In the final days of an invasion by an opposing force the last vanguard of resistance deploys its secret weapon to try to turn the tide of the war in Brace Yourself Games’ hybrid real-time tactical mech warfare strategy simulator — Phantom Brigade.
After a brief training session for a new mech pilot, the resistance are ambushed and as your commander is mercilessly executed by a number of the opposing force it comes to light that your experimental armour is fitted with a time altering device that allows you to view up to five seconds into the future and plan accordingly.
The difference between Phantom Brigade and other real time or strategic turn based games is its unique time device mechanic. At any time during your planning stage you have the ability to wind time forward and back over the next five seconds. Winding forward shows enemy movement paths in addition to offensive or defensive actions taken during that window. The obvious benefit being that planning with hindsight allows the player to strategically avoid enemy fire or ambush accordingly to gain the advantage.
Using the timeline feels a little awkward to begin with given most players are expecting the initial action to be on the actual battlefield so default to pressing attack and trying to move characters around but the planning actually takes place on the timeline itself with any additional detail taking place in specifics on the field. Once this is understood, the state of play repeats in each turn from reviewing the timeline to absorb enemy movements and then planning and executing.
It’s hard to describe on paper, but imagine playing out your tactics all at the same time. As a tank rolls down main street the timeline tells you that it plans to progress in its current path and after 3 seconds fire in your direction. Using that information you decide to pop out of cover immediately, fire off a few rounds from your cannon and then move across the road into the opposite cover leaving your enemy to fire into bricks and mortar.
Given how debilitating damage to your mechs can be and how difficult parts and resources can be to locate for repairs it’s very clear early on that progress is so intertwined with the timeline mechanic that most players won’t advance past the opening stages if they don’t get acquainted with it fast.
Phantom Brigade’s presentation is also rather cinematic. Played out on fully three dimensional maps; the planning and strategic activities allow you to zoom and pan around the battlefield to best plan your attack, any response around potential obstacles, their planned movement and any offensive measures they throw at you. Once the planning stage is carried out it plays out in real time with the same camera options available. Models are intricate and customization you make to your teams can be seen on your mechs as each battle progresses in addition to the damage you take.
Customization is fairly deep and most if not all aspects of the mechs you pilot within your team can be altered to take advantage of the parts and components you find, steal or retrieve and salvage from fallen enemies. Customization also alters your approach to each mission. By building your dream mech that suits your particular playing style you can construct a potential sniper and long distance glass cannon to the complete opposite of a shield wielding close quarters shotgun flak cannon wielding damage tank.
Whilst the main story objectives are clearly signposted; the way in which players complete them can be wildly varied depending on the type and style of engagement players encounter. Different patrols need different strategies and the perceived randomness of the encounters based on where you are in both real time and any state of repair can make each encounter play out very differently from extremely defensive to extremely offensive.
Feeling at times a little more like editing an interactive movie using something like Adobe Premier, rather than playing a tactical RPG like XCOM, helps Phantom Brigade stand out from a crowd of clones and makes you pay attention. Spending more time with it only serves to sharpen your understanding of the time mechanics leading to some fairly tactical set pieces.
A new varied take on mech combat with deep customization and strategy mechanics, the timeline mechanic adds additional options to tweak, deploy and effect countermeasures at every turn and at each stage of an engagement. With lots more promised by Brace Yourself Games, Phantom Brigade is definitely one to watch as it moves toward final release.
In early access now but with regular updates already being regularly delivered it will be interesting to see how the publisher prices this once it hits full release since it’s already excellent, especially considering its early access budget price tag.
Phantom Brigade is still in “Early Access” but is available on both Steam and the Epic Games store for PC now.