Mech strategy Phantom Brigade has a new combat system that lets you peer into the future

Predicting your enemy's next move is the key to success in any strategy game, so just imagine what an advantage it would be to have the ability to peer a few seconds into the future. In Phantom Brigade, the upcoming mech strategy game from Brace Yourself Games (who acquired developer Tetragon Works last year), that's the hook. You've gotten your giant mechanical hands on some experimental tech that lets you see four seconds into the future. Your job is to make decisions on how best to spend those four seconds.

Phantom Brigade has undergone some major changes since we last covered it in 2017. It's still a turn-based strategy but there's now a real time element to it. You plot all your mechs moves, attacks, and other actions while paused, and then those actions are executed all at once, in real time, along with the actions of your enemies.

I got to play Phantom Brigade for fifteen minutes this week at an event in Los Angeles, and here's a look at how the new system works. Note: the footage below isn't of me playing, but it's the same mission I got to try.

Above you can see the plotting of the first mech's actions as we prepare for an attack from an enemy mech and several tanks. Basically, our mech is going to make a looping pass around the building in front of it, ultimately ending up using it for cover from the approaching tanks. Once the mech's path is set, an attack is added to the timeline—as you can see in the bottom portion of the screen, it's sort of like adding a clip while using video or sound editing software. You just drop the attack into the timeline alongside mech's movement action, which will determine when it starts and stops firing. Another click determines its target.

As your mech's route and attacks are plotted, you can see the predicted movements of an enemy tanks and mechs. Scrub the timeline back and forth and you'll see the enemy approach and recede. Whatever position your mech is on the timeline, you can see where your enemies will be, too. It's a lot to take in at first, but quickly begins to feel natural and extremely helpful in picturing the upcoming battle.

Once your second mech's movements and attacks have been plotted, you execute your actions. The game slips into real time (with a bit of slow-motion near the end) and you watch as everything happens at once. Your mechs run through their actions and the enemies run through theirs.

Once the four seconds expire, time freezes again and you can re-asses the new situation and plan your next moves. You can also inspect your enemies to see how much you've damaged them, and where. This is especially useful because, since everything happens at once, it can be a bit hard to tell what actually happened during those four seconds of sudden action. I mentioned this to Ryan Clark, founder and CEO of Brace Yourself Games, and he said they're looking at adding a way for players to rewind and watch the action after its taken place. They also want to add additional cameras so players can record matches from different angles and play them back entirely from start to finish, to give it a real cinematic feel.

Your mech's timelines can include multiple attacks using their different weapons, and defensive tactics as well—above you can see one of the mechs holding a massive shield, shown as a green bar on the timeline. Shields, like weapons, need to be aimed, so if you're anticipating fire from a certain enemy you need to block in the proper direction. And don't get to comfy hiding behind buildings: they're completely destructible and won't provide cover for long.

The timeline is a neat system and extremely helpful for someone like me, who isn't great at strategy games because I lack the ability to really think ahead. It's also worth noting that being able to see into the future in Phantom Brigade is a prediction and not necessarily what will actually happen once bullets start flying. There's friendly fire and even collision turned on for your mechs, so it's possible they may damage each other or get in each others' way if you try to move them through the same space at the same time. Your mech isn't going to be able reach the end of its move action if he bonks directly into your other mech halfway through it.

Also, if you damage an enemy they may not move as predictably as shown when you scrub ahead in the timeline. Knock the treads off one side of a tank and it'll wind up turning in that direction, even if the timeline showed them moving in a straight line. Damage a mech's leg and it'll hobble, possibly winding up in a different position than you predicted. The future can go awry when you pour a hundred rounds of hot lead into it. A lot can change in four seconds.

Phantom Brigade doesn't have a release date yet, but here's the official site and its page on Steam, if you'd like to keep an eye on its future.

Christopher Livingston
Staff Writer

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.