I really never thought I’d want to shill a mobile game to this degree...
TL:DR - Control cute gun-girls against arrogant fetish androids to put down an AI Rebellion in a world that’s C&C Tiberium Wars crossed with S.T.A.L.K.E.R.
Girls’ Frontline is a tactical/collection game made by the Chinese Mica Team on Android and iOS, though emulator use is also tacitly supported. Players take the role of a newly-recruited field commander deploying squads of android girls (each with a characteristic weapon) on node-based maps whilst progressing through a story which is far better than it has any right to be.
Progression is account-bound so you can play across multiple devices/emulators (naturally only on one at a time), although some preference settings don’t carry over. Already with Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese servers, the point of this article is to promote the upcoming English server, soft-launching with an Open Beta on May 8th (it has been confirmed that data will carry over to the ‘Official’ Launch) and those who pre-register get a pack of goodies (upon the ‘Official’ launch) including some resources, a girl and an outfit for said girl. The girl being BAR (something of a sadistic joke we think, Machineguns are not early game units) and her outfit is a bunny suit... Happily, unlike some games which start new servers at the original launch point, the EN version will be current with the existing servers in terms of QoL and features - although some will likely be gated to the events which first introduced them. The original schedule had such events occur bi-annually but there have been suggestions of an accelerated pace to slowly catch new servers up to date. No confirmation however. We already have a reasonably strong English-speaking community with a useful wiki and a helpful reddit.
It’s almost entirely single-player with no PvP aside from occasional Leaderboard-style ranking in major events, and co-op limited to the ability to deploy Friend squads in battle a certain number of times a day (which can be very useful to cheese some maps). It has an excellent soundtrack, and many girls are voiced (in Japanese, regardless of server), but not all. The roster increases regularly though, and some pretty famous names have lent their talents (for example, the main character, M4, is voiced by Haruka Tomatsu). The game scales quite well to the amount of time or effort one might want to put in - outside of events slow progress can always be made through various methods and dedicated grinding actually hits diminishing returns pretty quickly. All bets are off during an event though, no getting around that.
Anyone interested in knowing more - as a casual scan may have revealed already, there’s a lot to go over. This game is something a little special.
Stay with me if this sounds familiar: the main activities of GFL involve moving groups (Echelons) of girls around a node-based map, fighting enemies (who wear vaguely fetish-inspired black outfits) when encountered and assigning girls to repair slots when necessary. New girls are obtained either by after-battle drops or through construction, which is attempted with a various recipe of four types of resources. A similar system exists for constructing equipment. If this all sounds original to you, that’s fine. The rest of you who have played Kantai Collection are probably going “That sounds like they ripped off Kantai Collection” because sure, no-one’s ever done that.
Any comparisons between the two are pretty superficial however. It’s perhaps ironic that the game set on the ocean is the one with less depth. For a start, you actually play Girls’ Frontline. Movement around the maps is controlled by the Commander (that’s literally his role), Echelon combat proceeds automatically based upon the engagement profiles of each Doll class (programmed combat tactics) but girls can be given movement commands within a 3x3 grid (you will need to micro later boss battles) and the deployment of individual Doll skills can be toggled for automatic or manual use. Nodes are captured by either side as they progress, though they must be contiguous, with certain nodes providing special effects. Most importantly are helipads, which allow you to resupply and repair your Dolls as well as deploy new echelons. Oh, by the way, the chibi sprites in this game are the cutest things…
It must be emphasised that the ‘rarity’ of a girl, denoted by a star count, does not necessarily equate to her effectiveness. 5* girls generally have higher stats (at max level) and more powerful skills, but there might still be someone better for a specific need - one of the most useful girls in the entire game is PPK, who despite being a 2* has an incredible dodge stat and a tile buff which grants the largest RoF boost of any girl. She will be in your primary Rifle team. And being easier to get and cheaper to dummy link than higher star girls, she’ll be giving that boost earlier.
