As a person who plays a lot of games over the course of a single year, I sometimes feel like I've seen it all. There are a number of games I enjoy because I prize great execution, not necessarily because they innovate or add something new to my gaming life. Every now and then though, something special comes along.
At its heart, Battle Chef Brigade is Match 3 puzzle game. It's also a side-scrolling platformer based around combat. And there's some anime and manga-inspired storytelling to boot. If you were to list it out as a recipe, you'd probably say that you've seen all of these ingredients before. Sometimes though, the innovation is in how things come together and the various parts of Battle Chef Brigade come together in a delicious whole.
You step into the role of Mina Han, a young cook who desperately wants to free herself from small town life and her family restaurant. Mina wants to be a Brigadier, famous warrior-chefs who keep the monsters at bay and serve them up into delectable delights. She runs away from home to show that she has the stuff to be a Brigadier, joining a series of cooking competitions in Brigade Town to prove her mettle.
The story isn't particularly deep and if you're an avid anime fan, you've seen similar premises before in works like Food Wars (Shokugeki no Soma), Delicious in Dungeon (Dungeon Meshi), Toriko, and Yakitate!! Japan. What makes it work here is the same as many of those shows, the characters. Mina's world is populated by interesting fellow chefs like Thrash (the other playable character), Ziggy, and Kirin; mentors like Belchior; or the fabulous master of ceremonies, Kamin. (A clear callback to Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga and Iron Chef America's The Chairman.) I loved most of them, given Battle Chef's relentlessly charming tone, even if you don't dig too deep in their world over the course of the game's story.
All of this is delivered in a wonderful hand-drawn art style, back up by bright pastel colors. The animation isn't to the level of something like Cuphead, but the art itself is still beautiful and welcome here. It's a damned good-looking indie title and the voice acting might not be the best, but it gives you a good feel for all of the cast.
As I said before, the core of Battle Chef Brigade is a Match 3 puzzle game, but there's a bit more to it. The basic loop has Mina heading outside of the cooking area to kill monsters and turn them into ingredients. The combat here is light and serviceable; it's not Devil May Cry, but it does the job, with Mina able to attack, dodge, and use wind magic with ease. Once you have your ingredients, you bring them back to the cooking area to make your dishes. Each ingredient has a 2x2 elemental Taste gem pattern. You drop your chosen ingredients into your 4x4 cooking space, and switch them around Puyo Puyo-style to cook. Better matches means better dishes.
Battle Chef Brigade could've stopped here and I would given them points for trying, but there are layers to this meal. Every match has a theme ingredient, something that has to be in the dish at all costs. There are also judges—up to three in a single match—who each have flavor preferences from the three elements: Wind, Fire, and Earth. So while you're out hunting, you have to make sure you're bringing back your themed ingredient and enough other ingredients to cover the tastes of the judges. All within the time limit.
After a while, you'll start to learn the colors of various ingredients, so you'll have a working knowledge of what monsters to attack. Dragons drop mostly Fire element items, with a bit of Bone in them. (More on that later.) Another creature may give you more Earth or Wind for your recipes. Fruit is usually a 2-gem mix of 2 elements. There's even Poisons you have to take into account. It gets more complex, because as you kill monsters, other monsters will come and try to take the ingredients. They may even eat them, turning them into another form. There's a tiny ecosystem in each match you have to keep track of.
Dig deeper into the meal and we find another layer. Some ingredients include Bone, which if matched together with other Bone, turns into Prismatic cores that match with anything. Poison items get more volatile with each rotation in your pan, eventually exploding and causing nearby cores to become fragile. Fragile cores explode into nothingness if they're moved too much.
There's more flavoring here too, as you can alter your ingredients. Sauces turn cores into other elements, allowing you to reach an elemental flavor profile just by saucing things right. There's also a host of cooking surfaces. The basic pan is Match 3, but there are pans for each element, which won't match any other element, but will Match 2 with their specific type. You can drop gems into a Slow Cooker to to slowly upgrade Taste gems without matching. An Oven fixes fragile gems, while a Cutting Board lets you remove gems completely. The trick is you have a limited cooking space to work with, so you can't take everything with you. Choose wisely.
Those extra items are a part of your loadout, allowing you to choose your cookware, cooking items like persistent sauces and spices (single elemental gems), or Expertise cookbooks, which give you bonuses to your recipes if you cover their prerequisites while cooking. There's also combat equipment that raise your health, magic, and carrying capacity, or switch up Mina's abilities. Some are earned, while others can be bought from Louie and Luis, the two-headed Cyclops that serves as the game's shopkeeper.
If all that seems like a lot. It is. You'll get the hang of it fairly quickly, but in a pitched battle, where you're watching the time, trying to get your ingredients, and cooking dishes for three judges against an opponent who's doing the same, it can feel overwhelming. Likewise, it can sometimes feel difficult to gauge how much of a particular element a judge wants. Battle Chef Brigade is a challenging title, even in the early goings, but for the most part, it's damned satisfying as well.
Where Battle Chef Brigade falters is a bit on the fringes. There are Puzzle challenges to complete, where you're given a pan full of ingredients and told to hit a flavor level, a Restaurant where you just have to match the customer's Taste gem pattern, and a Hunt mode where you kill monsters, which comes across as a bit boring. None of them particularly feel like they lead to anything, outside of giving you something to do and make money at.
The combat side could use an infusion of variety, as you'll see most of the hunting regions and monsters about halfway through the campaign. The story campaign also just ends and I found myself wanting more from the world and its characters than the game was willing to give me. (Characters like Ziggy feel like they should be playable too?) There is a Hard Mode if you breezed through the original mode though.
I do think the studio missed a win in not allowing online multiplayer, as this is the kind of game that I think would go very well with actual matches against another skilled player. Get in on that eSports thing, Trinket! There is a Daily Cook-Off that matches you up against other players, but only in a online leaderboard.
None of those faults really destroy what Trinket Studios has built here though. Battle Chef Brigade is a beautiful, unique little title that offered up something new in landscape of games that seem quite familiar at times. It's not long or huge, but while I was playing it, Battle Chef Brigade kept me entertained. It's a meal worth trying, especially at its cool $20 asking price. It's not perfect, but it's exactly what I was looking for.
Battle Chef Brigade is a hard game to explain, coming across as a gumbo-style mix of Match 3 puzzle gaming, action combat, and anime storytelling. Surprisingly, everything comes together to make a fun and unique title, where players will hunt monsters and cook fabulous meals for judges in grand stadiums. The game falters in areas outside of its core gameplay, but that core is pretty deep and satisfying.