Finally! This is my review of Phoenix Point. And it took me less than a year!
OK, jokes aside. I’ll make my comment on Snapshot Games’ business practices towards the end. For now, let’s determine if the game itself is worth all the hustle. After all, Phoenix Point was developed under the leadership of Julian Gollop – one of the creators of the original X-com: UFO Defense. And he also designed several subsequent games in the series about protecting humanity from alien invaders by researching their weapons (after taking those weapons from their dead bodies).
Had the legendary designer returned to show us how you do UFO-like game right? Or did he fail to surpass his own successors, the likes of XCOM or UFO: After…?
Another Shot at XCOM Formula
The tactical battle interface here looks a lot like the one in XCOM, that’s for sure. However, there are quite a few gameplay differences, most notably the shooting.
Instead of an abstract percentage that determines hit chance by unknown formula, Phoenix Point shows you the actual spread of your future shots as two concentric circles. And while the Random still can pull some dirty tricks, if you manage to put both circles inside the enemy’s silhouette there is no way, you can miss. That’s the best part of the manual aim. Another – you can point your soldier’s gun to hit the enemy’s vital body parts or parts with less armor.
Of course, the same applies in reverse. Foes can miss only at long distances and enough hits can completely destroy the weapon right in your agent’s hands. For that matter, if your arm or head takes enough damage it will “disabled”, making you unable to use two-handed weapons or reducing the amount of Will Points until the end of the battle.
Will Points are actually very important, as they not only serve as protection from panic and psionic attacks but also used to perform special moves. Dashing and use of jump jets allow moving greater distances. Quickshot or “Boom Blast” on the other hand reduce various attacks’ Action Point cost. It’s quite easy to run out of WP. And to restore those you need for your operatives to waste an entire turn. Or just make them kill enemies – that raises spirit too!
Speaking of Action Points (AP). Moving a tile only spends a fraction of one point. So, your agent can make one step, shoot from a grenade launcher for 3AP, and still have the rest of the remaining point (everyone has 4AP) to move into the cover again.
All You Need is Kill
While there are indeed some new ideas in the tactical gameplay formula, tactical battles themselves are far less innovative. Objectives are usually limited to killing all the enemies, destroying a specific target, grabbing a certain item, and simply surviving while reaching the evacuation area.
Yes, at the later stage of the campaign you’ll also have to capture a few alien specimens by paralyzing them with a special weapon (actually, Synedrion vehicle is the best option for this). And some missions require you to pick up all the loot, otherwise, it will be lost. But that’s all. You don’t have, for example, the “stealth phase” like in XCOM2 missions, even if your task is to sabotage or steal something – just go in and take or destroy the target.
But my main disappointment is “special operations” that advance the story and change your relations with the factions. How exciting those unique assignments would be if they had special conditions or at least some scripted sequences! But no. When you go to stop the raid of the Pure on the Synedrion, you just kill everyone on both sides – there is no way to actually help one side. When you are sent to protect the Synedrion experiment from interference, you just “secure the area” by killing everyone around.
Even rewards for missions don’t depend on how you perform. It’s always the same amount of materials and tech (like materials, only needed for more advanced manufacturing) for Haven’s defense regardless of how badly Haven was damaged. Human casualties don’t influence the outcome. “Sabotaged” organization always worsens its attitude for the same amount. Though the latter may be for the best, otherwise inability to do such missions covertly would be even more of a sore in the eye.
Well, at least interaction with different factions is a bit more interesting and nuanced than just trading or fighting. For starters, you need to actually gain their trust to trade. And if your relations improve further, you’ll get factions’ technologies.
The world itself, after being ravaged by World War 3 and mutated by Pandoravirus, is divided between three main organizations. “Disciples of Anu” is a cult that considers the virus to be a divine ordeal that must be overcome, so humanity would be able to evolve. They actually achieve some progress in controlling the virus, as their Priest units can use various supernatural abilities, including mind control.
Another faction, “New Jericho” follows the charismatic millionaire Tobias West and uses the resources of his company, Vanadium Inc. to rebuild human society from the ground. Though for some reason they completely refuse to study Pandoravirus for possible advantages it can give and instead rely on cybernetic implants.
