One of my personal beliefs when it comes to roguelikes is that the best entries to the genre often give you a narrative to work off of. The story and writing doesn’t have to be spectacular, but you should give a player a reason to push through the repetition. Play the game over and over to see what lies at the end of the road. Not saying mindlessly grinding away is bad or anything. Some roguelikes have good core gameplay that is good for casual fun and serve as background noise. Into The Breach comes to mind, because while the narrative is practically nonexistent it’s the turn-based combat and being able to survive tough scenarios with careful planning. Risk of Rain and how it’s about accumulating an arsenal of power ups, becoming a god, and cutting down the bosses to every stage within seconds. I’m fine with roguelikes that aren’t narrative heavy, but I tend to feel more motivated when there are actual characters and stakes to cling onto. Hades, still my favorite roguelike by the way, gives you this narrative about a boy trying to run away from home and his neglectful father. You form a connection with all the characters around you and how they try to aid Zagreus on his journey. You slowly form bonds with them and that’s what kept me coming back each time. Wanting to see what conversations I could spark. Inscryption is a game about a game with secrets hidden deep within its files, and you want to see what mystery is lying beneath it all. Griftlands has three characters trying to survive a sci-fi world full of corporations and different ideologies, and Prey: Mooncrash builds upon the universe of Prey.
I’m more latched towards these games than dozens of other roguelikes, because if I’m grinding away for no reason at all then overtime I start to lose motivation. Noita is considered one of the best in the genre, but I stopped playing after two hours because its world felt quite uninteresting despite having some cool monsters and areas. That and the spell customization system felt more complicated than it needed to be and could be ignored half the time. Spelunky 2 was fun for just about one hour, because the game seems to want to harm the player as fast as possible, Skul was a game I wanted to love, but bloated itself out with the massive amount of grinding to level up. Why don’t you give me roguelikes that have both good game design and a good enough narrative to make me want to care? I want to see something cool, but thankfully something cool has shown up on the horizon. A person I follow on Twitter named Zingus brought to attention an obscure title that came out during late 2021. It has little to no fanfare, and as of the time of writing this review sits with only 549 reviews on Steam. However, the game has an overwhelmingly positive average, and it seems like the creator put a lot of time and effort into making this feel as refined as possible. Brutal Orchestra, a turn-based roguelike made by indie dev Talia bob Mair.
I don’t really know anything about the development for this game, and trying to find research for this review is hard. That’s how obscure Brutal Orchestra is! Despite all that I decided to play the game nonetheless, and low and behold I ended up really loving it. I don’t think it’s perfect and there’s a few flaws that make it difficult, but I truly think more people should give this game a whirl. It’s special, has a lot going for it, and is one of the better indie roguelikes out there that no one is paying attention to. So today we’ll be talking about why Brutal Orchestra is an underrated gem and why it deserves your attention. Let’s take a trip down to dark old purgatory.
The first thing we see when booting up a new game is a figure falling off a high place. We aren’t able to see who the figure is, what they possibly look like, and aren’t even told how this connects to the main story. Anyways, once the figure jumps off the high place we then cut to a person with a golden skull. The skull is cracked, but the fragments of the skull seemed to be drifting closely to each other. Almost as if they are trying to attract back into place. The golden skull individual is named Nowak and he picks himself off the ground to see where he is. He finds himself in a big empty plane filled with nothing but sand, rocks, cactuses, and emptiness for miles. Nowak tries to figure where he is and what to do, but before he can start making sense of everything a long oily creature slivers up from behind. This oily being is named Bosch and he tells Nowak that he had recently died. He got immediately sent to purgatory of all places, a realm where deceased souls who are neither guilty nor sinless come to rot.
Bosch states that he knows the man who potentially kills Nowak, and he too is about to come to purgatory. He promises to help Nowak get revenge on his killer, and in return Nowak must allow Bosch to travel alongside him. Seeing how he doesn’t know how to get out of purgatory and Bosch is the only individual who knows his way around, Nowak agrees. The two then depart on what is an epic adventure, and along the way they recruit a bunch of fools who also have nothing else better to do. A veteran with a bullet hole in his face, a gambling showoff, a rad looking sadist, a guy with spikes coming out of his head, what is basically a blue flower with legs and a smiley face, and many other weirdos who are crying their sorrows away. Nowak shall find his killer and exact revenge, but there’s something else to this adventure. Why in the world would this suspicious looking oil creature want to help Nowak find his killer? How come he showed up the exact moment Nowak died? Is this truly purgatory? Guess we’ll find out.
