Tutorial and First Mission thoughts

I can only apologize for having a fairly messy system of note-taking while playing games. I was hoping to find more specific/private places to discuss elements that I may just not be understanding the intention behind. Not really knowing a good place for that, I guess I’ll follow suit with those posting first impressions as threads.

I finally got some time to boot up Phantom Brigade, and quite quickly ran into a lot of opportunities to expand on player understanding, or lack thereof. I played the tutorial, the first mission, and the post-mission into going into the second mission/encounter. (Which is to say that these are very much first impressions, and potential hangups, and not an in-depth analysis. Apologies for misunderstandings, disagreements, etc.)

List of Things I do not know:

  • Where to get new mechs/upgrades/pilots

  • How to tell if anything is valuable, or worthless.

    All I really seem to have to go on is that salvage gives me things, in some abstract form? Since that’s for beating a mission, it should be good, right? This seems like a really basic issue that the tutorial/introduction NEEDS to introduce. Not wanting to drown the player in all the customization, systems, etc. seems fine. This should be the front of the line. You can wait a few levels to get into like… research/upgrades, customization, etc. but I’m leaving the tutorial needing to answer questions I don’t yet understand the answers to.

  • How much health enemies have.

  • How much damage my attacks will do.

  • If % effective is a hit thing, or damage falloff.

  • Which shots will hit enemies depending on my adjusting aim to hit maximum % effectiveness.

  • When/if enemies will attack.

  • How much damage enemies will do.

  • How much health/armor/etc. my mechs have.

  • If an enemy will survive an attack or not.

  • When my plan for a unit will change because an enemy died.
    → A way to adjust when shots are fired.
    → Shots fired earlier because another unit died often hit cover, as positioning is wrong. (Should stick to plan, regardless of a target dying, to keep plan good.)

    Collectively I don’t know, how, if, or when I’ll lose a mech, or mech functionality of weapons, movement, or abilities. This can be a good way to introduce dramatic tension if used correctly. If I can know when my plan has moments of pass/fail, I can play up my excitement as a player. Telling the player when a shot will happen will let them plan for it, and even if they don’t know how much damage they’ll take, they’ll know which shots they need to survive. (Additionally allows the player to have MUCH more precise and fun movement in and out of cover, using shields, etc. Even if it’s JUST when an enemy will shoot, not what or where, etc.) Without this sort of knowledge, the prediction engine mechanic just feels like controls. Kinda sloppy ones, which limit precise control. This could make it feel better, and more fun for very cheap.

  • The consequences of unit damage/death in missions.

  • Loss conditions for a campaign.

  • Win conditions for a campaign.

    This results in not knowing the right move. I’m told certain activities make me vulnerable to attack, or prevent movement. I am not given any information about how that is or isn’t relevant. Why wouldn’t I salvage? As near as I can tell, I can’t use salvage for anything, nor can I tell what the benefit/loss in having more fights is. More fights is more salvage, right?
    It seems like not moving doesn’t matter. It can result in combat. Which, if I could move, is where I’d go to? Hey, like… I see there’s a moral bar, is this a goal? Is there any game effect? I do not have the information I need to do much. The tutorial needs at least Dark Souls levels of vague ambitions as like… a minimum.

  • The mech editing is a nightmare UI/Menu issue. It’s overlapping and unclear, with no good navigation/clear controls for navigating the menus.

  • The mission planning is a nightmare UI/Menu issue. It’s overlapping and unclear, with no good navigation/clear controls for navigating the menus.

    Does right/left clicking go back? On some screens, yes. Where is the launch button, and how do I get back to it? I like the color changing UI buttons, and the animations thereof. The menu being a maze, in which I will hit the wrong button multiple times, makes this for a questionable first place to encounter them. If the menu stack started with two of those buttons Start/Menu and Exit, probably settings, the player could get used to what interactive buttons/elements and options look like.

Wishlist:

  • Armor shape alternatives/transmogs. (Ideally unlocked via achievement, or DLC purchase, or whatever, and just available on all armor looted.)
  • Quantum drive (Allows a unit to have multiple plans for movement, and one only locks as a fixed position when it shoots, or is shot at, allowing for many paths of strategy/scouting until combat starts.)
  • Rename Mechs?
  • More pilot stats. (Kills, damage dealt, damage taken, exhaustion as a bar, ejections, etc.)
  • Tutorial remake: Intro level shows off more mechs, you’re overpowered, but learn what you need to about gameplay. Then you get to salvage, get introduced to replacing a mech that dies a scripted death, for the ‘when a mech dies in combat, it does in real life’ message.

    After this, have your scripted lose it all to impossible odds introduction to what’s going on. Then, welcome to the rag-tag version of what we had, your goal is to get back to what you had, then overcome what you couldn’t before.
    Or, whatever the basic progression is. By splitting the tutorial into two prelude missions, you can tutorialize all the important systems, and get much more time on setting/characters.
    Is Phantom Brigade us? Is it the bad guys? Does it refer to something we just don’t know yet?
    You have some voiceover of a good or baddie on the existing shot-from the trees, emerge from the trees cinematic, and have either a baddie or a goodie say “…a Phantom Brigade.” as you zoom out and logo, you can explain so much about the basics.

Along similar lines, some things stand out to me, on some concepts that run throughout the genre. My focus remains around combat design and UI.

Most games in the genre will do one of two things with information.

  • Give you ALL the information, and let you plan carefully around set challenges. (Into the Breach.) You’ll know where you can go, what an attack will do, how much damage, etc. You know which enemies are going to attack in which way, and where. The player is then released on the puzzle. Solve for survival.

