Eat, Slay, Love
HIGH A pitch-perfect rendition of Iron Chef as a fantasy RPG…
LOW …that I wish had gone further in the animation department
WTF How is this not already an animated series?
Anyone who’s seen an episode of the classic ’90s competitive cook-off show Iron Chef – the Japanese version, that is — can understand the value of theatrics. Witnessing overseer Chairman Kaga announcing the episode’s theme food before biting into a raw bell pepper while resplendent in some regal-looking ensemble could instill a sense of wonder and awe into an act as common as cooking a decent meal. In fact, it’s a mystery that so few have attempted to translate those thrills into a game for so long. Well, wait no more– Trinket Studios crowdfunded Battle Chef Brigade and found a publisher in the indie-promoting upstarts at Adult Swim Games.
Trinket’s key trick in translating the Iron Chef experience into videogame form was, ironically, to abstract the role of real-life cooking and cuisine. Narratively, the conceit of classy restaurant cooks competing against everyman underdogs is replaced by sending the player to a food-obsessed kingdom called Victusia that solved its monster infestation problem and its food shortage problem with one solution: The Battle Chef.
Unlike Iron Chef’s culinary luminaries, Battle Chefs are elite warrior-cuisiniers that do their own killing before preparing their prey for consumption by the masses. Similarly, actually cooking has been replaced by a clever take on classic match-3 puzzle game mechanics. And where do contestants get their ingredients? Not form a nearby kitchen, but by traveling through a portal and harvesting monsters in the wilderness.
The story follows Mina Han, a line cook from a family restaurant in a podunk town who dreams of glory in joining the titular Battle Chef Brigade. To secure her entrance, she’ll need to brave the admission trials by winning challenge matches against fellow aspirants in an arena, under the watchful eye and of rather familiar-seeming “Chairman Kamin”.
Each ingredient harvested by the player, be it a freshly-picked fruit, rack of dragon, or the egg of a tiny horned bird, is represented by an arrangement of various “taste gems”. Corresponding to fire, earth and water, the player must ‘stir’ the gems and match them to improve their flavor, thereby increasing their point value.
Variables to this basic scheme serve to complicate each situation. For example, some ingredients contain ‘bones’ that take up space, but when matched, turn into universal rainbow gems. Fragile gems break if stirred too many times, and poison gems shouldn’t be matched, lest they contaminate the dish. Even the cooking tools introduce new twists on the core mechanic. Placing a dish in an oven will automatically promote its gems over time, leaving players free to concentrate their efforts elsewhere. Certain pots will relax the promotion requirements on one type of gem while completely preventing the promotions on another. Sauces change the color of the gems they get drizzled on. The list goes on.
All of the above must be kept in mind while paying attention to the requests of the judges and the rules of the match because similarly to how the real Iron Chef is structured, Battle Chef Brigade employs judges to evaluate each competitor’s fare. Further points can be awarded or docked for timeliness (getting the plate to the table before the bell rings), theme (keeping significant amounts of the correct ingredient in the dish), and “expertise” (optional conditions that award a score bonus if met).
All of this happens under time pressure, with Mina given just a handful of minutes to gather ingredients, cook dishes, refine them, and present her plates. However, Bejeweled experts and match-3 enthusiasts probably won’t find anything too stressful in this part of the game because the playing fields are small, so the space for potential combinations is limited.
But it’s not all fun and gems in the kitchen — being a Battle Chef also involves combat. Just outside each cooking area is a wilderness zone teeming with monsters that Mina must beat the stuffing out of in order to make soup, steak, or whatever she’s planning to cook. This aspect of Battle Chef Brigade gives Mina a chance to flourish her dual chef’s knives or unleash a dash of magical wrath in a 2D platforming brawler reminiscent of Viewtiful Joe or Guacamelee!, though lacking the same polish and depth.
The fighting here is a means to an end — it’s a way to make the the “Battle” in Battle Chef Brigade more than metaphorical, and unfortunately, it’s where the game is at its weakest. There’s simply not much beyond Mina’s smattering of combos and hints of a “monster ecosystem” that allows some animals to be baited by leaving unused ingredients in the area.
The combat animations are also stilted and a bit stiff, seeming to lack the necessary frames to lend the gameplay life. That static feeling is exacerbated by Battle Chef Brigade’s art style. While otherwise lovely to behold in panning shots and cutscene interludes, the watercolor brushstrokes and half pencil-sketched style makes many scenes feel only partially complete. One gets the impression of viewing storyboards rather than a finalized product. That’s a real shame, because the setting, voice performances, and witty writing are a joy to experience. Each character has a distinct charm, and getting to know them is a large part of the appeal.
All in all, despite its sometimes too-apparent limitations in production, Battle Chef Brigade more than succeeds at everything it sets out to do, proving that any concept can become a great game. Even though some of its components end up feeling a little undercooked, the final dish is still delicious.
Disclosures: This game is developed by Trinket Studios and published by Adult Swim Games. It is currently available on Nintendo Switch and PC. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the Nintendo Switch. Approximately 10 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. About 1 hour of play was devoted to testing the asynchronous multiplayer mode.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated E10+. Content descriptors were unavailable, but the game would most likely contain descriptors for Cartoon Violence. The major characters are all chefs that hunt and kill wild animals to cook them for food.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: All dialogue, voiced and otherwise, is rendered in text. No audio cues are required for play.
Remappable Controls: The game has fully remappable button controls.
Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes.
Today he continues to write for a living while trying to turn his fledgling knowledge of Japanese into a marketable skill. He is Managing Editor of Japanese culture site Japanator and is a Contributing Editor for Destructoid. He has written for The Escapist, The California Literary Review, Esquire Magazine, and proudly holds the badge as the premier apologist for Star Trek Online.