Screenshot by Brace Yourself Games.
Phantom Brigade is the best mech tactics game I have ever played. It captures a particularly desperate and sudden form of mechanical violence. It makes you feel endlessly powerful, allowing you to see five seconds into the future, and then brings you low when you cannot do enough to change it. Your mechs change and break over time, becoming beautiful and terrible Frankenstein’s monsters. The game’s physics driven combat is extremely technically impressive, and wildly expressive. It is, at first blush, everything a mech fan could ask for.
The game, which is developed by Brace Yourself Games, went through over a year-long early access period before a relatively messy 1.0 launch in late February. The game is about commanding a small brigade of mechs as they attempt to liberate occupied territories in their home country, in the wake of a war that they lost. To do this, you use a prototype prediction algorithm that allows you to see your enemy’s actions five seconds into the future. The game, then, is about assigning your mechs actions during these five second chunks of time, as they fight against a larger, better supplied army.
The game compliments its simultaneous resolution mechanic with an incredibly robust physics system, in which bullets are actually modeled—ricocheting off of trees and shoulders, slowly cracking concrete before punching straight through it. This physics modeling allows your perfect information to be deliciously fallible. Sure, you know who your enemy is going to fire at, but you cannot know how fast their bullet is going to travel or if it will bound from one mech to another mid-flight.
This unpredictability extends to the construction of your mechs themselves. In Phantom Brigade, a handful of stray shots can destroy a mech’s weapon arm. That arm must be salvaged and repaired. That process takes time and resources, and that is not always something you have.
At the beginning of a recent campaign, I had a melee mech’s legs nearly destroyed in an otherwise routine combat encounter. Normally, this would be fine. I would simply wait for his legs to finish repairing. However, I was running low on Liquid Fix, the material used to keep your mechs and their barriers maintained, and was being pursued by another, much more dangerous, enemy squad. This meant that I lacked both the time and resources to actually bring my star frontline combatant back up to full operating capacity. Luckily, we had salvaged a pair of legs from a mech much, much earlier in the campaign.
Those legs were slow, but functional. And then it clicked. There are two primary forms of movement in Phantom Brigade, running and dashing. Running uses your reactor to power your legs, and is dependent on your mech’s mass to power ratio. Dashing relies on thrusters to fling you across the battlefield, distance defined by your mass and thrust ratio, and potentially hamstrung by the heat cost of igniting massive thrusters all the time. My melee mech had an extremely long dash, and a solid cooling system. He didn’t need to run quickly if he never needed to touch the ground.
I reached into my deep bench of salvaged parts and found the best cooling system I could. It had a solid heat capacity, but shined with its ridiculous heat dissipation. Even with constant dashing, he could dissipate more heat than his massive thrusters could generate. I equipped him with heavy, well-armored components, and gave him a massive shield to accompany his heavy plasma axe. None of it slowed him down. He became a butcher that moved like a dancer—all because I didn’t have time to repair his legs properly.
The developers of Phantom Brigade have directly referenced Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team as a key touchpoint for the game, and it shows. The game’s fights are kinetic and chaotic in the way that The 08th MS Team’s are, with mechs unexpectedly crashing through buildings and wearing from attrition over the course of their fights. Phantom Brigade captures the feeling of The 08th MS Team’s most famous fight, the Gouf vs Ez8, better than anything else I’ve ever played, including Gundam games.
The Gundam, as an image, has always carried a tremendous amount of symbolic power, both in and out of fiction. Its signature V-fin antenna and color scheme have followed it through almost every incarnation of the long running series, because the Gundam, and the person piloting it, are supposed to be special. It is a mark of narrative, and military importance—a sign that The War, whatever war a series happens to focus on, is about to change.
The Mobile Suit Gundam RX-79 Ez8, the star of The 08th MS Team, is different. Its paint is a simple white and beige, and it dirties over the course of the series. It lacks a V-fin, opting instead to replace it with a more traditional antenna. Its chest piece is made from the salvaged shoulder panels of Zaku-2s. It is, at once, a generic military weapon, stripped of the visual signifiers of the Gundam, and a highly specialized machine, more unique and human than any mobile suit produced in Federation factories. If the Gundam, as a symbol, signifies a change in the nature and texture of conflict, then mechs like the Ez8 remind us that those symbols will, in time, be reduced to mundane implements of violence, utilized by desperate people.
Phantom Brigade is about those desperate people. The second wave troops utilizing a refined, but mundane, version of a still experimental technology. The Phantom Brigade itself takes on the symbolic power of the Gundam, becoming a representative of a better future through its tremendous capacity for violence. The individual mechs are just highly effective weapons. Their pilots are just capable, desperate soldiers—soldiers who can be easily broken. The 08th MS Team gives us reasons to care about these people, to learn how to recognize their hearts in the way their giant, mechanical bodies break and move. Its care for its pilots is where the series core thematic tension comes from. It is here, where Phantom Brigade falls short.
Pilots in Phantom Brigade are not people. They aren’t even really sketches. They have their own health bars, and they can technically participate in narrative events on the game’s relatively sparse campaign map, but their presence is so limited that you cannot help but feel the absence of what could’ve been.
In most games, I am able to find a narrative thread for my characters even if one is not provided for me. I love Etrian Odyssey for this exact reason. I could describe the interiority of my Elden Ring character for half an hour, or I could tell you what my pawn from Dragon’s Dogma thought of the small seaside town of Cassardis. But all of these relationships are built on time, and intimacy.
In Phantom Brigade pilots only exist in portraits, and small animated models in your mech bay. They do not sit at the front of the player’s mind, because Phantom Brigade clearly prioritizes its mechs above all else. And it is right to do so. They are the star of the show after all. But I cannot help but miss that human component—the joy of watching a pilot tune a mech to their exact needs, and then the tragedy of a freak shot killing the only person who knew how to pilot the damn thing. This is, at the end of the day, what makes The 08th MS Team work on a narrative and thematic level.
For all of the time it spends in a particular kind of combat, framing the Gundam as a particular kind of symbolic object, it affords its characters that same degree of attention and humanity. And in seeing them fall, one by one, to the war, you come to learn the limits of military technology and symbolism in the lives of the people actually using it. Phantom Brigade is just an excellent tactics game.