Rather than go for real time combat like many of its contemporaries, Brutal Orchestra decided to go for turn based combat. Now, not many of you enjoy turn-based combat, but I’ve grown to be a fan of it as players get to feel clever for careful decision making rather than just spamming their most powerful attacks and combos. However, the best turn-based combat are the ones that give off the feeling of cleverness and a lot of times developers seem to forget this. Players can rely on their most basic moves over and over, and never be punished for doing so. That or encounters never really force players to understand what their opponents can do and how to avoid heavy damage dealing attacks. You need to strike that fair balance between challenging encounters and mastery of gameplay mechanics, and Brutal Orchestra does just that by having extremely clever turn-based combat. When you get into a fight, you are dumped onto a 5 by 2 grid. The front row will consist of enemies bouncing around the field trying to attack you, the bottom row will be made up of Nowak and whatever allies he brought into the fight. Each turn you can move your allies once around the field and perform a single attack. Move your allies towards the right spots and they will avoid taking damage from enemy attacks. Leave them in a spot where the enemy is attacking and they will get hit. Brutal Orchestra uses the exact same method Slay The Spire and Into The Breach uses where enemy attacks are displayed before they can happen. Allowing you to predict what will happen and how to counteract such moves. It makes combat feel more fair rather than be based entirely around randomness, which you know is an element I hate in games. Not that randomness is bad, but games driven by them tend to become annoying as they rely heavily on chance.
Moving you and your allies around the battlefield is easy as all it takes is a single click and drag. Performing attacks on the other hand is difficult. One of the game’s most unique mechanics is the pigment system. Every character needs certain colored pigments to perform their attacks, and if they don’t have the right colored pigments they won’t be able to do anything. You can attempt to use different colored pigments, but for every wrong colored pigment you use you take ten percent damage. Using wrong colored pigment is usually a risk you have to consider taking, and since this is a roguelike whenever a party member is slain or runs out of health they are gone for the rest of the run. You cannot encounter them, and unless you have this one specific party member who can revive allies then you’ll either have to encounter another fool who can take their place or make due with your losses. How do you get the right colored pigment? Everyone’s health bars, both you and the enemies, are colored. Whenever you attack an enemy or the enemy hits you that health bar will drop two pigments of that color. Nowak generates three yellow color pigments each turn, and he’s basically the one you should rely on to get the resources you need for your allies. Boyle, the Veteran, needs red pigment to perform his attacks. Use Nowak to strike an enemy with a red health bar and you’ll get the pigments Boyle needs to do that turn.
There’s another mechanic you have to be wary of though. Any pigments you obtain during battle will go into this pigment storage at the left hand bottom of the screen. You can have a max total of ten of these stored at all times, but if you exceed that max limit you’ll get Pigment Overflow. If Pigment Overflow is triggered then all of your allies will take one hit of damage at the end of the turn. Meaning you want to avoid getting Pigment Overflow and taking unnecessary damage you’ll have to decide when to stop attacking the enemy, expend pigments you don’t need to make up more space and get new ones, or realize these next set of moves will kill the last enemy when overflow is triggered. Battles end once all the enemies are dead, so even if you do have overflow the damage from it will be canceled. Make use of that knowledge. Outside of combat though you will be traversing the plains of Purgatory. Bosch will show you one of three pathways you can go down and this leads to one of many scenarios. More combat encounters, shops to purchase items or recruit allies you made in previous runs, chests containing charms and money, or characters you can have funny conversations with.
