I have a complicated relationship with video games. See, I adore them as vehicles for stories. I love the challenge of playing through a difficult battle to learn the next part of the plot. I once played all of Final Fantasy Tactics on my Game Boy Advance SP during a family vacation when I was 13.
And yet I am not a gamer, because I suck at most video games. I used to enlist my sister to fight boss battles for me when I played Zelda. Friends in college once got me drunk and watched me play Portal like my abject failure was a spectator sport. Yeah...it was embarrassing.
These days, if I play anything at all, it’s mindless puzzle games on my phone—but Battle Chef Brigade is the exception to the rule. I’m obsessed. The first night I played it, I stayed up until 2 AM without realizing any time had passed.
Battle Chef Brigade, a beautifully animated game, follows Mina Han, a determined young woman from the fantastical land of Victusia whose parents want her to help them run their quaint country restaurant forever. Mina has other ideas. She’s 21 years old, and no one is about to tell her what to do. She wants to be a Battle Chef.
One hundred years before the events of the game, monsters started terrorizing the people of Victusia. They razed the countryside, destroying farms and killing livestock as they went. So King Heinrich and Chef Robuchon (no, really) trained an elite squad of culinary soldiers to protect the populace from these dangerous creatures and turn these menaces into incredible delicacies.
This may sound like a ridiculous concept for a video game—but like lots of ridiculous things, when it’s taken seriously, it turns out there’s something exciting at the core of it.
Mina goes on wild adventures, running away from home, living her dream at the Battle Chef Academy, and even discovering a deadly disease that’s threatening the people’s already fragile food supply. She makes fascinating new friends like Ziggy the inexplicably American necromancer (he makes “Haunt Cuisine,” which seems to involve lots of hamburgers), Kirin the Elf, who’s an herbal medicine expert and secret cat-lover, and Thrash, an earnest, funny Orcish family man. Mina competes with other chefs for a spot in the Brigade, foraging and cooking as fast as she can to make her way through the academy and become a real Battle Chef.
The world of Victusia is in many ways a stereotypical fantasy setting. There are dragons and hydras. Mina has wind magic. Thrash is a berserker. But the thing that sets Victusia apart is, appropriately, its flora and fauna. When foraging during battle, Mina might have to fight a carnivorous plant. She also might deliberately feed that plant a snack so that it grows wings, gets scarier, and yields ingredients with higher point values.
Mina could make fried rice with windfruit, a plant so mysterious and rare it was once eaten exclusively by kings. If she’s going for a water-themed dish (each ingredient is made up of elemental “taste gems”), she might fight an armarock, a huge, tortoise-like creature covered in spikes that occasionally spins at incredible speeds, suddenly becoming a top-of-death. An earth-themed battle might throw you a curveball by making the theme ingredient a water and fire–laden lantern fruit. There are even rainbow battles, in which you need equal amounts of each element to win the day.
This is understandably complicated, so it’s nice that Battle Chef eases you in gently, explaining just enough that the game is simultaneously challenging and accessible, easy to understand and maddeningly difficult. It’s also a little bizarre, but it’s not by any means alone. It seems to be part of a trend. Food Fantasy, which just came out this past July, is a combo adventure game and restaurant sim in which you and a team of powerful spirits called “food souls” (they have names like Tempura, Milk, and Boston Lobster) set out to save the world from fallen angels. One moment, you’re feeding customers, the next you’re in a turn-based battle reminiscent of those Final Fantasy games I like so much.
These new foodie adventure games just barely scratch the surface, though. Restaurant sims, cooking puzzles, and farming games are completely ubiquitous in the mobile gaming world at this point. What’s different about Battle Chef and Food Fantasy is the introduction of a plot and a fantasy setting.
People cook less and less in their real lives, so the culinary and agricultural games packing the app store provide a proxy for something that used to be fundamental to the point of utter mundanity.
There’s a joy in feeding other people that can’t be replicated any other way. But as much as the worst aspirational food bloggers, Gwyneth Paltrow, and other ahistorical pastoralists would like us to think that making, say, homemade pasta with blistered tomatoes and shrimp on a random weeknight is easy and fast, it’s not for all of us. So, if playing Battle Chef, Food Fantasy, or any number of other cooking games gives us a chance to get close to that feeling of connection, I’m all for it.