And finally, “Synedrion” – a community that is lead by scientists, who want to build a new utopia. Apparently, they are also Marxists. No, I’m not joking, that’s literally what’s written in the Phoenixpedia lore section. And no, I don’t know how it is supposed to work either.
Though to be fair, the lore doesn’t really impact the game itself. Regardless of their views, factions just come to you and ask for food/materials/tech/protection/favor (kill/fetch ‘special’ missions, mentioned earlier) for their cause. Give them what they want and they will be pleased, don’t give and the relationship will worsen. If New Jericho were described as Marxists or Anu as a CEO of some biotech company, you wouldn’t feel the difference.
Even interactions between the factions are sort of random. One can ask you to sabotage another even if relations between them aren’t bad.
What You See
Now, let’s talk about the game’s visuals and interface. It’s quite obvious that this time developers were inspired by Lovecraft’s works. Thus alien creatures are monsters from the sea. It’s like seven types total, but with a few “mutant” variations for each.
Visually environment also lacks details and not very vibrant. After all, Snapshot Games was on a tight budget. Though it actually fits well with the game’s setting – post-apocalyptic world, where flora and fauna were mangled and twisted by Pandoravirus.
Still, virus mutations that vividly described in some text events are almost never shown on the maps. But at least there are various types of landscape – industrial, shantytown, three types of Havens, mutated coastline, caves…
I would also like to praise the equipment screen. It’s way better than the one in the XCOM series with all the clunky drop-down menus. You can look at all available equipment in the inventory and drag-drop it with ease. Though I don’t understand why not all class filters present at once. Got a technician from New Jericho? Wait for New Jericho to become “aligned” with Phoenix before you be able to filter equipment that belongs to that class!
And that’s not the only lapse in the interface design. There is no showing ETA, making you guess if your aircraft will come to protect Haven in time. Geoscape not always “pauses” on important events and automatically “un-pauses”, so missing events is even easier… Oh! And there is no way to turn soldiers or vehicles in the desired direction, so plan for some unnecessary moves.
What You Get
It looks like Mr. Gollop had a lot of great ideas – manual aiming, faction politics, covert operations, etc. But not all of those ideas were implemented properly. Sort of like in many good indie games that experiment with established formulas but don’t have enough resources to polish the results of their experiment.
For example, Phoenix Point has totally screwed up logistics – agents and vehicles can be only transferred between your bases via your own crafts. That takes a lot of time or may even not be possible as your aircrafts have a limited range for a good chunk of the game and Australia or Antarctica are too far from other continents. At the same time materials, tech, food, and all weapons are in one single pool, so they basically are transferred between any agent and base instantly. You can even activate bases regardless of where they are located and send new recruits there without any means to actually reach the location.
I know, PP is just a game and this is made to reduce micromanagement, but it doesn’t help with my suspension of disbelief when I can equip a guy stuck in Antarctica but can’t bring that guy from there.
“Special events” where you just choose a dialog option to show your support or denouncement of some faction could be considered a good example of cutting the cost while preserving the game’s atmosphere. But sometimes their descriptions don’t contain a clue at the results of your decisions may lead to. It was frustrating to give Disciples of Anu food hoping to raise their attitude and just get worsen attitudes from other factions instead.
Phoenix Point: A Post-Apocalyptic XCOM indie game
I won’t deny, that I had quite some fun with PP, not to mention a nostalgia feel upon seeing things from different X-com classic games returning. The game also has a few interesting ideas of its own and offers alternatives to established formulas in the genre. For one, much emphasis is put on getting resources from other factions, either through alliance or by stealing.
In this game I actually feel being in charge of “humanity defense organization”, making tough choices to survive and not just participating in a Hollywood-like story (as that’s how new XCOM feels like). Kicking alien lower torso is still there, but there is no hand-holding like in Firaxis’s games. And if you prefer such freedom, Phoenix Point is absolutely worth a try.
But be prepared that there will be quite a few game bugs, weird game design, problems with the interface. And towards the end, the campaign can become quite tedious with little variety in the missions.
PP definitely needs more polish, and maybe even some tuning and gameplay changes. Even after a year of “beta testing” by the EGS audience, it still hasn’t become the smooth experience that I expected from someone, who invented the whole thing.