Dummy linking is one of the central mechanics of the game, whereby you use either duplicate girls or Fire Control Cores to add another Doll body of a given girl to an echelon under the control of the first one. Literally, they network their attention between the bodies and control the extras like puppets. In practise, this adds up to five bodies per five girls in an echelon, all of whom share the same stats and who also act as health gates - no single attack (ie. from a boss) can kill more than a single Dummy at a time. That is, until Mica introduced attacks which repeat so rapidly they’ll effectively melt you anyway, but… regardless, Dummy Linking is far more important to combat effectiveness than pure stats, and 5* girls are very expensive to link. As I said, you either need dupes or cores, and the more stars a girl has, the more cores she’ll need. Concentrating solely on the highest tier will make your life ridiculously hard.
Even before battle, how you form each echelon you deploy is possibly the most critical aspect - there are currently six different Doll classes: Handguns (HGs), Submachine Guns (SMGs), Assault Rifles (ARs), Machineguns (MGs), Shotguns (SGs) and Rifles (RFs). Each type synergises with at least one other type, giving and receiving buffs based on a tile system which dictates how you arrange the girls before battle. Each girl has a different set of buffs and different tile arrangement (it is important to note that these buffs are not lost if girls move within combat).
In general (there are exceptions): HGs buff all other classes, and are unique in that their buffs increase with linking. ARs and SMGs buff each other, and are the ‘main’ teams of the game. ARs are solid damage and SMGs are dodge-tanks. RFs are high damage/low survivability. They target the farthest away enemies, so usually the enemy snipers hiding behind the meatshields, but typically have a low rate of fire and low movement speed. They’re usually paired with HGs to mitigate these aspects, but are the ‘advanced’ teams of the game as they require knowledge, arrangement and often in-battle control to use effectively. (There’s a video here demonstrating ‘The Rifle Life’ but it does have spoilers for the later game. Remember, the story is worth it here). Lastly, MGs and SGs pair up, and both have unique features. MGs provide high burst damage, with a solid DPS until they run out of ammo and need to reload. Buffing their RoF speeds up their reload, not their fire rate, and not by much so don’t bother. Instead, buff damage and accuracy and watch everything be eroded by bullets. SGs on the other hand, are armour tanks. They can’t dodge well but decrease all damage they take, and can equip ammunition which can hit multiple enemies and knock them all back. Both these classes don’t reach their potential until they’re almost fully levelled - SG armour only increases with level (unlike other stats which need to be increased via powering the girl up) and MGs can’t equip expanded ammo boxes until higher levels either. But once they’re viable, they make for superb candidates to dominate a map and clear the way for more specialist teams.
In combat, enemies usually approach your girls in waves, to be fired upon based on proximity (apart from Rifles and some skills, which reverse this). Enemy variety increases as you progress, though even the weakest trash (little cyclopian robotic dogs called Dinergates) can pose a significant threat if not engaged properly (they zerg rush you and will eat your RFs).
Some enemies turn out to be especially armoured, requiring specific ammunition to effectively take down. Except, this can only be equipped by MGs and RFs. Coincidentally, the only place armoured enemies will be encountered for a long time are Midnight missions, where a massive accuracy penalty is applied to all your Dolls. There is another equip that can mitigate this... but RFs and MGs cannot mount it. Good thing armoured enemies have no evasion, right? They’re not the only enemies on Midnight missions, so immense care is required to engage enemy groups with the right girls. A task made harder by enemies not actually being visible on the map without a HG in an echelon, who reveals adjacent nodes. Oh, and all night maps have a time limit. Have fun.
Mica have in general shown a welcome reluctance to let the meta of the game stagnate. Events have often introduced new map objectives like creating a supply chain or rescuing hostages, and previous strategies for known enemies are often addressed with the introduction of new foes requiring a versatile pool of girls to draw from. (This was especially true in the most recent Major event, Singularity, where most of the established meta was completely tossed. Far from the early “have two AR/SMG teams and an RF team” Singularity basically made the go-to strategy “BRING EVERYTHING!”). Singularity also marked a change in how major events were structured: while older events (of which there have been three, technically four - Operation Cube, Arctic Warfare, Deep Dive and Cube+) had a ‘standard’ “Run this map 14 times and kill the boss at the end” Singularity experimented with branching story pathways, multiple overpowered NPC squads and node-interaction (reach a particular node and have a map-wide effect trigger). Combined with the story, which managed to elicit emotional responses even in those of us who don’t even speak Chinese (or Korean/Taiwanese) Singularity has been very well received by current players and has raised expectations in how GFL can continue to improve.
