First Impressions: Phantom Brigade, Mech Engineer, and Bad North

For the longest time, I’ve been wanting to go back to writing about games I play, but since my long and drawn-out reviews usually require weeks of work before finally coming out, there’s no way it’s humanely possible to do that for every single game I dip my toes into, and there are quite a lot of those. For every Second Front review, there are countless other impressions that go unwritten: Waronoi, Space Haven, Cantata, Ground Branch, Ready or Not, Dome Keeper, Marvel’s Midnight Suns, and Victoria 3. With Oli taking care of the weekly news, a new challenge is set: to pen the impressions for 3 games, in 3 paragraphs, after 3 days of playtime.

Phantom Brigade

Release Date: 11, Nov 2020 (Epic Games Store) / 28, Feb 2023 (Steam)

Developer/ Publisher: Brace Yourself Games/ Brace Yourself Games

Price: 28,99€

After leaving its self-imposed exile on the Epic Games Store, the Phantom Brigade sneaked its way unto Steam last month. More Into the Breach than XCOM, it’s a turn-based tactics game that rests on the premise that your units have some kind of time device that allows them to look 5 seconds into the future, see the enemy’s actions, and act accordingly in order to counter, intercept or downright prevent them from enacting their evil misdeeds.

Similar to other games in the genre, the action is slip between two layers: the world map, and the tactical plane. On the world map the usual suspects make an appearance: customization of your units, research and development, upgrades, and building new weapons and mechs, all the while going around looking for fights. It’s all pretty vanilla stuff. But the whole customization of all mechs is fantastic. Swap out arms, legs, and torsos, equip a lot of different weapons (each has a very specific use and optimal range), and create your dream squad. It’s all very well implemented and yes, you can even paint them too. What sets it apart from the tactical battles is the unique mechanic where players can see a simulation of how the battle will play out before making their move, opening a lot of avenues for strategic planning and decision-making, not too dissimilar to what you would do in Into The Breach. Phantom Brigade has excellent building destruction and after each battle, the maps will feel like a battle between big stompy machines really took place. There are some minor annoyances here and there, and the timeline control can be a bit finicky (place a move marker on the map, but to fire you have to place the fire action on the timeline first, then select where to attack on the map. The waiting order must be placed on the map too. It’s really clunky and could use some work), but after a couple of hours with it, you get used to it. Also, some hitboxes are not very well made and there’s no saving mid-mission.

Should you buy it? I really think so. If you like turn-based strategy, for the asking price this is one of the better games to come out this year. It’s a big game, with a lot of things to do, and with immense tactical possibilities to try out. Also, a major plus that cannot be underestimated: build and customize your mechs. It’s just a shame it flew under the radar. On this list, this would be the only game I would recommend at full price, no problem. I plan on finishing it after publishing this.

Bad North

Release Date: 16, Nov 2018

Developer/ Publisher: Plausible Concept, Oskar Stalberg/ Raw Fury

Price: 14,99€

The premise of this new template was absolutely ruined when Bad North was booted and what was supposed to be a 3-hour playtime went on until the game was over. Bad North is one of those games that came out during a time when game developers thought that streamlining and simplifying the strategy genre mechanics was a good thing, stripping its essence to the bare minimum. And while that trend finally died out, during the mid-2010s a lot of games came under that weird premise, and most are all but forgotten these days. But Bad North- alongside Northgard– is amongst the few that managed to do that successfully and in ways that come across as thought out and not just out of laziness or lack of talent.

Bad North is a real-time strategy game with a rogue-lite meta-layer where players take the role of a tribe chieftain and are forced to defend their multi-island Kingdom from Viking invaders. A pretty neat concept, that brilliantly executes its minimalist real-time tactics by limiting the gameplay loop by having the player is always on the defensive and the objective is to always prevent the Vikings from setting fire to the buildings on each island. Players can have, at max, 4 units while defending a given island. These can be archers, swordsmen with shields, or pike formations, and each unit has its own strengths and weaknesses and is better suited depending on the situation and whatever unit is attacking them- these can also be upgraded on the meta layer. The game will gradually introduce harder enemies and different situations to deal with, but it all boils down to a game of positioning: to get the best arc of fire for the archers, funneling the enemies into kill zones, or just downright pushing them off the cliffs, there is a lot of freedom. Each of those three units has one specific action they can perform that is game-changing, but since the game slows down, it’s hardly something one could call micro-intensive. It even feels weird writing that. Its minimalist graphics are charming and feel weirdly cozy, despite how blood-soaked the terrain gets after a while. It’s a fun and worthwhile experience.

Should you buy it? Bad North is comfort food. If you’re looking for something you can play just to keep your brain lights on, and your hands moving, but really don’t feel like putting the effort into playing a more serious game, then Bad North could be that game. It’s a unique and engaging game that still offers a fresh take on the genre of real-time strategy, besides I’m pretty sure it goes on sale pretty often, so grab it there for a fraction of its price. It’s a stress-free experience that I’ll be booting up while waiting for my pals to finish their meals before jumping into another League of Legends ranked piss fest.

Mech Engineer

Release Date: 16, Dec 2020

Developer/ Publisher: KiberKreker/ MicroProse Software

Price: 12,49€

Mech Engineer was the game I was most excited to play on this list. However, since we can’t have nice things, this is a game that does its best to sell you on it and then goes out of its way to stop you from playing it. Set in a self-described “dark sci-fi” this mech assembling manager with “semi” auto battles against aliens would sound right up my alley. But there’s a lot of trouble in paradise, starting with the terrible tutorial that does little to help players to even begin to read its terrible UI.

Let’s start with the premise: it’s a mech assembly manager, and on that aspect, few other games let you go as deep into customization as Mech Engineer. But the process of creating and editing the mechs is an absolute chore right now because the UI is so f’ing convoluted that it’s hard to even get a basic read on how things work. The team committed so much to have everything presented in a contextual manner on the “control panel”, that there are buttons hidden behind other buttons that one must click to access and most won’t find out these exist long after booting up the game. Worst of all is that there’s no clear indicator of what you can click and can’t. So have fun finding out what’s a button that works and one that’s only there for aesthetics. Other annoyances are the lack of sound effects for the battles (except artillery?), and those also play out way too fast for my liking. Since most of the work is done before any fighting takes place, it mostly goes like this: “move your units and watch them squash aliens into paste”.

Should you buy it? I’m sorry but no, not until it gets some much-needed tooltips and the whole UI mess gets sorted out. It’s still in Early Access so there’s a chance it might get a lot better in the future. With MicroProse now lending a helping hand, I’m sure Mech Engineer will get there, eventually.


One thought on “First Impressions: Phantom Brigade, Mech Engineer, and Bad North

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s