into this war, but for some reason her word was dogma.
When Hughes hit level 10, and became a proficient Berserker now too skilled to benefit from training quests, he was forced to get his first taste of battle. His opening gambit was anything but promising. He charged directly into a Bronze Golem and swung his axe — efficiently sundering the air next to the creature’s head. When it slammed its heavy fist into his chest his armor caved and his body was thrown a few feet back..
It was lying there in the dirt and the wet that he saw her in action for the first time. Charlotte’s Centaur released a volley into the Golem, pinning it in place. A bolt of flame from her Drake rendered metal into clay, soft-warm and ready for violence. When she drove her fist into the construct’s molten chest, it was Hughes that winced from imagined pain. Charlotte did not. It was at this point that he rose to his feet and delivered a tired and messy finishing blow.
Early knights are unable to hold their own in fights, but they can finish off a weakened target (recall that Fire Emblem comparison). This necessary step in his journey from Thief to General complete, Hughes quickly learned to hold his own in battle. With a few successful invasions under his belt, he was finally ready to settle down in defense of one of my border cities. There he spent several seasons going on his own recruitment campaign, bringing back equipment and promising Knights home. It was then he finally matured into the unstoppable fighter I, and the narrative, needed him to be.
In the game’s timescale, Hughes made this rise to power in about 18 months. That’s a feat that should be impossible for any normal human. But Brigandine isn’t about normal people. Tactics games aren’t about normal people. They’re about heroes with preternatual cunning (because I’m the one doing the turn-by-turn thinking for them) and the stories we tell about them.
Hercules goes on quests because he’s Hercules, not because he spent 10 years at the gym. Brigandine frames its narrative through a lost legend. You the player are reliving a war from ages long past. In doing so, you recover the lost pages of the titular Legend of Runersia. You retell a myth. So of course time feels off-kilter. Of course the characters are simple and their stories moralizing. Of course the monsters are just supplementary. This is a tactics game about how legends are born and how they live on. It’s about adventurers, their quests, their triumphs, and their endings. Hughes may go on to siege another city. He will, of course, because I’ll tell him to — juicing up the next mathematically superior soldier. But his story has been told.
With more than 100 Rune Knights in the game, there are plenty more stories to tell. Which is probably what I’m going to do now that I’ve finished this review.