Despite Its Flaws, Battle Chef: Brigade Is One Of The Best Games Of The Year

The match-3 puzzle genre is one of disparity; the disparity between that of its commercial popularity and general critical consensus. It may be the most popular and prolific game genre of all time and yet most gamers would consider a game like Bejeweled or Candy Crush to be nothing more than the gaming equivalent of junk food. A quick glance at the daily shovel-ware that makes it onto Steam is all it takes to conclude that there may in fact be a match-puzzle game for every man, woman and child in North America. Perhaps more. The same can be said for zombies games, but that’s an article for another day. Of course it also makes you wonder – who is playing this junk?

And yet despite this disparity there are some match-3 puzzle games, and other similar puzzle games, that I consider to be some of my favourite games in any genre. The original Puzzle Quest is without question one of the best games I’ve ever played, and there are now probably a dozen iterations in the Puzzle Quest series, nearly all of them well-received. Might and Magic: Clash of Heroes is my favourite game on the DS. More recently I have been loving the Victorian-steampunk mech combat of Ironcast on the Switch. Unfortunately, these quality match-3 games seem to be few and far between. But thanks to Kickstarter and Trinket Studios we were given the gift of innovative hybrid game play with Battle Chef: Brigade. And after over 30 hours of game play across both the Steam and Switch versions, I can confidently say that I left my heart in Victusia. And everyday, high on the hill, it calls to me.

Battle Chef is one of those games that I was instantly sold on based merely upon its premise: Iron Chef style cooking battles with monster-hunting to fill the pantry of available ingredients. And the cooking itself consists of match-3-style puzzle game play. This is truly an intoxicating mix of planning and preparation that will challenge both your action-platforming and match-puzzle efficiency.

The main campaign features six chapters. Each chapter consists of a few chef battles, along with other optional puzzles and combat practice, interspersed between story segments. Four of these chapters are played as Mina, a young girl trying to prove herself in order to join the prestigious brigade of battle chefs. The other two chapters feature Thrash, another chef vying to be in the brigade. He resembles a cross between an orc and Raditz from Dragon Ball Z.

The timed puzzles in the practice kitchens are good fun and practice, but the real fun of the game comes from the full-blown chef battles. As either Mina or Thrash (depending on the chapter) you choose which of the other chefs to challenge in a 1v1 cook-off. The developers have done a fine job in making these battles feel like Iron Chef, Top Chef, or Chopped. Each battle is book-ended by entertaining banter from a very well-voiced host who introduces both the chefs and judges, as well as the theme ingredient. The strategies of each chef battle are multi-faceted. Firstly, one must take into account the theme ingredient, the number of judges, and their flavour preferences. Then, within the time limit, you venture out into one of three ‘backyard’ areas to action-platform your way to the right ingredients, then incorporating them in match-3 cooking to win the judges over and, most importantly, beat the opponent’s score. It is a truly refreshing admixture that is unlike anything you’ve played before.

The game is very easy to learn but has a deceptively high skill ceiling. Many of the battles involve cooking two or three dishes. A practiced knowledge of the particular monsters in each ‘backyard’, as well as the flavour gems that their ingredients provide, are both required in order to effectively plan these dishes. But it’s the match-3 cooking specifically that is a true test of skill. The puzzles can vary wildly depending on the cooking equipment used and the ingredients acquired. Battle Chef is unique in its match-3 execution however; rather than having a preset puzzle to solve, the game play is more akin to creating puzzles, and the ‘solving’ of the puzzle is simply arranging the flavour gems with a certain goal in mind. One of the judges might want a spicy dish, and so lots of tier 3 fire gems are required – the more, the better. The other judge, however, might want a dish of both earth and water. In that case, the two flavours must be balanced and have the same number of high tier taste gems. Simply adding more will not appease the judge in this case. Whenever a judge asks for more than one flavour in a dish, the highest tier taste gems must always be balanced in number. Failing to appease the judges, or the theme ingredient, will result in the deduction of points from the dish, while appeasing them will gain points. The more difficult chef battles, featuring three dishes, are a frantic scramble to make sure your dishes are just good enough to edge out the opponent.

Of course, the game is far from perfect. It would be nice to be able to play through the campaign battles without having to click through all of the story bits – and there are a lot of them. The game has you itching to hone your skills in the kitchen against another chef, but the only thing getting between you and indulging your lust for competitive cooking are the copious amounts of dialogue bubbles. While the story itself isn’t terrible, it is rather derivative and bland. The writing is good though; it features some legitimately funny moments and it’s supported by above-average voice acting. The art is supposedly all hand-drawn and is clearly in the style of anime. That may turn off some players, but the art style is quite nice for the most part – nothing special though. The animations, however, are absolutely stunning. Some of the animations are featured on their development blog as they were being worked on, and they really highlight the beauty of these hand-drawn animations, which can be glossed over in the heat of the kitchen.

The main campaign clocks in at around 10-12 hours for the ‘normal’ difficulty mode, though mileage will vary, especially with the ‘hard’ mode. I was unsatisfied by the end of it, unfortunately, but only because it was so compelling. I wanted, nay, needed more Battle Chef. So I was glad to see that there is a ‘daily cook-off’ mode, featuring a new chef battle every day, and I found myself returning to Battle Chef everyday to tackle the high scores. In my experience the competition is much fiercer on the PC version compared to the chefs on the Switch. I was consistently making the top five in the daily cook-offs on the Switch, whereas my scores on the PC version typically landed me in the top 20. There is some semblance of meta-progression. Daily Cook-Offs feature a very shallow leveling system which merely awards varying xp after each Daily Cook-Off, as you progress your way through each rank, which are represented by bronze, silver and gold cutlery. The game would do well to provide another avenue of replayability, however. Being able to play through the campaign without sitting through the story would be a welcome addition.

The action-platforming is arguably the weaker half of the game, compared to the match-3 game play. Mechanically speaking it’s decent, but suffers from the fact that we are spoiled by so many side-scrolling action games that have exceptional combat mechanics. There is some depth to the combat system, as chaining together the right moves and ‘juggling’ the monsters in the air can lead to time-efficient kills. My biggest gripe is that jumping to a higher platform can feel a little ambiguous. Confident jumps result in unexpected falls, leading to the loss of precious time.

The game also feels unfinished in more than one way. This might be expected considering it was a Kickstarter-funded indie game that didn’t reach all of its goals. It seems as though they planned for two additional characters, for instance – Ziggy and Cezar – based on their current ‘stretch goals’ on Kickstarter. Some of the promotional material for the game seems to hint at Kirin also being a playable character, though she is not listed on the Kickstarter stretch goals. The game is begging for these additional characters. They would add some much-needed spice to the Daily Cook-Offs.

Match-3 games seem to be one of three things these days: mobile game time wasters, licensed Puzzle Quest spin-offs, or atrocious shovel-ware. In the face of such blandness, Battle Chef : Brigade dares to spice things up. Despite its flaws, Battle Chef is undoubtedly one of the best games I’ve played this year, and one of the most innovative in recent memory. With match-3, action-platforming, and cooking elements, Trinket Studios have whipped up a dish truly worthy of a Michelin star.

–Lou

 

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