Written and hosted by Steve Heller
I still remember the first time I saw the reveal trailer for Crypt of the Necrodancer. Not only was the name just utterly perfect, but its unique mashup of Roguelike dungeon crawling and rhythm games was just so damn fun. That’s why I was so surprised when we went from a party, to a very serious mech tactical simulator in Phantom Brigade.
Phantom Brigade is a huge departure that put this Canadian studio on the map, which is ridiculously exciting to see. Currently running in Early Access via Epic Games, I try to answer the question – is Phantom Brigade worth it?
Phantom Brigade is a hybrid turn-based meets real-time strategy game with a heavy layer of RPG elements, with a dash of Roguelike sentiments, and heavy mechs to boot. If that doesn’t make any sense, and let’s be honest, why should it – I want you to imagine that the developers threw the combat and tactics from Frozen Synapse, the intricate mech fetishism of Battletech, and the timeline editing of Adobe Premiere into a blender to create the perfect cocktail, complete with layers of strategic depth, endless customization, and a garnish of humanity to make it really pop. Still not making sense?
Phantom Brigade is at its core a mech strategy game that instantly feels familiar, but it also subverts others in the genre with ease. You are the commander of the last surviving mech squad in unspecified-Scandinavian-inspired-country, as an oppressive enemy faction has taken over. When you start a new game, the lands and enemy squads are randomized which means there’s going to be some decent replayability when the game does hit version 1.0.
At the macro level there’s a world map that has the country broken up into providences, each with a specific threat level. Your mobile base roams these lands, discovering patrol units and facilities that need to be reclaimed to sway the balance of power in that providence. Each time you attack a facility or a patrol group, the game shifts to the battlefield, where you issue commands to your mechs, as they dash, run, shoot, and shield their way to victory.
The interesting thing here is that because of future tech reasons, you can predict your enemy’s movements via a timeline, which is where Phantom Brigade really gets its hooks in. Seeing where your enemies will end up by the end of the turn, and changing your mech’s movements accordingly is a surreal and frankly, awesome experience, turning each and every move into a fantastic puzzle system of how can I shield myself, while also outputting maximum damage. To balance out the fact that you know where your enemies will at least move to, each of your actions causes the heat level of your mech to rise. This ensures that you can’t spam the attack over and over in a single turn, lest your mech be suffering sustained damage form overheating. It’s a simple, and elegant system that balances the fact you have this incredible knowledge, but you can’t necessarily finish things in a turn or two.
The combat itself is pretty stock standard, at least what I’ve seen in my eight or so hours with the game thus far, except for on particular element – you don’t want to totally destroy you enemies. While it’s certainly fun to see an enemy mech explode in a giant ball of fire, that means you’re unlikely to salvage any useable parts from its metallic husk after the battle. You’re gonna want to harvest, and harvest often, because upgrading and maintaining your mechs is an integral to what makes Phantom Brigade so satisfying.
When you’re not on the battlefield, there’s quite a bit of micromanagement to do. You mech pilots will be fatigued, and the only way to rest them is to head into a liberated providence, and then set them to rest. Whenever you are spending time in the world view, time is constantly ticking, and the enemy is ever moving to fortify their positions, or perhaps reclaim turf that you previously cleared. That means you will often have to decide if you can afford to spend 6 hours of game time resting your pilots, or risk it all to keep pushing.
The other big element is the mech customization, which at least to me, was pretty insane. Each and every limb and section of your mech can be customized, using salvaged pieces from captured facilities or salvaged from downed foes, and combinations of manufacturers and styles. These elements will determine how fast your mech is, how far you can move in a turn, how much damage it can soak, all of those things. The weapons you choose for your mech are also extremely important, because a shotgun mech with a shield isn’t going to do well at a distance, so you’re going to be pushing them into the front line. Each of these decisions will change how your battlefield strategy plays out, but the most important part is THAT YOU CAN PAINT EVERY SINGLE ELEMENT OF YOUR MECH ALL KINDS OF PRETTY COLORS AND THAT WAS BY FAR MY FAVORITE PART.
Between the overworld view, scavenging facilities and the hulking husks of your slain enemies, liberating providences, and the real time elements at play, Phantom Brigade does a fantastic job of making it seem like your actions really matter, that you’re contributing to this tug of war that has dire consequences for your cause.
But Phantom Brigade can be utterly brutal. The opening tutorial does a great job of setting not just the narrative tone of the game, but also the core basics of combat. However after that it kinda just throws you in the deep end. I never really was certain of how I could go about neutralizing my opponents instead of just destroying their mechs, which meant I wasn’t scavenging a huge amount of parts. I lost some battles, I lost a pilot, I lost a mech. I had no resources, and I had to run back to home base with my tail between my legs. It felt bad because I wasn’t sure of what I was doing? Did I miss something?
I re-rolled and took my time on a second playthrough, and things seemed to bounce in my favor a little more often. I worked out how to build new mech frames, and the tide of the war was starting to shift favorably after some fierce battles. As polished and exciting as Phantom Brigade is, it definitely needs to flesh out those opening hours, because the onboarding process feels like it’s missing a lot at the moment.
The very opening of the game has this real sense of narrative drive, and I’m not going to lie, I’m all in on it. It really captures this sense of emotion, especially as the music swells in tense battles. However outside of a few pivotal moments, a lot of that narrative depth is still to come. Looking at the Early Access roadmap, January is going to see some new combat scenarios and narrative events, along with campaign map improvements and combat areas. That’s great, because that’s honestly what I became really interested in with Phantom Brigade. Other mech games leave me feeling like “YO THESE MECHS BE AWESOME”, while Phantom Brigade seems to be itching to say some things. I want to hear those things, I really do.
But is Phantom Brigade worth it? This unexpected mish mash of ideas really holds weight, and with the promise of more narrative structure to the tense tug of war as you fight to keep your country is already really solid. The question you need to ask yourself is are you more interested in the tactics and mech customization? Then yes, Phantom Brigade is well and truly worth buying right now, especially so you can contribute your feedback along the journey. If you’re more interested in the tale behind the tactics, you may want to hold off and see how this next narrative update fleshes the world out. Because while I certainly enjoy the tactical combat, and the setting of Phantom Brigade, I want to hear more about what I’m fighting for, because that’s just as important as the fighting itself.