  • Give the player MOST of the information, so you can plan, but variables will add to tension/relief cycles. (Games like XCOM, Battletech, etc.) Where you know more or less what your plan will look like. You are rewarded for being clinical, but you are given many opportunities to take a risk. Showing the player a % chance to hit, varying damage, and sometimes new information all while taking a turn means that there’s some drama to targeting an enemy you need to disable somehow with five health, and lining up a 85% chance shot to do 4-6 damage. Both results become exciting. Either the plan has to be adjusted, maybe you need to commit an extra unit to removing the threat. Maybe you risk something. Maybe you burn a resource to confirm the kill in the form of a grenade, or rocket. You have a set of tools, and know very specifically when you want to use them.

In Phantom Brigade, you don’t really get that option. The concept is using a prediction engine to make your plan. Sadly, all units therefore fight all at once. You cannot adjust the plan, you cannot deviate from it. If you kill an enemy too early in a turn, it can even change the rest of your turn’s plan, and an early kill results in shooting into cover before you intended to hit a target that was coming out of that cover. (Constantly.)

As a result, I feel like, even with the gimmick being a prediction engine, that I have less information than all the other games I’ve played. My plan is fixed, but can go wrong.

On the flip side, as matter of plotting defense, I also don’t have much information about enemy attacks. I can’t panic about one of my units being in the open, and hoping it can survive a shot, or hoping it’ll dodge a shot. I can’t assist it by deploying some defenses. All I’ve really plotted is my attack. Sure, I may have a shield ability, but I’m left using it blindly, and hoping it’s more useful than shooting. (Also seems to get interrupted by target deaths, etc.)

So, you’re left without any sort of dramatic tension. Just… hit play, everything happens, and either it was good for me, or it was bad for me. Relying on the prediction engine and having less information, less flexibility, and less control just feels so strange. (Big part of why I suggested some improvements to the ‘prediction engine’ in the form of enemy attacks, predicted damage on enemies, even if it’s slightly vague/estimated, as well as allied deaths/component death predictions.) Right now it just feels a bit like guestimate and see what happens, rather than tactics. It doesn’t have dramatic tension, of needing something to land. It doesn’t have surprise, on the round where you discover new enemies you hadn’t seen. There doesn’t feel like much by way of risk and reward, as much as mistake and punishment.

Love the animation, and art style, and presentation. Just very much struggling with UI, and design in ways that feel… difficult if not awkward to have in one direction. Not knowing what is at what stage of in-progress, or knowing specific goals/ideals/etc. Apologies, as I’m certain this comes off as very critical, I think it shows a lot of promise, and want to be sure nothing is left unsaid.

This really struck me once I started looking for games like Phantom Brigade that does the simultaneous turn stuff. When I stumbled upon Combat Mission which practically does the same thing but with contemporary, real-world stuff (minus prediction engine); playing both games at the same time makes for some stark comparisons when it comes to the whole concept of tension.

The risks and consequences in Phantom Brigade feel much more mechanical than organic as a result. Like trying to make a puzzle fit just right, and mistakes are either just the pieces not fitting (or forgetting how a piece fits) or that it’s just down to RNG.

With how the prediction engine is, it’s rather hard to get the game to generate outcomes more complex than making sure decisions/pieces are in sync. Whereas in other games I’ve found such as the one I’ve mentioned, the risks in play from trying to get the best out of uncertainty makes for an almost cruel kind of tension and in turn, the most satisfying rewards.

That’s not to say it isn’t fun trying to choreograph a fight in PB - it definitely is cool in its own right and a replay mode would be really wonderful for that. But the more I ended up branching into simultaneous turn-based games, choreography seems to be all PB is. At least with how the prediction engine thing is.

I think a lot of it is the removal of input while the play is going, and obfuscation of information.

You set up movement and shots, then just watch. Stakes of individual successes or failures are kinda drowned out by how numerous they are. You’re lining up 3-6 shots per unit, so 3-24 attacks, and none of them are really make or break moments.

When watching or playing other tactics games, it’s usually an immediate decision. “Okay, this weapon/skill does Z damage, on A% chance to hit, on an enemy with Y health. If it misses, my exposed unit may die, so I need to hit, or find a way to guarantee success with another unit, or angle, or ability, etc.”

It turns the 90% chance to hit misses into frustrating moments of panic, and adjustment. It also turns the nail-biting need to ‘roll the dice’ on a 25% shot that MIGHT do what you need to seem like an option. All of these are simply removed. They do not currently exist as far as I know/have encountered.

Same deal with incoming fire. You may have a sense of one of your units being in trouble, and take cover, use the shield, etc. but you have no ability to predict or control a situation that led you to that problem. You have little information to go on, and have to learn how, or indeed if, enemies will prioritize targets through trial and error.

If you want to know, even roughly, when an enemy will die from your fire, you need to select your unit, check weapon damage, check what % efficacy each shot will be against a target, click on the target, figure out which parts are most likely to be hit, and you can kind of get a sense of if attacks will weaken or kill a target. (You also don’t have control to try to hit specific parts, all of which are listed as different amounts of health.) The end result being that I’m looking at every weapon I have, every shot I’m taking, and still I’m not entirely sure, and can’t be, what will happen.

Then I just sit back and watch. It’s passive, I still have camera control, so there’s not really any cinematography going on. I am witness, and powerless. All I can do is be glad it goes well, or upset something went wrong.