I have spent a long time deciding how to approach this review. As a huge fan of the MechCommander series, and isometric games in general, there is a lot to love about this game: intricate pixel art, newly built mech engine, deep storyline, great soundtrack, lots of replay value, approachable despite its depth. But for all its triumphs, there are some notable setbacks.
I can only imagine the courage it takes for a newly formed indie developer to create a new game engine from the ground up. A five year endeavor by Stellar Jockeys, Brigador has been a long time in the works and that work shows. I can’t recall the number of times I stopped to appreciate the level of detail. From mission structure to game mechanics to the surprisingly great AUDIO BOOK?! (more on this later), so much thought went into this game.
At its core, Brigador is a mission-based, real time, tactical mech game split into two game modes, Campaign and Freelance. In campaign mode, you begin as a soldier piloting a mech at the exact moment that the “great leader” of a planet wide totalitarian dictatorship has perished (not so subtly based on North Korea). The story then plays out in a string of missions depicting your desertion from the regime as you fight your way to becoming a brigador, a mech-piloting mercenary.
In reality, the campaign exists to get you acquainted with the game world. It’s where you discover whether your preference is sneaking your way through missions as you strike targets with surgical precision, or stomping across the battlefield, dismantling all that would oppose you.
And Brigador gives you that freedom. Impressively, the game engine is built as a mech sandbox: enemies perform patrols and exhibit behavioral patterns, mech and weapon choice affect how detectable you are by the enemy, and environments are fully destructible allowing you to forge your own path towards objectives. Once you are comfortable with the game’s foundation, your career continues as a mech-for-hire in freelance mode, arguably the heart of Brigador.
Surprisingly, the campaign acts as a prologue to Freelance mode. Freelance mode is all about the minutiae of mech-piloting. No longer restricted to the predefined load-outs offered during the campaign, the player is free to customize every facet of their mech: pilots based on skill, mech bodies of varying strengths and weaknesses, bi-pedal motion or hovering, weapons based on ammo efficiency and damage type. In short, parting out your ideal mech is where you’ll spend the majority of your time.
As much as there is to say about the game, even more can be said about its atmosphere. The entire game plays out at nighttime, with lighting effects to match: enemy spotlights cause debris to cast shadows, industrial locations are bathed in an orange glow. Sound wise, hauntingly synthesized electronica elevates Brigador’s entire soundscape. Seriously, the soundtrack by Makeup and Vanity Set stupidly good.
What’s more, an audio book can be purchased alongside the game, allowing you to delve deeper into the game world’s origins. In a way, Brigador follows a three act structure, with the audio book serving as Act 1, the campaign as Act 2, and freelance mode as Act 3. It’s all kind of meta in a way.
But the game’s atmosphere doesn’t remain unbroken. It’s clear that certain sacrifices had to be made, limiting Brigador’s engine. For instance, every level is a completely flat surface suspended in a black void. The game (sans audiobook) is almost entirely devoid of personality. There’s a complete lack of character interaction and the only story to speak of is a page of text that immediately precedes each level. But most egregious are the controls; they’re tank controls.
I get the rationale; it’s a make a mech game with a control scheme to match. But tank controls died for a reason and should stay dead. Simply put, they’re fucking horrible. Movement in relation to the character, not the camera, was a necessity at the time, but a mistake today. To make matters worse, it doesn’t have just one set of tank controls, but two. Depending on the type of mech you’re using, you either turn left/right or strafe left/right. Even after playing through the entire campaign, I still felt like I had no control over my mech.
Despite all it has going for it, Brigador ultimately feels like a game out of time. What would’ve been a great game ten years ago, feels like a good game today. Oddly enough, while the controls stop me from playing the game, they don’t stop me from enjoying the soundtrack and audio book. It’s strange to say, but I think they both turned out better than the game.