Let's start with a culinary confession: one of the first things I ever tried to cook was mince straight from frozen, followed up by a jacket potato on the microwave’s defrost setting. Many years and many undercooked and over-spiced meals later, I am finally at the stage where I can make a pasta sauce from scratch. Learning to cook is is a process with a lot of trial and error, working out the combinations you like and the right timings to cook something properly rather than terribly. It’s worth it all, however, because of the joy, satisfaction and sense of accomplishment you feel after creating a delicious meal. Battle Chef Brigade captures this sensation perfectly, by honing in on that sense of matching the right spice with the right ingredient. It’s a beautiful, whimsical puzzle game with a hand-drawn style that evokes Studio Ghibli – and, much like the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the beautiful shell hides a complex core.
The loop of Battle Chef Brigade focuses on a series of side missions that help improve the core skills needed to progress further in the game’s story by winning cook-offs. Each category of side mission focuses on one of the skills you’ll need to come out on top in the Iron Chef-style confrontations that bookend each of the game’s chapters. Battle Chef Brigade has such affinity with the subject matter that each part of this loop not only educates you in the game’s mechanics, but takes the time to introduce viewpoints on key aspects of real world cooking and how we consume food.
The first of the side missions introduces you to the unimprovably named Belchior, a chef seeking to develop a recipe for the ultimate flavour enhancer 'Ambrosia.' To this end, his missions always revolve around the theme of experimentation. This is represented by a new mechanic in the core match-three gameplay, which forms the basis for each chapter's challenges, and helps the game to focus on exactly what it wants to say about this aspect of cooking.
Belchior’s missions put you out on the ragged edge of cooking, showcasing the joy of experimentation: adding dashes of a mysterious spice you find in the back of the cupboard, throwing ingredients in without a care, combining peculiar textures to produce surprising results. It’s here we see cooking as an aspirational skill to be toyed with and honed. This also brings us to the flip-side of Belchior’s quest for the perfect flavour: his challenges represent experimentation in both an artistic and scientific sense. If the game was comprised solely of these challenges, your approach to cooking would end up similar to Heston Blumenthal. Edible fairy lights may sound amazing, but they're never going to be as delicious as a good pie.
Fortunately, this is where the cook-offs come into play. By integrating your accomplishments in Belchior’s kitchen into a more a practical environment, Battle Chef Brigade moves on from the grand experiments to public showcases of skills that excite the crowds. By mixing things up from one chapter to the next, the game both ensures you can never play safe and shows that the best meals can come from unlikely places.
This is encapuslated in the challenges of the aptly-named Thorn, a prickly and dry-witted master hunter. Each time you visit Thorn she tasks you with hunting a set number of monsters in a new environment. In games like Cooking Mama and Overcooked, ingredients are presented to you in an abstract fashion. These games mimic how the vast majority of people, including myself, purchase food. We arrive at the shop, list in hand, and take what we need from the shelves. We generally don't think much about how the sausages made it from pig pen to chilled package, or how fluorescent red strawberries are available year-round.
The hunting aspect of Battle Chef Brigade shows how ingredients make it from field to table, albeit in a fantasy-themed world, by making the player down spatula and pick up the throwing knives. The game encourages the use of every animal part and plant root by making each one a part of your ability to adapt in the cook-offs. Want to finish that match-three row of red gems with 20 seconds left on the clock? Well if you haven’t been picking up the dragon scales as well as the meat, you’re not going to have what you need. You’re working with the environment around you, letting nothing go to waste, and observing natural predator-prey relationships benefits you as well: certain ingredients are only available through these interactions.
Your final set of challenges are issued by the owner of the restaurant located in the heart of the city, Pontida. You’re asked to cook each customer’s dish as quickly as possible whilst ensuring that it features their favourite flavours. Pontida makes it clear that patrons of her restaurant aren’t looking for experimental gourmet dishes that take hours to prepare. What they want is a meal that won’t break the bank, that tastes good, and that is prepared quickly to a high standard. The people you’re serving here are those who live and work in the city, not the upper echelons who compete and judge the Battle Chef competition.
The restaurant missions are where Battle Chef Brigade has the strongest voice and the most to say, again interweaving the themes and mechanics. The match-three gameplay changes into a pattern-matching game, with each specific pattern representing a customer’s taste preferences. Every time you send out a dish you get an appreciative thank you, and then another order flies in. There’s no limit to the orders that come in during these missions, the goal is simply to keep your head above water until the time runs out. The hustle and bustle of the city, the people hurrying to and from work that need feeding, give you a little taste of the life of a professional chef. It's all very well to spend the afternoon crafting stuffed vine leaves for a few mates of an evening. But can you cook for a hundred customers staggered over a few hours and, more importantly, can you get it all right?
Battle Chef Brigade never loses sight of the practical side of food. We all love to talk about fantasy dishes and dream of going to the Fat Duck but, in reality, everyone has to eat multiple times a day and we do it in a mind-boggling variety of ways. The game celebrates the love of food, and has no room for snobbery. There is no demonisation of those who prefer a warm and tasty takeout after a long day’s work, rather than choosing to cook something from scratch. Battle Chef Brigade shows food from some of its many angles: entertainment, sustenance, a bolsterer of the human spirit, as an endless journey for every chef filled with challenges and comforts and the odd grand triumph. Take it to heart and perhaps you too will one day think back to cooking frozen mince, and smile about how far you've come.