Like any other turn-based strategy game, time stands still in Phantom Brigade while you issue orders. The giant robot pilots wait patiently and indefinitely for you to queue up their commands on a five-second timeline, the ghostly image of their future moves plotted on the map for reference. The crucial difference is that when you click the “execute” button, the game then switches to real-time, and every action happens all at once — not only does your team move simultaneously, but so does the enemy.
For five seconds, the battlefield is utter chaos, an entrancing flurry of projectiles and explosions and crumbling buildings caught in the metallic carnage. Then, periodically, while a rocket or a laser hangs in midair, time stops again for you to issue the next round of orders. Phantom Brigade, from Brace Yourself Games, is a series of intense five-second windows that, while not always intuitive, rarely fail to captivate.
Your team is small, a guerrilla strike force in the midst of an invasion by some nameless enemy country. As you trawl around the overworld map in your mobile base, looking for enemy patrols, convoys, and bases to hit, you find that the opposition always has more weapons and more pilots than you do. What they don’t have is the predictive technology that gives you the edge, depicting their future actions on the map.
Combat in Phantom Brigade is thus a white-knuckle state of perpetual counterattack, where you scrub back and forth along a timeline to see the paths the enemy units will take, and which of your units they will target, so that you may react accordingly. Phantom Brigade strikes a unique balance, where you feel omnipotent yet at the mercy of the complex systems that simulate each turn of every battle.
Because at any one moment, there is a lot going on. You may, for instance, see an enemy mech’s laser sight settle on your vulnerable sniper. In response, you may send another, sturdier squadmate into the line of fire, brandishing a shield at the very last moment to deflect the shot. Or, if the distance is short enough, you might send that sturdy ally on a direct collision course with the enemy shooter, the better to bash their chassis with the swing of a shield. You can also leave a mech within an inch of total destruction to ensure better salvage. But that same mech could get in a few final hits before the fight ends.
And whatever you end up doing, you can watch it over again during the next planning phase, replaying the previous five-second interval to study the details, pausing and rewinding to scrutinize the wheels you put briefly into motion. It resembles the recap systems upon death or victory in other games like Ape Out or Super Meat Boy, which contextualize your actions in retrospect by showing them from a bird’s eye view, except in Phantom Brigade, the recaps are happening on every turn. They’re constant visual payoffs to your painstaking choreography.
In playing Phantom Brigade, I’m reminded of 2011’s Frozen Synapse, which featured a similar hybrid of real-time and turn-based mechanics. But that game took place in an elegant, computerized environment, where you knew exactly what the outcome of your actions would be. In Phantom Brigade, you have to deal with the messy uncertainty of war at every turn. When you take aim at an enemy mech, you aren’t told which part you’re going to hit or how much damage you’re going to expel. You can try placing your mech at angles that only allow for one enemy limb to absorb a blow, but even then — the outcomes are unpredictable. Each projectile flies individually toward its target, so while some will hit their mark, scrubbing through the replay will show others miss, or collide the environment or another mech altogether.
I often came to relish this imprecision. It requires a degree of surrender to these enormous machines, an acceptance that they can’t be smoothly bent to your will. The abject chaos of Phantom Brigade is what makes it special, what captures the whole appeal of giant robots in the first place, by giving such a sense of weight and tactility to your units even from a zoomed-out, omniscient perspective. The game operates on a bit of a hands-off quality, where you can plan and tweak and tinker, yet ultimately have to wait and see. Though you have the god-like ability to see five seconds into the future, that knowledge can only take you so far; the rest is, in a sense, up to the pilots and all the simulated systems at work.
It’s a shame, then, that Brace Yourself Games often struggles to convey Phantom Brigade’s intricacies, particularly outside of battle. The UI is full of little obstructions and strange oversights that begin to grate the longer you play. The inventory screen, for instance, only lets you compare stats to an item you have equipped. There’s no easy way to, say, sort through your unequipped arm components to figure out the best ones to scrap for parts, particularly when all the names are so similar. Salvage in particular is complete guesswork, with no way to reference the parts you already have. And while there are a number of helpful tooltips, they’re inconsistent and vaguely organized — this is a game that will greatly benefit from a community Wiki of some sort, because I still don’t know what some of the icons mean or how certain stats interact.
Even in the midst of battle, some crucial details are bizarrely tucked away. Why, for example, wouldn’t I want to immediately see the enemy’s equipment when they target my mechs? Why do I have to first select the enemy unit and then mouse over the grayed-out “attack” symbol to finally see the weapon pop-up and its effective range? Some symbols are too pale to parse altogether.
The drip feed of new equipment can be slow, too, never quite nudging you to experiment with new loadouts because none of the encounters tell you beforehand what kind of weaponry you’ll encounter. Beyond the handful of hit-and-run missions, there’s little reason for you to move away from a strategy that works, particularly when all the equipment is such a chore to parse.
I’d be able to forgive these UI foibles if they contributed to a cohesive thematic style. The busy interface of a game like Highfleet appears even more inscrutable than Phantom Brigade, but it funnels its droves of information into a gorgeously intricate cockpit UI. The sliding gray menus of Phantom Brigade, on the other hand, are bland and indistinct. The bare-bones story and setting, with their anonymous blue and red factions, could very well pass for a placeholder. The game’s unique command system manages to capture what is so intrinsically awe-inspiring about giant, fickle robots battling other giant, fickle robots — but the surrounding framework lacks the same refinement and clarity of purpose.
Phantom Brigade was released on Feb. 28 on Windows PC. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Brace Yourself Games. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.