Phantom Brigade made me stop walking and pay attention. One of the reasons I enjoy a show like PAX West is the ability to wander the showfloor and see what catches my eye. Sometimes it's a crowd, sometimes it's a poster or t-shirt, and in some cases it's the game itself. I was heading to an appointment on the first day of PAX West 2019 when I had to do a double-take. What was this little mech strategy game?
My mind immediately screamed "Front Mission," but even then combat wasn't turn-based, with the player and enemy moving at the same time. It featured this swank cinematic camera as well, making the action look fantastic. I made a mental note and continued on to my appointment. On the second day, I carved out some time to watch others play the game. And on day three, I finally got a chance to play Phantom Brigade myself and speak to the game's creative lead and designer, Adelaide Jenkins. Right from the jump, Jenkins agrees with my Front Mission comparison.
"Specifically, if you've ever seen Front Mission 4, there's a really cool cutscene in the beginning where they're all assaulting the base and the mechs are sliding around, punching each other, crashing into buildings. As a kid, I was like, 'This is so hype. This is the future of gaming.' Then you get into it, and it's still a lot of fun, but it's very much like traditional turn-based," says Jenkins. "Our intention here is to capture that energy you get in a mech anime or those cutscenes, but have that actually be the gameplay."
To make that happen, Jenkins and the team at Brace Yourself Games needed to rethink how mech strategy would play out. Instead of that turn-based staple, action in Phantom Brigade plays out in real-time, over discrete chunks of five seconds. In the planning phase, the player can scrub their cursor across a timeline that shows all the enemy's planned moves over the next five-second segment. You're given their general movement path, and a vision cone showing what they're aiming at.
Then, like you're crafting a video in Adobe Premiere, you drop your squad's actions onto the same timeline. Depending on their capabilities, your mechs can attack, run, defend, or simply wait. Certain actions can be used together, like attacking in one direction while moving in another. Attack actions have a set duration, so shooting with an assault rifle can take around two seconds, while moving and wait time can be as long as you want. Together, you can create complex move chains; imagine telling one mech to stay behind a building for 1 second for cover, then to fire down a street while retreating.
Now combine it with multiple units. (The player's squad will likely be "about four mechs at one time," but the developer is still testing it.) In the demo, I only had access to two units. I drew a set of opponents down a center street with my more defensive mech, while my lighter, faster unit waited for two seconds to stay out of fire, and then flanked the enemy. It takes a moment to wrap your head around, but once you get it, the possibilities stretch out in front of you. It blew my mind, some of the crazy tactical opportunities that were available.
"Initially, we built the game as a turn-based game. We really wanted to capture this idea of overcoming insurmountable odds, but with turn-based with more units we added, it just got slower and slower. It really limited what we could do, and it was very hard to do teamwork," says Jenkins. "So I was sitting on YouTube and watching Blu-Rays of [Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team]. I was scrubbing back and forth, back and forth, and…" Jenkins gasps, "the light bulb is going off. That's where the idea came from and it extended into the design language you use for video production."
In the demo, I'm starting to understand movement and attacking in tandem. My defense-leaning mech is running out of cover, but already firing the shotgun it carries. The first shot actually hits the building I was standing behind, while the other shots find their target, the lead tank on the enemy side. I finish the turn and head into the planning phase, but I notice the cover I was once behind isn't so covered anymore—I literally blew a hole through the building. All the damage in Phantom Brigade is procedural, so you can deprive your foes of any cover simply by destroying it.
The damage model is impressive, as you can core a hole right through a building with sustained fire, or tear off chunks of it. In one case, my weapon arm clipped the side of home, displacing some concrete. (I feel sorry for the family who lived there.) One thing you can't destroy is terra firma. Jenkins says that's technically possible, but the developer decided to make the ground indestructible. "From a gameplay standpoint, destroying the ground is a little problematic because you can get yourself in some really weird positions," says Jenkins.
The procedural nature of damage also extends to enemies. In Phantom Brigade there's no granular system to attack a weapon, arm, or leg directly like Front Mission. Instead, damage is directional; if you want to take out an enemy's weapon, you should attack them from the side the weapon is on. While you can generally see the path and attack vector of an enemy during the planning phase, enemies will react to loss of weapons and movement. Attack a tank from the side, and you could blow out its treads, causing it to spin out. Hell, you can collide directly with an enemy, causing you both to tumble—unless you're far heavier.
"Mass actually makes a difference in the game. When you smash into a tank, they're actually physically-simulated, so you can knock them into a building. Weight makes a difference and can win these engagements," says Jenkins.
Phantom Brigade is still in the early days, so the team is still working out some of the specifics. At the moment, time is your only resource, as there's no ammo or heat to contend with; you're constrained by having a set duration. Jenkins says that reactor energy or overheating is the direction they're leaning in. "We're still prototyping that. It's not like we want you to juggle ammo for specific weapons, but more so managing the stress you're putting on your mech," Jenkins explains.
You can't be a proper mech game with customization though and Phantom Brigade wants to really deliver here. Every mech is based on a humanoid inner frame of a single size, but you can change up parts of the inner frame and all of the outer frame. "In the game's lore, they have a modular frame they use and manufacturers make all different kinds or parts that just socket together," says Jenkins. You can add a shield, weapons, and armor to change up the capabilities of your squad. Maybe you build a lighter, more nimble mech for support, while having a hefty boy with a shield drawing enemy fire. There's pure visual customization too, with armor parts and paint jobs allowing you to determine the look of your team.
"It's inspired a lot by Armored Core and other games where you can just sit there and tinker with your mechs to your heart's content. Old school BattleTech tabletop," says Jenkins. "The mechs have internal components, you can swap out the pilot capsules, reactors, and stuff like that, along with all the exterior armor. There are like 30-something hardpoints in the game right now. You don't have to get in that depth if you want, but if you do you can get in there and start taking subsystems out."
Phantom Brigade will also be "super-moddable." It's a single-player game because of the small team, but that means they're open to players getting in and adding their own armor pieces. So while Brace Yourself Games can't legally offer mechs that look like Gundam, Macross, Armored Trooper Votoms, or Full Metal Panic, the community can make that happen. And for all you hardcore mech anime fans, missile circus wasn't in my demo, but it is something the team has prototyped.
"We don't have it in this build, but we actually have the missiles. They have a flight controller, so they track their target," says Jenkins. "You'll see them steering in real-time. I feel like I'd be derelict in my duty if I didn't have a missile pod that fires like a hundred missiles."
Brace Yourself Games is targeting Phantom Brigade for an early access release in the first half of 2020. "Basically [we want to] get the core game as solid as possible, and then just spend a year on mechs, weapons, and all the cool stuff," says Jenkins. Me, I'm already hungry for more. It looks fantastic, offers a unique spin on a classic, and god dammit, I want more mech strategy games. Phantom Brigade was my highlight of the show and I look forward to spending more time with it next year.