Money and allies I feel like are the two most crucial resources along your journey, because they are what will help you get further and grow stronger. Money is obtained either by winning fights or opening up silver treasure chests. It could be used to purchase charms and allies, but it’s also used to level up you and your party members. You can level them up a total of three times and each time you do so their max health and stats increase. The first level up takes ten coins, then it will take fifteen coins, and finally twenty coins. Knowing who to level up and when to do so is crucial, because you don’t want to waste money on an ally you don’t find much use in or a buddy who is near death and you know won’t make it to the next fight. Allies on the other hand are in a whole other league of their own. The first two you encounter are easily obtained, but any other characters you want to recruit for your cause will require a bit of work. Sometimes you’ll have to say the right things to them, and if you fail the speech check you won’t get them. Other times you will have to fulfill certain tasks. Pearl won’t be unlocked until you feed her enough corpses, so keep killing enemies in the first area until she is well fed. Griffin won’t join you unless you clear three encounters in a row without you or any of your other party members taking damage. Then there are the ones who you have to exalt enough dialogue from. This can’t be done in a single run and can only be achieved on future playthroughs. It’s kind of like Hades and how death doesn’t always lead to downsides. Once you recruit a new fool they’ll become available for future runs. Anytime you encounter them in the field again they’ll join you for free, or you can purchase them at resting spots where they & two other guys will be waiting.
At the end of each area there is a boss blocking your way forward. They are there to test your skills and see if you can understand the mechanics they center around. Roids will unleash four heavy damage dealing attacks each turn, but if you can hit him four times then all of his attacks will be canceled. Mobius will switch between attacking the three most center lanes and the two most outer lanes, and will apply bleed every so often which is a status effect that makes you take damage if you attempt to move the person afflicted. There’s so many other cool bosses I can dive into, but I don't want to spoil too many of them. Beat the boss and progress to the next area. Besides that there’s not much else I can say about Brutal Orchestra. It has fun turn based combat which relies heavily on resource management and making the right moves. Hopefully you can make your way to the end of purgatory and kill the man who dares to kill you.
Brutal Orchestra has a lot of tricks up its sleeve and just about all of them are nailed perfectly. Combat does not mess around. It’ll find a way to curbstomp you one way or another, and there’s no such thing as beating a certain foe or a boss the first time through. You’ll get your ass kicked by fish, sea monsters, mutating puss sacks, saggy blobs of sh*t, a literal nazi, and much more. This game is extremely hard, one I can only recommend to hardcore turn based novices or those who really want a challenge. However, it’s the good type of challenge where each death should give off a new lesson. Understand what killed you, how it happened, and what you can do to go and prevent it the next time. Almost everything is fair and a majority of player deaths are on poor decision making rather than the game. I say “mostly” and we’ll touch upon when the game starts becoming a chore to play shortly. Combat took some time to get used to, but once I understood the core mechanics I was really hooked in. This may be some of the best turn-based combat I’ve seen in a video game. It has a lot of innovative ideas and every move is a tough decision to make. Whether that’s reasoning out the pigments you have stored, where to position your allies, what attacks to use at the right time, when to heal, or even considering your party members’ lives. Who do you want to stick around for the rest of the run, who sacrifices, and how to keep them around longer. I also love the UI for this game and how simplistic it is. Everything can be done through the left click of a mouse including opening up the menu screen. I appreciate when games have simple control schemes especially on PC, because when it comes to keyboard and mouse I tend to have a hard time remembering where everything is mapped out. That’s right reader, I’m mainly a controller user. I’ll use it in any opportunity I can unless it’s a click and point adventure. (Don't mind keyboard)
Graphically the game isn’t really complex. I mean it’s a pixel game, so expect a lot of limitations and funky looking character sprites. What Brutal Orchestra does make up for is good character design and art direction. Brutal Orchestra took inspiration from the works of Hieronymus Bosch and they make that inspiration very clearly by naming one of the key characters after him. You can see a lot of visual style and designs scattered throughout the game. From the weird enemy designs, the echoing backdrops, and the end game area which I won’t spoil but man it is visually striking. I love the design of the party members and how recognizable they become. Hans being this little smiley faced flower on two legs and not fitting in with everybody else. Anton wears this go getter mask and sticks up two finger guns so that he looks like a cool guy. There’s this one character I thought was a medic because he wore bandages, army uniform, and had a red cross on their face. Little did I know underneath the bandages was a hideous face used to surprise the enemy. Some of the designs of these characters also convey what type of personality they have and that I love even more. I will say though, none of your party members really build any personality outside your first few encounters, but that’s fine because the main story of Nowak and Bosch is the true highlight of Brutal Orchestra. The main story doesn’t truly start up until after your first successful run, and I will say what is about is powerful. Won’t spoil it as well, but it’s a tale about self-acceptance. Something that’s personal to me. Coming to terms with who you are, what you have done in life, and realizing your life meant something. The ending is a satisfying conclusion to a rough journey.
