Phoenix Point, the turn-based game from X-Com co-creator Julian Gollop, is a bit of a disappointment.
The final product feels unbalanced, and tends to neuter the tense tactical gameplay of the 1994 classic. In its place is a roughly 20-hour narrative campaign that vacillates between onerous and dull.
Players take control of a multinational paramilitary group that has fallen on hard times. Humanity has been overrun by a global pandemic called the Pandora Virus, which takes over people’s minds and forces them to march into the sea. The resulting biomass then mixes with indigenous sea life, crawls ashore, and attacks the survivors. Inland, societies break down, resulting in a new dark age. It’s up to the troops of the Phoenix Initiative to turn the tide, lighting up long-lost bases hidden on the world map and using them as launching points to further explore the globe for answers.
Just as in the original X-Com: UFO Defense, gameplay is split between a real-time world map called the Geoscape and discrete turn-based battles between small groups of soldiers. Like that game’s sequel, X-COM: Apocalypse, society has fractured into competing factions. Hyper-militaristic New Jericho wants to push the Pandorans, as they’re called, into the sea and thereby protect the purity of the human race. Meanwhile, the Disciples of Anu worship the virus and embrace its potential to remake people in its image. Caught in the middle is Synedrion, described as an “ultra-democratic” collective of humans and artificial intelligence.
As the game progresses, players will need to side with one or more factions in order to move the plot along. Eventually, the battle against the Pandorans is complicated by all-out war among the human factions, with the player tasked with building up reputation by defending one or more sides against their aggressors. In my playthrough hostilities eventually stopped after a few in-game days and for no clear reason, but that burst of activity meant that by the end of the campaign I had fought many more battles against human adversaries than sea-born abominations.
What’s promising about this set-up is that each of the three factions has its own distinct style of warfare. New Jericho troops are heavily armed and armored, while the Disciples of Anu excel at close combat. Synedrion troops are sneaky, and fight with poisoned weapons. Much of the early game revolves around courting these factions by taking on simple quests to win their trust.
These tasks were almost always a matter of entering a turn-based battle at a remote location and killing all the enemies on the map. The biggest departure are the raids on human havens, which require you to kill off a handful of troops and then move around an otherwise empty map for long periods of time, shooting at barrels until they explode.
From the outset I was able to to recruit troops from every faction, and use their tech on the battlefield. Death is permanent, and troops are relatively expensive to buy, and by the end of the game I had only 12 soldiers and a single, powerful armored personnel carrier that I could deploy alongside them. Playing on the normal difficulty setting, I didn’t lose a single soldier until the end game, where the difficulty spikes dramatically.
Phoenix Point’s tech tree almost immediately spoils the game’s tension. In the normal difficulty setting recruits arrive fully armed, and armored, with the best gear available from their home faction. I had collected all of the high-end weaponry in the game within the first few hours of playing. From there, it was just a question of testing it all out on the battlefield to determine which items I wanted to reverse engineer and produce in quantity.
Experimentation isn’t really encouraged in the game’s tactical mode. Since enemies rush you as soon as they see you, hitting them with explosives at range softens them up enough that mobile or stealthy units can then pick them apart at will. After three or four hours into the game I had my soldier builds locked in, and they remained unchanged for the duration of the game.
The game’s tactical battles are simply abysmal. For all but a handful of late-game encounters I was always able to field a numerically superior, highly mobile force. Only a handful of class-based perks are available as soldiers level up, but those few options are enough to get the job done. They allow you to create multi-class troops, adept at both heavy weapons and sniper rifles, for instance. Other perks make you stronger in melee combat or more able to renew the pool of willpower points that power special abilities. Rarely are those abilities anywhere near as valuable as the simple dash action, or the buildable jetpacks, both of which increase movement range.
I was quickly able to customize soldiers who were literally able to run circles around the opposition. Engagements devolved into leaping out from cover, disabling the enemy’s weapon systems in one or two volleys, and then dipping back out of sight before they could fire at my troops. Explosives arc over terrain and can reach almost all the way across the map, meaning that some units don’t even need to leave the spawn point in order to be effective. Several missions saw my six best troops go up against a single enemy soldier, which I promptly killed before the enemy unit even had a chance to take a turn.
The lack of enemy variety is another huge problem. During Phoenix Point’s initial Fig crowdfunding campaign, the game’s developers promised creatures that would adapt their tactics and even their physical makeup over the course of the game’s campaign, mutating themselves to counteract players on the fly. I never saw anything like that happen. The handful of critters that I met in the game’s opening hours were identical to the ones I went up against 20 hours in. Add to that a lack of map variety — maps are procedurally generated from a handful of different tilesets — and there were times when I just wanted to skip the game’s turn-based encounters entirely out of boredom.
Then there are the bugs. In Phoenix Point, flamethrowers often refuse to light anything in the environment on fire, and flame animations sometimes hover well above their fuel source when the weapons manage to work as expected. During interior battles the game’s camera routinely moves to positions that obscure the action during the enemy’s turn, blocking elements of the HUD and leaving me with no other way to determine if my soldiers have been hit or killed aside from manually counting heads after the dust has settled. Several times a creature-launching artillery piece shot its load of critters directly into the terrain itself, where they became trapped.
I only came up against one vehicle controlled by the in-game humans during my playthrough, and after the opening moves of my first three soldiers I had destroyed its main weapon, rendering it inoperable. That caused it to flee the map, which made the game lock-up. The only way forward was to close Phoenix Point down with Windows Task Manager and start the encounter again, being careful not to disable that weapon system at all. Once its accompanying soldiers were dead, the vehicle stopped moving and the mission simply ended.
Likewise, the in-game economy, which uses three different resources to produce weapons and structures at your base, is easy to manipulate. In tough times you can raid your neighbors and steal what you need. Ultimately, I ignored that option completely since I always had plenty of resources available through trade, as quest rewards, and from random caches scattered on the world map.
The time I spent with Phoenix Point didn’t feel altogether wasted, but it was incredibly frustrating. With some more development time and balancing before the first batch of downloadable content, there might be hope for it yet. I may even go back and give it another try on higher difficulties, where my early testing seems to indicate that recruited soldiers don’t show up with free advanced weapons, and encounters seem to include more enemies. Overall, however, that just adds up to longer firefights that are equally as uninspiring as my initial playthrough.