Phantom Brigade review – tactical mech combat excels in the face of a dodgy UI

Phantom Brigade’s combination of Into the Breach and Frozen Synapse mechanics results in a robust foundation for mech battles. However, the remaining aspects of the game are lackluster.

Upon playing the Phantom Brigade demo, I immediately recognized that it fulfilled a desire I had held for years in gaming. The game employs turn-based mechanics to create visually stunning action sequences, all made possible by the power of our computers. What’s more, these scenes showcase colossal robots, which, as some may have noticed, I have a particular affinity for. Capturing screenshots has been an absolute delight, as I’ve meticulously combed through each turn’s timeline, manipulating the camera to capture the ideal angle of massive mechs colliding and erupting into explosions.

Phantom Brigade’s gameplay mechanics draw inspiration from several popular titles. The game combines elements from Frozen Synapse, Into the Breach, and Battletech to create a unique turn-based combat experience. Players control a squad of mechs and engage in battles against enemy mechs and tanks. Rather than taking turns moving and shooting with each unit, players plan out their squad’s actions for each five-second turn and then execute them. Similar to Into the Breach, players can see the predicted actions of their opponents, allowing them to strategically position their mechs to avoid enemy fire and line up their own attacks. This feature gives players an advantage in battle and allows them to make tactical decisions based on their foresight.

When executed properly, the core combat in this game is absolutely fantastic. Your mechs move gracefully through a barrage of bullets, effortlessly dodging and attacking with lasers, bullets, and missiles. With practice, you can master the intricate melee attacks, allowing your sword-wielding mechs to slice off limbs or take down lighter enemies with ease. However, one misstep, such as accidentally colliding two units or walking into a hail of bullets, can quickly lead to chaos.

Every move presents a unique challenge to unravel, albeit not as strict or unforgiving as Into the Breach. The outcome is a delightful spectacle of destruction that can be relished in slow motion from any perspective. Alternatively, you can scrutinize it to pinpoint your mistakes and learn from them. Don’t be too hard on yourself, though!

Phantom Brigade review - the raised camera view of the overworld, in wooded surroundings at dusk
Phantom Brigade review - a replay showing one mech charging towards another that has a sword raised

The mechs are not individual designs, but rather basic frames that can be customized with various combinations of armor and weapons. This allows for the creation of speedy, lightly-armored bots, aggressive close-combat fighters, or heavy artillery units on legs. The customization system is straightforward, featuring two weapon and four armor slots, as well as the ability to add additional components such as reactors and heatsinks. While the system is enjoyable and adaptable, the interface is frustratingly cumbersome, often failing to display the desired information and requiring more clicks than necessary to complete tasks.

Regrettably, the disorganized user interface (UI) permeates throughout the entire game. The process of assigning orders during battles is perplexingly inconsistent. To initiate an attack, you must place it on the unit’s planning timeline and then select a target, which is straightforward. However, when it comes to movement, you can only click on the destination, but you cannot choose when to move. Instead, you must allocate wait periods, which are not placed directly on the timeline but require you to extend a line on the map, making it an unusual and unintuitive process.

Phantom Brigade review - a replay of some action between two mechs amongst houses and hills

The campaign’s user interface remains subpar and may even feel more inadequate as it is the game’s weakest aspect. The storyline is simplistic, revolving around the invasion of your homeland and the liberation of it through the use of your elite mech unit equipped with experimental prediction technology. This results in a tedious process of maneuvering a large truck, confronting or evading enemy patrols, and attacking strategic locations to expel the occupying forces.

The map is divided into provinces, and after weakening the invaders in a province, you can request the resistance to take it back. This triggers a timed contest where you must win a certain number of objectives before the resistance forces suffer too many defeats. Once a province is liberated, you can move on to the next one and repeat the process. However, there are random events that require you to sit in one place for a few hours of game time or sacrifice supplies for a potential reward or to avoid a penalty. Unfortunately, these events lack significance, and the pilots and NPCs lack personality, making it difficult to care about their outcomes.

Phantom Brigade review - two mechs battling in grassy surroundings at surface level
Phantom Brigade review - a mech in its big dock with an engineer next to it

The major issue with the game is its repetitive nature, which sets in quite early. Once you have played through a few provinces (there are more than twenty), you are likely to have established some effective strategies and be prepared for any challenges from your opponents. While it can be enjoyable to experiment with different mech configurations, there comes a point where it feels unnecessary, particularly since the AI opponents are not very challenging.

The adversaries in the game lack the ability to adapt to your tactics and simply charge towards you while shooting. In some instances, the opposing force would focus their fire on one of my units that was safely hidden behind a hill, while the rest of my team took them out one by one. Avoiding damage was effortless, but I noticed my gameplay becoming more careless as the mechs’ damage was easily repaired after battles. However, having parts fully destroyed could still have a significant impact.

Phantom Brigade review - the map view of the area, with grey-and-green terrain all blending into one

Worst of all, the system is very easy to exploit. A heavy mech with a blade can easily stunlock any light or medium opponents and the heavy rotary cannon kicks out so much damage that a mech equipped with one will easily outlast any opponent, regardless of return fire or the tiny amount of damage caused by overheating.

Overall, Phantom Brigade has a strong core, but falls short in other areas, leaving it feeling like a disappointing burger with limp lettuce and a stale bun. Despite enjoying the demo, the finished game left me feeling let down. However, the issues are fixable, as the foundation is solid. With some UI improvements and campaign polish, the AI’s shortcomings could be forgiven. While it’s a game worth trying for turn-based strategy and mecha fans, it may not be worth buying just yet. It’s best to wait and see if improvements are made before making a purchase.