Brigador is a tantalizing isometric playset. It has some of the densest pixel art I've seen, all lit and all destructible, set to the cold nighttime synth tunes of Makeup and Vanity Set (opens in new tab). It has lasers, cannons, chainguns, and rockets, walking mechs, tanks, and anti-grav assault vehicles—all complex to shoot and pilot as you turn tiny model city blocks to mulch. It's like a throwback to a classic game I'm not sure existed—somewhere in a Venn diagram with Desert Strike, MechCommander, and Cannon Fodder.
Brigador is hard as hell, too. Too hard, when I first tried it, which has colored my impressions a little. Brigador is releasing in Early Access (opens in new tab) on Friday, but I started playing an early copy last week, which was spawning overly-powerful enemies until a patch last night. Getting past one stage used to be an accomplishment, but it's more manageable now (though still hard).
The structure is simple. After choosing your chassis, primary weapon, secondary weapon, and special ability—smoke grenades, an EMP grenade, or a cloaking device—you roll, stomp, or hover into a militarized city district. Complete one of three goals—kill three special mechs, destroy three gun installations, or just smash enough troops—and you can exit and move on to another district.
A lot of things make Brigador difficult, some in really good ways, others not as much. Something good: piloting is hard. Brigador uses tank controls, so 'W' is 'forward' and not 'up' and 'A' and 'D' turn, not strafe—except in anti-grav vehicles. Cannons move independently by following the mouse, so in a walking mech, you've got to keep track of which way your legs are facing in relation to your torso. It takes a while to get the hang of and I'm still only successful in heavily armored vehicles, because I just can't be trusted to effectively dodge cannon fire and use cover. I get nowhere in the speedy, low-armor anti-grav vehicles.
What can be a pain about movement is the readability of the art. It's easy to get stuck in pixel rubble, and easy to lose track of your own legs, as the vehicle models are tiny on-screen. I'm not sure that there's a way around this without significantly changing the look of Brigador. It's just something to get used to, and I'm having more success as I learn to use the special abilities. I really like the smoke screen, which can halt an onslaught and give me a moment to figure out which way my legs need to be pointing.
Something I love outright are Brigador's weapons. You'll notice from the screenshots that my aiming interface has height. As I drag out those lines with the mouse, I get different arcs. Some cannons fire straight ahead, and drop toward the ground with a linear decline. Others, like the Howitzer (my favorite) fire in an arc. This matters when some enemies are hovering, or low to the ground like troops. If I'm really skilled—and I have made a few shots that impressed me—I can arc my fire over walls and nail a moving hostile as it comes looking for me.
Ammo conservation is important, and there are stations on the maps for refills, each serving one of several ammo types. Downed enemies also sometimes offer ammo pickups. It's currently a bit onerous. Just the act of pressing 'R' to retrieve ammo packs before they disappear is a dangerous distraction when a swarm of machines is surrounding me. And if I do manage to complete a stage, my current hitpoint level and ammo cache transfers over to the next: it's a one-life run through as many districts as you can manage. It might be overly punishing to not have any sort of between-level repair station—maybe it could cost in-game cash?—as starting a new district with low HP and low ammo just feels futile.
What I want most from Brigador is a bit more structure. Currently, it's a series of sandboxes with 'destroy X things' objectives. It's exciting to visit a new district just to see what it looks like, but the objectives don't change, and I didn't feel especially accomplished after a run. There's no sense that I'm getting closer to the center of the city, to some final objective, like Spelunky's City of Gold. Once one district is beaten, any other district can be chosen as the next destination. I appreciate the freedom, but as it settles into Early Access I hope Brigador finds ways to motivate deeper and deeper runs, whether that's through unlocks (which are coming, as I understand it), or with light restructuring—maybe even a separate, more directed campaign mode.