Mind you, the Devs has also shown a profound sense of humour when it comes to collab events as well. Arc System Works allowed the use of Noel and Elphelt, MiHoYo provided the Honkai Impact girls - GunGirlsZ in the West, and as I write this we’re having, of all things, a DJMax Respect crossover. With storyline, and both Clear and Fail as Dolls to recruit. And a freaking rhythm game sequence.
It isn’t just enemies that see improvements however: Shotguns were introduced some time into the game after their mechanics were finalised. After shotties came Technical Fairies with the Deep Dive event - little drones that can be attached to an echelon with flat stat increases, additional in-combat buffs and, most importantly, unique map powers. Some of which can completely change how battles can be approached - a Warrior or Defence Fairy increases or lowers damage given or taken by an echelon, a Turret or Landmine Fairy can damage enemies out of combat, a Reinforcement Fairy can heal your girls... or a max-skilled Airborne Fairy can allow an echelon to paradrop to any unoccupied helipad on the map, bypassing most of a level. (Yes, you need to level Fairy skills too. They take twice as much and twice as long. From crafting to levelling, Fairies are the game’s deepest and most pure salt mine).
And Singularity introduced the Remodel system, allowing certain girls to be ‘limit broken’ basically, through three stages. Mod 1 increases their star level and level cap, with associate stat increases. Mod 2 gives them a second skill and increases the level cap further, and Mod 3 gives them a new character graphic (and sometimes new vocals), an exclusive equipment item and allows them to hit level 150. But Mod 3 in particular takes a great deal of a new associated resource. Now that Fairies have been out long enough for the dedicated to want new distractions, this is the new endgame grind.
As for what lies in the future, rumours persist of eventually getting Launchers as a new class, the introduction of vehicles (I personally seriously doubt this one) and perhaps most significantly, an eventual system to have enemy characters join your teams.
But even within the established classes, Mica’s ability to turn the most obscure of guns into characters has actually amazed me. No particular national bias seems to exist, and though there are some notable weapons missing from the roster this seems to be due to a considered tactic of mixing well-known guns with less ‘popular’ ones for each new batch rather than just working through all the famous ones and then having people lose casual interest. So we have Lee-Enfield and FAL alongside M4 and MP5, SPAS-12 and Vector with Thompson and FNC. We also have Welrod, XM8, IWS 2000, G11 and AN-94. My realisation that no limits existed when it came to who they would include was heralded by the introduction of Thunder though (a ‘novelty’ handgun chambered for .50 BMG). If she can be in the game, anything can be in the game.
Outside of obtaining girls through battle or construction, there’s still a great deal to do. Skills have to be levelled using points gained from a daily combat sim, spare echelons can be sent on logistics missions to bring in resources, other squads can be sent to auto-run completed missions to farm drops and that’s not even getting into the Dorm system which is its own sub-nest of mechanics. Dorms are large empty rooms you can assign an echelon to, and then fill with furniture. Decent furniture ups the comfort of the dorms which gives the girls affection increases (max affection gives them a 5% boost to stats) and also charges a cocktail machine capacitor from which you can collect Tequila Sunrises batteries twice a day (at specific times). These batteries then allow you to upgrade various facilities in the base, which improve your ability to collect global experience which can be turned into combat reports to level girls instantly, or rescue pets from the wilderness, or give your Fairies a cardboard mountain fortress to play with. Don’t ask. Perhaps more importantly, dorms are where your girls walk around in their delightful little chibi forms, bounce at each other, and fall asleep on absolutely anything in the most adorable manner.
Getting furniture is arguably where a true gacha aspect of the game comes in. Draws are done using very rare ‘Procurement Coins’ at a rate of 11 draws for 100 coins on a themed banner, or 11 draws for 60 coins from the normal collection. Coins can be gained through daily missions, or there are two logistics runs which have a chance of giving a single coin every 12 or 24 hours. Even though events can give larger amounts, you will never have enough. Fortunately, it doesn’t take all that much furniture to give a dorm a reasonable level of comfort, and those pets I mentioned earlier can be moved in to provide even more.
Praise the fluffy.
So, where’s the downside?
