Hello. Do you like XCOM? Do you like the recent and excellent Mechwarrior tactics game? And most importantly, are you interested at all in the passage of time? If so, then there’s someone I’d like you to meet.
This is Phantom Brigade, a turn-based tactics game currently in Early Access on the Epic Games Store. It’s a game of two halves, one where you command a squad of mechs on the battlefield, the other putting you in charge of strategic stuff like conquering enemy regions, managing pilots and upgrading/repairing your mechs.
These are all things I love and that I will test out in even the most basic attempt at a turn-based game, but Phantom Brigade is really setting itself apart in a few key ways.
First up, it looks amazing. It’s got a very Virtual On kind of vibe happening with its mech design (and animation, even), and I just love how slick and cool the whole thing looks. Even the interface is amazing, taking cues from games like Endless Legend, and showing that just because a game is about strategy doesn’t mean it also cant look nice.
Next, this isn’t strictly a turn-based tactics game. Like Broken Lines, which I liked and wrote about earlier in the year, Phantom Brigade is kinda turn-based, in that you definitely get all the time in the world to line up your moves, but instead of making a single move or set number of actions, you’re breathing life into a few seconds’ worth of real-time combat.
The story’s narrative foundation is that you and your crew of mech pilots have got hold of a secret prototype weapon that lets you see briefly into the future. Just long enough to see how far an enemy unit is going to move in around five seconds, and what they’re going to do while they’re getting there. Convenient!
It works like…a video editor. Really. Take a look at the gif below. See the bars down the bottom of the screen? That’s where you issue commands and assign when they take place. Moving your mouse over the game world will let you see those moves play out in a ghostly prediction of the future, scrubbing backwards and forwards constantly, again, just like a video editor. When everything is to your liking, you hit execute, and the whole thing plays out.
That might sound easy. If you can see into the future, then you can see what your opponent is doing, and you can simply react accordingly. But there’s challenge and unpredictably inherent in this, since every time you shoot, or move, or come into physical contact, or deploy a shield, these actions are timed, and play out during an animation sequence.
Fighting game fans might know where this is going; it’s all fine seeing what your opponent is doing and setting up something to defeat or counter it, but if you get the timing wrong, then you’re fucked.
You might also have noticed from that video and gif that Phantom Brigade is, as a result of this emphasis on timing, always moving. There’s very little prolonged use of cover here, the game wants to make this more of a dance than a gunfight, which I’m very into at just a click-by-click level, as it always gives me a lot to do, even on turns where it looks like not much is happening.
I’ve really liked my time with Phantom Brigade so far, and if this is how good everything is coming together in Early Access, I’m excited to see how this giant mechanical ballet looks after a few more months.