The music is fantastic and there’s always a bopping track to go with every fight. It can be epic, fearsome, solemn, etc. It can be anything it wants to be as long as it fits the tone and setting of the game. Brutal Orchestra is great and one of the better roguelikes I’ve played in recent years, but I do have a few gripes. Stuff that prevents me from saying it’s an easy recommendation. The game gives you the ability to choose what two companions you want to start with each run out of all the characters you unlocked. You can choose the first companion and what abilities they have, but you can’t choose the second one. Which is a really odd design choice, because why would you give me the option to do the first one but not the second. You also could have at least given me the option to choose what abilities the second randomly generated companion starts out with because what if they have a loadout I hate or would rather prefer? They do have an option in the menu called Selective Bias, where when activated will always pair you with a DPS and healer ally. Select which one you want out of the two types and the game will attempt to select the one for the other type. I understand this design choice, but you still aren’t giving me a choice on what I exactly want. Let’s say you choose a really good healer, but end up with a DPS character who isn’t useful or is useful around the second area because early on blue and purple pigments are hard to come across. This gets worse as you unlock more allies, because the game has the problem NecroDancer has where you start having less of a chance of getting what you need.
Healing is also a big problem as the only way to recover health is during combat. You can’t heal outside of fights, in between areas, and healing during fights can be difficult as you are trying to fight the enemies in front of you while also getting the pigments the healer needs. Almost every roguelike I’ve ever played gives you the option to heal in between crucial section or act changes. Hades, Dead Cells, Slay The Spire, Griftlands, Shovel Knight Dig, and Curse of The Dead Gods. Some of which limited how much you could heal as you progressed forward, but always gave you a healing station after bosses. As they are always the encounters players lose the most health to. The charms you unlock from golden chests are either incredibly useless or situational. Hal the time I didn't end up using them because what they did weren't of use of me. Youmight as well just skip shops you can purchase them from, because they are usually expensive, and you can use that money to buy allies and level them up. The bosses in this game are amazing with their cool gimmicks and design, but the ones on hard mode really cross the line between tough and fair. You have a boss who can one shot your allies in the first area. You have a boss who is constantly summoning support and has an ability to regenerate to max health. You have a final boss who attacks about four times each turn, and the last attack is always an instant kill attack. During the second phase he splits himself into two and now you are dealing with eight attacks each turn, two of them being instant kills. In fact, every single fight in the third area pushes the player’s boundaries and is designed to kill them and any allies they have as quickly as possible. Eventually I just gave up, because grinding towards the final bosses got annoying. It’s shameful for me to say this, but after twenty-five hours I ended up looking up the ending. This is something I never try to do, but at the same time I didn’t want to cheat and finding a cheat for this game is asking for a virus.
Despite all my complaints with the game though, I still recommend Brutal Orchestra. It’s an underrated gem and if you push through the many hardships the game throws, you’ll find an absolutely beautiful experience about life and death. There’s not much love for this game, and much like Zingus I do hope more people will try it out. I do hope gamers will eventually reach that point where both big Triple A blockbusters and lesser-known indie titles deserve equal attention. Find innovation in other areas rather than praising the game with the best graphics or contains a famous voice actor or name you can recognize, because honestly you will find disappointment down the line. It always happens folks. Play this instead of whatever rushed out Triple A nonsense is coming out these days. In the end I give Brutal Orchestra a 9/10 for excellence at best.
This critique was written by the single man at Review on. Stay tuned for more content and feel free to check more reviews out over at my site!