The minor downside is themes. Collecting every item from a theme gives a bonus both to comfort and usually within the actual dorm itself - either Kalina (your human Logistics Officer) can get another new outfit or some extra item can appear, like a gunship doing attack runs across the dorm in the Air and Space Museum set. The major downside is getting outfits for your girls. Or rather, not getting them. These are drawn from the same pool as the far more common furniture, and are what you really want to appear. Not only do they give the girl a slight affection boost when gifted (and also, her appearance changes), but quite often one of the skins in each theme is Live2D and changes the skill visuals of the girl as well. The effects are entirely cosmetic, no skin has ever provided any sort of combat benefit. But when you see a nice dress for a pretty girl who’s likely saved your ass at some point, or may in the future... you don’t want to disappoint her. And that’s how they get you to go to the shop…
In fact, there’s nothing ‘necessary’ to buy in the game at all. The most important things to get quickly, and what would be worth actually spending to obtain, are extra Echelon slots, extra dorms and more barracks space (to keep more girls). Pretty much in that order. But with the rapid influx of gems from completing early missions, and then the slower gain from login bonuses and achievements, improving those aspects is not difficult to do over a slightly longer timeframe. Spending money on this game might make your progress faster, but there’s nothing to buy which will make it easier.
Being a ‘girl collection’ anime-style game, many may have already assumed the designs are probably pretty exploitative. You’re not wrong. I mean, as I said at the start, BAR’s pre-reg outfit is a Bunny Suit (and she’s not the only one, Tavor seems obsessed with them). Some characters even got hit with a redesign to tone down some aspects of their... well, calling it ‘sex appeal’ is perhaps being too kind. Frankly, I think those original designs were often just plain stupid. Even with that ‘censorship’ (yeah, some people go apeshit about it, as normal) some of the remaining designs are still far beyond risque. But they are the exception, not the norm. For every girl walking around just in a thong (G41) most wear normal-ish clothes, if with unique flair. And then you have some which are just solidly badass. May we get more of the latter.
And, of course, this game actually has a story. A story which, you may have noticed, I have not gone into despite that wall of text up above. Technically a prequel to an old tile-based TRPG called Codename: Bakery Girl, GFL is placed within a large amount of already established lore and worldbuilding.
This game itself is, so far, more focused and intimate, not overly concerned with the wider issues the backstory offers. Yet. But it certainly does not shy away from the implicit darkness of the state of the world like some mobile games may enforce.
Word from the team suggests that they initially considered trying to do so, but ultimately decided to embrace what would be otherwise too difficult to ignore. It works. And to reiterate, though no direct link between the two games has so far been established, GFL occurs 30 years before Bakery Girl. In those 30 years, the world will apparently go to Hell even more.
As of writing, the story has ten chapters, each with 6 Main missions, 4 Emergency missions and, being introduced over time, 4 Midnight missions. The chapters follow a chronology with the Major events occurring within the same timeline - Singularity, for example, takes place immediately following the events of Chapter 10. Happily, the in-game replay feature organises by this chronology. Collab events usually have an independant storyline, and when the Cafe was introduced to serve as a new battery sink for those who had already upgraded all their facilities, it started allowing outfits to have their own little vignettes. Part of the reason the english-speaking playerbase has been so excited about getting our own version isn’t to make playing easier - the game can be learned without much difficulty and many UI buttons already have English text on them. No, we wanted to really know what the story was, what was happening, because clearly a lot was going on behind the language barrier. Now we can look forward to finding out.
So, that’s it for the game itself, but below I’m going to try and offer a summary (taken from the efforts of translators who actually did all the work) of the lore and backstory which establishes the world GFL takes place in. It’s quite a read, thus why I’ve placed it at the end. If you’re interested, I hope you enjoy. If this is where you bow out, many thanks for reading and maybe I’ll visit your dorms one day to steal batteries say hi. I’d also like to thank people from the official GFL EN Discord who helped out with the writing of this, especially Loremaster Nihilo (this game has a Loremaster...) who ensured I got the following section correct.
Set in the year 2062, the game offers a post-apocalyptic world whose history diverged from our own with the discovery of Alien Ruins by the Russian Empire. Mishandling of the technology within would lead to what became known as the Tunguska Event, which would be followed by the Bolshevik Revolution creating the Soviet Union.
