I’ve been banging the drum of “turn-based simultaneous resolution” for years now, and it’s always nice to see a new game doing something with it. One of the most recent examples that I remember is Iron Danger, which actually applied the system to a fantasy RPG and added time-manipulation. And in Phantom Brigade, the system is applied to a mecha setting… with added time-manipulation!
In Phantom Brigade, your soldiers live in a vaguely described quasi-European country that’s often seen outside of an anime. Also, mecha are the newest military hotness. Suddenly, a vague enemy attacks and overruns the land. You, the pilots of the Phantom Brigade, are the only survivors of the conventional military. It is now up to you to strike back, liberate region after region, and retake the homeland. The task would be insurmountable if not for the fact that your mechs are equipped with a system that lets them predict the action five seconds into the future.
I was a mech, and young
Functionally, Phantom Brigade is a tactical game where you control up to four mechs and some allies that tag along now and again. Each turn of action lasts five seconds, but between those turns you have infinite time to determine what you’ll squad will do. You can also see what the enemy is planning, and that power will tip the scales in your favor.
There aren’t too many moving parts to be aware of when making plans. Make sure the mechs are at the right spot, the targets are in optimal range, and the heat gauge is not boiling over. The robots won’t shut down from overheating, but they will take damage. As health is tracked per body part (left arm, right arm, upper torso, legs), this may be the difference between getting to keep your gun arm or losing it.
When it works, it’s very cool. As another nerd friend of mine put it, “using armored cavalry tactics and tearing the enemy forces apart is so satisfying in a very ‘Front Mission way.’” He is right; the mecha move and fight a lot more like Front Mission than Battletech. There’s an explosion of violence once the turn commences. Stray shots gauge entire rooms out of buildings. Sci-fi base towers collapse as heavy beams sweep over them. Cars are crushed without a single thought. Mecha several stories high soar on jets, leaping over terrain and onto buildings.
Mecha get hit. Limbs disintegrate under fire. They fall as the legs are shot from under them. The pilots force them into a limp, trying to get to safety and eject. They don’t make it as giant machineguns, beam rifles, and swarms of rockets tear them to shreds. In the world of Phantom Brigade, a mere 30 seconds will have passed between the start of the battle and the last of the losers is coating the insides of their own pilot capsule.
This “Phantom Brigade” doesn’t stand a ghost of a chance!
But that’s while it works. Though Phantom Brigade‘s battles are technically short, there’s a whole lot of them, and the game starts dragging really fast. At 37.2 hours, I feel like I’ve seen everything. I’ve fought and refought nearly the same missions for hours. Oh, I’m attacking a military base? There will be turrets and — potentially — an alarm tower to destroy to prevent reinforcements from showing up. Oh, am I ambushing a convoy? Well, no use trying to steal the goods! Getting a mecha near a truck and and standing there for three turns before escaping takes too long. It’s much easier — and much faster — to just kill everyone.
Having unlocked the ability to call in Home Guard reinforcements, I barely even used it. They only arrive on turn 3 and, by then, the killing is nearly done.
Oh, the Home Guard. When you move onto a province in the campaign map, you can start its liberation by formerly summoning the Home Guard, the resistance. Without them, stomping out all the enemy bases in the area will accomplish nothing outside of the loot you take. But once the Home Guard gets involved, you get two gouges representing the situation: Home Guard strength and the enemy strength. Enemy strength is sapped by fighting, but the best way to go about is to attack critical locations (or, sometimes, critical patrols).
Home Guard power is lost as they lose battles. And they always lose battles; if you don’t bail them out, they’ll lose every last one. That’s just how the game works: there’s no mechanical tussle behind the screen, it’s just a timer on a temporary critical location.
Whether the battle has just started or the Home Guard has been whittled down to 1%, when you join it, you’ll have only one ally on the field: a tank. It’s always a single tank, and the most basic model at that. The battle itself just a standup fight; you’ve done one like this many times before. The map is untouched, as if the desperate struggle happened somewhere else. The enemy, like always, will be a mix of tanks and mecha, though they do have more varieties of tank weapons. They will, later on, start fielding “Tank, But Bigger.”
Not a flying tank, not a helicopter, not swarms of tiny mechs — Tank, But Bigger — and that’s just emblematic of lack of variety in Phantom Brigade. The platforms the enemy throws at you don’t matter; you just note the weapon and the mech weight class (because you don’t want to shoulder tackle a mech of same or higher class). This isn’t Battletech, as there are no iconic mechs or iconic loadouts. Seeing whether an enemy mech is using all Arrow parts or all Ebon parts is not important. For tanks, you can almost ignore what they’re armed with, too.
Sic transit gloria looting
Even the loot eventually loses its luster. Sure, you mix and match your mech with any combo of arms (left and right), legs (one piece, actually), torso, and weapons. Slap Arrow parts together with Ebon or Knox, mix heavy with light, it doesn’t matter. At the end of the day, rarity and level rule. And, unlike in Front Mission, you can’t go quadrupled, though silly swords and axes exist.
There are three rarity levels, from common to rare, and 20-ish levels. And rare (blue) will always be better than gray (common) or green (uncommon). I kept a Level 3 blue shotgun until the rest of the mech was all Level 9 blues, simply because I couldn’t find a better blue weapon. The only reason why I used gray railguns was because I couldn’t find any better. But the ability to fire through the terrain is ridiculously good.
Maybe… Maybe Phantom Brigade would have been better if, instead of mixing mech parts, its combinations were fixed, making both learning to identify — and looting — specific types useful.
The loot stops mattering as you increase your capacity to manufacture mech parts. Sure, you can never choose what mods the item will have once it rolls off the assembly line. In fact, the game doesn’t even tell you, but the ability to craft rares, even if special resource-intensive, means that salvage starts playing fourth fiddle.
So at the end of the day, when I’ve seen all the maps — even if they’re nice — and I’ve experienced all the missions I can do, what’s left? The setting, the story? Well, the second part of my friend’s quote was “the world-building seems pretty weak compared to Front Mission or Ace Combat so far.” He hadn’t been Phantom Brigade for long. I have, and I know it doesn’t get better. Those may be silly settings, but they’re settings, and people get invested in them. In Phantom Brigade, I couldn’t remember the name of the country or the enemy faction 37 hours in.
I don’t even have a link to my pilots. Sure, I can set their names, nicknames, customize their looks and even choose their pronouns, but it does nothing. The game doesn’t pull their names or bios or demeanors (which are entirely pointless, as far as I’m aware) for events or unit barks or anything. They’re just the part of the mech that has a health bar that tracks whether your robot was taken out by concussion or not. Sometimes, you switch out a pilot for a rested one, and that’s it.
All in all, Phantom Brigade is a good mech game if you don’t play it for too long. Around the time your gear starts hitting level 10, it will have been too long. But the game expects you to go into the final battle a lot better prepared, and I don’t know why you’d will yourself to do that unless you really love the timed battles. And for all the spectacle they presented with swarming rockets and beams slicing apartment buildings apart, I eventually found myself jaded.