Phoenix Point, the turn-based game by Julian Gollop, co-inventor of X-Com, is a bit of a disappointment.
The end product feels unbalanced and tends to neutralize the tense tactical gameplay of the 1994 classic. In its place is an approximately 20-hour narrative campaign that varies between annoying and boring.
Players take control of a multinational paramilitary group that has been hit hard. Humanity has been overrun by a global pandemic, the Pandora virus, which takes over people’s thoughts and forces them to march into the sea. The resulting biomass mixes with the lives of the natives, creeps ashore and attacks the survivors. Inland, societies collapse, leading to a new dark age. It is up to the forces of the Phoenix Initiative to turn the tide, illuminate the long-lost bases hidden on the world map and use them as a starting point to continue exploring the globe for answers.
The plot of the campaign is told through a handful of slightly animated slideshows. To his credit, Phoenix Point includes a lot of high quality voice-over work. Snapshot games over polygon
Just like in the original version of X-Com: UFO Defense, the gameplay is split between a real-time world map called Geoscape and discrete turn-based battles between small groups of soldiers. Like the sequel to this game, X-COM: Apocalypse, society has split into competing factions. The hyper-militarist New Jericho wants to push the Pandorans, as they are called, into the sea, thereby protecting the purity of humanity. In the meantime, the disciples of Anu worship the virus and use its potential to reshape people according to its image. Trapped in the middle is Synedrion, which is described as an “ultra-democratic” collective of humans and artificial intelligence.
As the game progresses, players must join one or more factions to advance the story. Finally, the fight against the Pandorans is hampered by a comprehensive warfare between the human factions, with the player’s job being to build a reputation by defending one or more sides against their attackers. Finally, in my playthrough, the hostilities ceased after a few days in the game, and for no clear reason, but this breakout of activity meant that at the end of the campaign I had fought many more battles against human opponents than against ocean-born abominations.
In most cases, a flamethrower is an excellent denial weapon for areas, especially since most units only run through the flames. In other cases, the weapon can not set fire to fire. Snapshot games over polygon
What is promising about this setup is that each of the three factions has its own kind of warfare. New Jericho troops are heavily armed and armored, while the disciples of Anu perform well in close combat. Synedrion troops are sneaky and fight with poisoned weapons. Much of the early game revolves around courting these factions by taking simple quests to gain their trust.
These tasks were almost always about entering a turn-based battle at a remote location and killing all the enemies on the map. The biggest way out is the raids on human sanctuaries where you have to kill a handful of troops and then move on an otherwise empty map for long periods of time to shoot barrels until they explode.
From the beginning, I was able to recruit troops from all factions and use their technology on the battlefield. Death is permanent, and the purchase of troops is relatively expensive. At the end of the game, I had only 12 soldiers and a single, strong armored personnel transporter I could use next to them. I played at the normal difficulty level and did not lose a single soldier by the end of the game, which has dramatically increased in difficulty.
The technology tree of Phoenix Point destroys the tension of the game almost immediately. In the normal difficulty level, the recruits arrive fully armed and armored with the best equipment available from their homeland faction. I had collected all the high-end weapons in the game within the first few hours. From then on, it was all about testing everything on the battlefield to determine which items I wanted to reverse engineer and produce in large quantities.
Explosive weapons are the way in Phoenix Point, as they damage any part of the body they hit. The cascade effects destroy the armor, disabling most special abilities, and bleeding the enemies over time. Snapshot games over polygon
Experimentation is not really promoted in the tactical mode of the game. As enemies storm you as soon as they see you, they are so far softened by a hit with explosives from a distance that mobile or stealth units can disassemble them at will. After three or four hours, I included my soldier builds and they remained unchanged for the duration of the game.
The tactical battles of the game are just miserable. Except for a handful of encounters in the late game, I was always able to set up a numerically superior, highly mobile force. Only a handful of class based perks are available when the soldiers reach a higher level. However, these few options are enough to get the job done. They allow you to put together troops of several classes, for example, both with heavy weapons and with sniper rifles know. Other benefits make you stronger in melee combat or allow you to renew the supply of willpower points that trigger special abilities. Rarely, these abilities are nearly as valuable as the simple Dash action or the buildable jetpacks, both of which increase the range of motion.
I was quickly able to adapt to soldiers who were literally able to orbit the opposition. The engagement was to jump out of cover, disable the enemy’s weapon systems with one or two salvos, and then get out of sight before they could shoot at my troops. Explosives bends over the terrain and can reach almost the entire map, so some units do not even have to leave the spawn point to be effective. In several missions, my six best troops attacked a single enemy soldier, whom I killed immediately before the enemy unit even had a chance to make a round.
The lack of enemy diversity is another big problem. During Phoenix Point’s first crowdfunding campaign, game developers promised creatures to adapt and mutate their tactics and even their physical make-up as the game progressed to counter players on the fly. I’ve never seen anything like it. The handful of critters I met in the opening hours of the game were identical to those in which I started against 20 hours. Add to that the lack of card variety – cards are procedurally created from a handful of different tile sets – and there were times when I just wanted to skip the turn-based encounters of the game just out of boredom.
There is rarely a penalty for the failure of a mission or withdrawal. This makes it possible to spy on an enemy force and return with a more equipped attack team. There is no dogfight in the game, so the troops can move at will. Snapshot Games
Then there are the bugs. At Phoenix Point, flame throwers often refuse to set fire to anything around, and flame animations sometimes float well above their fuel source when the weapons work as expected. During internal battles, the game’s camera routinely moves to positions that obscure the action during the enemy’s turn. It blocks elements of the HUD and leaves me no other way to tell if my soldiers have been hit or killed except for manually counting the heads for the dust. Several times, an artillery that fired creatures shot a lot of animals directly into the terrain itself, where they were caught.
During my playthrough I only encountered a vehicle that was controlled by the people in the game, and after the first moves of my first three soldiers I had destroyed his main weapon and rendered it useless. As a result, it fled the map and crashed the game. The only option was to close Phoenix Point with the Windows Task Manager and start the encounter again. Be careful not to disable the weapon system at all. As soon as the accompanying soldiers were dead, the vehicle stopped and the mission simply ended.
Similarly, the in-game economy, which uses three different resources to produce weapons and structures in your base, is easy to manipulate. In difficult times you can invade your neighbors and steal what you need. In the end, I totally ignored this option because I had plenty of resources available through trade, quest rewards, and random caches on the world map.
The time I spent at Phoenix Point did not feel completely wasted, but it was incredibly frustrating. With a bit more development time and a balance of the first batch of downloadable content, there might be hope. Maybe I’ll go back and try again with higher levels of difficulty. My initial tests indicate that recruited soldiers do not show up with free advanced weapons, and apparently more enemies are present at encounters. Overall, however, this adds up to longer firefights, which are just as little stimulating as my initial playthrough.