WW2 occurs a few decades later, conventionally, however post-war the Soviet Union manages to secretly obtain all research into alien artifacts the Nazis had been undertaking, with other world powers remaining unaware of the existence of any such thing (Presumably the USSR knew what to look for). The Cold War ensues, but with the Soviets quickly gaining an advantage in both nuclear and alien technologies - starting their own attempts to replicate the latter in 1950. It would take another 5 years for the US to discover a ruin they could investigate, become aware of the ramifications and begin their own research.
In the 1960s, on an island off the coast of Shanghai, another underground ruins complex is discovered. More significantly, within the complex a completely intact alien corpse is found. Recovering the subject, codenamed GAVIRUL (and the aliens in general now called Precursors), the Chinese government attempts to study both it and the ruins that contained it but fail to determine anything of value. GAVIRUL is placed into storage for the next 30 years and the ruins sealed, while construction projects begin on the island above. The Cold War progresses and both the US and USSR attempt military use of alien-derived technologies in Vietnam and Afghanistan respectively, but the less-than-ideal (overwhelmingly devastating and uncontrollable) results lead to a treaty being signed forbidding any further militarisation of Precursor relics.
The 1990s see a change in this status quo. With the Cold War resolved, a UN body to oversee research into alien artifacts is formed and the existence of GAVIRUL comes back to light. Improved facilities, funding and general scientific understanding allow new research into the body to be more successful, but opinions on how to proceed quickly polarise into two camps: one wants to try and use the body directly to see if any response from the ruins it was found within occurs, the other wishes to try and splice its genetic material with that of humans in an attempt to learn more about the species. The latter gains prominence and does eventually result in the birth of Human-Precursor hybrids, but other than a faster-than-normal rate of maturation no difference from a baseline human is observed in the two survivors - including a lack of any reaction from alien technology - and after 20 years the project is deemed a failure and future efforts discontinued.
Attention turns to directly studying the island complex and activity within the ruins increases substantially. With the island’s urbanisation having progressed over the decades since the original discovery, when an accident in the ruins ruptures a crystalline containment vessel the resulting release of a radioactive chemical (a fundamental aspect of Precursor technology known as Collapse Fluid) is able to reach the populated areas on the surface. The affected area is quarantined and people evacuated from the contaminated locations, but no wider report of the incident is made and thus none of the few individuals who may have been able to give adequate warning of what would follow are ever made aware.
Strange incidents begin to occur among the population at an accelerating rate but are only categorised as felonies by the local authorities. The increasing level of disturbance does start to result in progressively higher levels of government taking notice and eventually the entire island is placed on lockdown, whereupon public notice quickly turns elsewhere and official attention likewise begins to wane. 15 months later, early in 2030, the containment of the island is practically a formality and any horror stories that may have been shared have all but faded from memory.
The lax perimeter allows a small number of schoolchildren to slip onto the island, excited about the prospect of exploring the spooky government facility. Entering the ruins, they are quickly beset by twisted abominations - the results of people exposed to the mutagenic effects of Collapse Fluid, trapped within the facility after the initial accident. This reaction of the human body to Collapse Fluid would become widely known as Euroky Low-Emission Infectious Disease (ELID), but any previous outbreaks had occurred and been contained in isolated areas - military research teams suffering limited exposure and sanitised with extreme prejudice. The authorities responsible for Beilan Island have no idea what they’re dealing with. An armed response team is sent to try and rescue the students, but upon entering the ruins themselves quickly come under assault. In danger of being overwhelmed and allowing the mutants to breach containment, the team make the decision to use explosives to try and collapse the underground entrance. Initially successful, this would quickly result in terrible consequences.
A chain reaction resulting from the placed charges spreads through the complex, breaching the remaining storage vessels and exposing the ruins to the open air. The volatile nature of Collapse Fluid causes it to immediately vaporise and a column of radioactive mutagenic gas soars into the atmosphere, where trade winds proceed to carry it around the world. Literally. Contamination wraps around the equator, splitting the planet in half North and South. Whilst the full extent of the catastrophe has not been expanded upon, many nations collapse (or are simply wiped out) and the sudden scramble for safe habitation and secure resources compounds the initial disaster (though, notably, Europe is largely unaffected). With the significant drop in human population after the event, automation is turned to to alleviate the manpower shortage. 2035 sees the first robotic worker designed with a humanoid frame, 2037 sees the first military applications of the technology, equipped with AI. These constructs would become known as Dolls.
