Phantom Brigade Impressions – Winning The War 5 Seconds At A Time But The Commander Is A Video Editor

Phantom Brigade has a strong and interesting premise. Take a mech/mecha strategy game, but make it both real-time and turn-based at the same time. And that is manifested in a rather unique setup where you command a battalion of mechs with the power of precognition- see the future 5 seconds at a time.

What that ultimate boils down to, is that Phantom Brigade takes a riff on Into The Breach- another excellent mech strategy game with the power to precognition- but each turn you’re editing a timeline like it’s a video editor software. Huh?

No, for real though. In Phantom Brigade, you have 5 seconds per turn to line up commands for your giant robots squad. You can see what the enemy will do in that 5-second period. You know where they will run to, where they will aim and shoot at, all that and more.

And it’s presented as a timeline of multiple actions. Some actions can be done simultaneously- mechs can have loadouts where all they do is hit-and-run, shooting guns while running around in circles without any accuracy penalty. So the timeline when such things happen is stacked- as it lays out precisely how long the mech runs and the mech shoots. And as such, it ended up looking like Vegas, Premier Pro, Filmora, Resolve and other video editor software out there.

So does that mean that you should have your timeline stacked with queued actions, then? Not necessarily. Phantom Brigade has a heat system where each action produces heat and if it goes past the threshold that the mech can handle it starts taking damage. Lining up consecutive shots rapidly is a risk-reward choice. You may want to play it safe and spread your shots and dodges at first, but you probably want to push the limits to stop a fight from escalating to the point that reinforcements arrive. For better or worse, the heat system is very reminiscent of the ones seen in fellow mech/mecha game stalwart series Armored Core.

But let’s double back on the initial argument- that I think Phantom Brigade has similarities with Into The Breach. That comparison is also true from how you plan your moves. Since you see the moves ahead of time, the main philosophy of strategising your moves will always be reaction-based. The enemy moves here, how do I respond? The enemy is shooting at this precise moment, can I get the mech it’s aiming at out of dodge in time? Can it raise its shield in response to that attack to block some damage? Or maybe use the thrusters and literally dodge the fire?

Phantom Brigade’s gimmick works. When you succeed in planning out your turn and it came out exactly as expected, it’s rewarding.

However, Phantom Brigade is less of a roguelite. Rather, its progressions structure is more akin to your strategy tactics game like XCOM. There’s perma-death where you can lose your pilot and mech- with the ability to eject a pilot to have them fight another day at the cost of losing that mech entirely. You will face impossible odds that may or may not entice you to save scum.

I’m still early on, like still under five hours of playtime, but my biggest gripe so far is how punishing it can be. Certain missions have effectively a time limit- if you don’t eliminate all targets, reinforcements will arrive. That’s fine. But when you’re just one turn away from victory with the squad all damaged up and then five or more enemy units spawned in, you’re screwed. Some missions allow retreating but the game fails to entice me that retreating is better than save scumming. And thus I ended up with an issue of my own creation- I kept save scumming too much to the point that I don’t play the game in longer sessions, because it’s tiring and so easy to mess up.

It doesn’t help that the tutorial makes the game seem so easy at first, only for it to take a ridiculously hard turn when the training wheels are off. The tutorial lets you control allied forces, which in turn means more units to fight with, which makes battles against five or more units manageable. But in the real game, you’ll always be outnumbered. Early on the squad size is capped at three units, and the cost to upgrade that squad size means that it’ll take a lot of missions where you are limited in firepower, which means there’s little leeway for mistakes. The normal difficulty is punishing, in a not-fun way, but at least there are difficulty options to tweak if you land on that problem.

That all being said, Phantom Brigade has some neat ideas, and suffers from the same shortcomings as its genre contemporaries. But that just means that if you’ve played games like the new XCOM titles or Into The Breach, you know what to expect. Lining up timelines like a video editor to save your homeland from oppressive mechs is quite the experience. Mech and mecha fans should definitely give Phantom Brigade a look.

Played on PC. Review copy purchased by the reviewer.

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