Fast forward through the next 20 years (and World War 3), and Doll manufacturing in Europe has come to be dominated by two companies: IOP and Sangvis Ferri. Whilst during the war IOP had focused on more complex Tactical Doll designs and SF helped them cover demand with simpler, more reliable models, this reverses before the war’s end in 2051 due to the efforts of two Russian prodigies who had gone into hiding after publishing the work of their technical group online - an act which incensed the rest of the group who then sought to hunt them down. Retrieving the two and establishing them as a small R&D company, IOP saw revolutionary advances in their T-Doll capabilities which led them to unquestioned dominance of the market.
The end of the war did not mean an improvement in the state of the world however. Many areas both urban and rural require protection and reconstruction leading to a constant demand for Dolls, especially from new PMCs which took on the role of security for many ravaged locations. One such was created by the man who had led the team which rescued the two Russians: Berezovich Kryuger - formerly of the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs, now of Grifon and Kryuger.
Kryguer’s links with IOP benefited both companies - G&K used cheaper civilian model Dolls to great effect, quickly gaining reputation and providing IOP with invaluable feedback which then allowed for further upgrades to the Doll lines in a symbiotic cycle. Before long, these humanised Dolls became representative of IOP, with pleasing appearances and simulated emotional responses making them easily accepted in society. However, creative differences became apparent between the two individuals most responsible for these advances. One, Lycoris, thought that concentrating on the AI of the Dolls for their advancement was of the most importance whereas the other, Persica, believed in improving hardware for a generational leap forward was more sensible. IOP came down on Persica’s side, leading Lycoris to secretly arrange meetings with Sangvis Ferri in search of backing for his vision. Agreeing a deal, Lycoris asked G&K to escort him to SF - Kryuger agreed, despite his ties to IOP, on the condition that G&K would also receive any advances in technology Lycoris produced whilst working for the other company. IOP’s response was to double-down on Persica’s research, allowing her to found what would become known as the 16LAB in 2057.
No longer fearing for her life from her former comrades, Persica went public with her identity and her theories. Using her reputation to staff her new laboratory, her goal of advancing T-Dolls to a 2nd Generation resulted in two fundamental breakthroughs. First, Etching technology, which is sci-fi bullshit posits that any individual item creates an ‘Information Field’ around it which can be detected - in practise allowing a Doll to be linked to a specific firearm on such an intimate level that it effectively operates as an extension of the Doll’s own body. Orientation, ammunition count, fouling or mechanical wear, all would be inherently known to the Doll, automatically allowing her to act with a level of weapon familiarisation exceeding a veteran soldier.
The second would come to be IOP’s primary hallmark - development of the Etching technology allowed for the Dummy system. A single ‘mainframe’ Doll receiving battlefield commands from a human tactical commander and then not only relaying those commands to any accompanying Dolls but also to up-to four slave copies of her body which she could control as easily as her primary one. Commercially, this meant that whilst the first purchase of a Master Doll was significant, the significantly decreased software requirements of any further Dummies allowed continuing purchases of future copies to be far more affordable.
Meanwhile, Lycoris continued his own research into advancing Doll AI. Sangvis Ferri in general concentrated on Doll specialisation over IOP’s versatile approach - rather than allow for IOP’s ad hoc approach to Doll armament, SF standardised equipment across their production lines with particle beam weaponry and superior network encryption, Lycoris incrementally improving each design even as he worked towards his own vision of the future - an advanced AI he named Elisa. Before he could complete her development though, SF’s main facility was raided by unknown assailants seeking data on Elisa, and Lycoris was fatally wounded in the crossfire. Activating her before succumbing to his wounds, Elisa’s first awareness was of humans attacking her home without reason, and of her ‘father’ having died at their hands. Her response was to assume control over every Sangvis Ferri Doll and order the elimination of all humans within the complex, attacker or innocent. Escaping wider public notice, this small but intense assault upon humanity by SF forces resulted in G&K being contracted to contain and resolve the situation, requiring them to increase their numbers of employed human commanders to meet the sudden demand. And that’s where we come in…