Phoenix Point Review
In 1994 Julian Gollop and Mythos Games, via publisher MicroProse, unleashed upon the world the original XCOM. Its formula has often been imitated and rebooted with Fireaxis currently holding the franchise rights with the relatively recent XCOM 2 representing a fantastic turn-based strategy game. In early 2017, Gallop announced that he and his company Snapshot Games would be going back to his stomping grounds with Phoenix Point. Crowdfunded using the Fig platform, it was originally set to be released in 2018 until it was pushed back to 2019. Despite the extra time it’s clear, once you delve into Phoenix Point, that things are still a little rough around the edges.
The premise of Phoenix Point will be all too familiar to XCOM veterans. This time around the invading alien force is a virus that was released from our permafrost as a result of climate change on Earth. It is named the Pandoravirus after the Greek myth about the first woman Pandora who, after opening a jar, unleashed all the evils of humanity. As the permafrost continues to melt into the Earth’s oceans it starts to mutate our sea creatures into all manner of horrific abominations. This was further compounded when a sea mist made landfall and started to infect the human population with the Pandoravirus creating the Pandoran race who set about taking over the planet.
After driving the human population to the brink of extinction you take over as the leader of the Phoenix Project. Founded in the early twentieth century it was a secret international organisation created to defend our planet from alien threats at a moment's notice. Unfortunately, an event occurred late in the century that drove the Phoenix project underground so what you take over is pretty much a phoenix by name and by nature. You’re undermanned and underfunded, as such your reach is very local to begin with. If you’re going to defeat the Pandoravirus then, you are going to need help.
As you explore areas on the Geoscope, a 3D map of Earth which acts as the main hub of tasks, you will eventually come across havens belonging to the three major factions that rose up from the ashes of the initial Pandoravirus outbreak. You have the militaristic New Jericho, the heavily socialist and futuristic Synedrion and the cultist Disciples of Anu. All three are at odds with one another due their differing core beliefs as well as their views on how the Pandoravirus should — or shouldn’t — be combatted. Depending on who, if any, of the three factions you align yourself with will affect how the game will end should you make it that far. At the same time all three will continue to butt heads with each other and should things deteriorate enough civil war can break out. There are also a few independent havens out there but as far as progressing your playthrough, you will likely choose to align with one of the three.
Balancing your relationship with the other factions is much akin to keeping nations on-board in XCOM. Losing a country’s support in XCOM generally meant things got more difficult but in Phoenix Point it makes things even harder thanks to how Snapshot Games decided to design the tech tree. Rather than having it locked behind research and autopsies — which is still present either way — you need to get your relationship with a faction to 50% to get access to their technology and by extension more useful technology to research. Even then, you will still need to get to 75% if you want access to all of that faction’s potential technology. If you do not manage to do this, progressing far in Phoenix Point is a brutal war of attrition and an easy way to put off casual players. Even when reduced to its easiest difficulty level, Phoenix Point seems to scale its difficulty in huge spikes which, if not prepared for, can demolish your hard work in one soul-destroying mission.
It’s a confusing choice to make, even more so when the limited nature of the Phoenix Project’s tech tree isn’t conveyed to the player. The only inkling of something more is a loading screen tip advising you of what can happen once you have hit that magical 50% affinity with a faction. Beyond that, there’s nothing, not even in the game’s tutorial which, beyond taking you through the basics of combat, will just leave you to it once you have progressed past the training missions. For the uninitiated to turn-based tactical combat games it’s a baptism of not just fire, but brimstone with an added garnish of napalm. We’re all for brutal games that punish you for trying to beeline the game, but Phoenix Point goes full on Spinal Tap and turns it up to eleven as quick as it can. In fact, one of the frequent tips squirreled away on the game’s subreddit is to avoid scavenger missions for resources as much as possible to avoid the game’s difficulty spiking too early.
Scavenger missions, which see you defend resources in the hope of recovering them, are the bread and butter missions early on. As you’re unable to manufacture two of the three resources used in Phoenix Point to actually do anything useful early on, these missions are key. Whilst you can trade food — the only resource you can generate — for materials and technology once you’ve researched Haven Trade Protocols, this tip suggests something deep within the game’s AI is broken. Whilst it’s meant to adapt and learn to how you’re playing and attacking the Pandoran threat, just making enemies more spongy to bullets and brutal in their approach isn’t the most gamer-friendly response. Sadly, the difficulty spikes isn’t the only thing that takes Phoenix Point down as things get even more frustrating when you start to battle the Pandorans.
At its core, Phoenix Point is a turn-based strategy game. You move your squad around a map with the objective being either to eliminate all enemies, save innocents or secure an objective. Occasionally you’ll scan an area on the Geoscape and get ambushed. For these missions you just have to survive and get out. It’s important, then, that the experience here is solid and, for the most part, it is. Each character has a certain number of action points to use which can be spent on movement, abilities, taking shots at enemies or acquiring items from downed enemies or item boxes. You can increase the amount you can do per character by training them up and unlocking skills. High ground is important and moving between cover is key to giving your squad the best chance of success.
In a departure from XCOM, however, rather than being presented with an overall hit chance, every bullet is simulated. This, on paper, is pretty cool but in turn highlights a shortcoming in how the game shows you line of sight. Once an enemy has been spotted, any future squad movements will show a line indicating that you have a clear line of sight to that enemy. If, however, you just hit fire rather than using the ability to free-aim the shot, you may miss the fact that something as simple as a pole is in the way. If you choose to let your squad member just shoot then there’s a distinct possibility all shots will miss even though the game just indicated to you that you had line of sight. A simple change such as a dotted rather than solid line would communicate this minor yet important difference to the player. As it is, you will have to zoom in each time to free-aim to make sure you’ve got a clean shot.
It’s not a bad thing to use the free-aim function as it allows you to disable body parts or weapons or, if you know an enemy is behind something that’s destructible, you can get a cheeky hit on them. It is, however, frustrating that the game is telling you one thing which may not be entirely accurate. Equally frustrating is enemy movement, more specifically the Pandoran enemy type called the Siren. This freaky looking centipede-esque enemy can move what feels like half the map, mind control upto two members of your squad and needs a fair amount of firepower to take down. We bumped into two of these beauties early on whilst playing on Veteran difficulty and as a result lost all but one member of our squad after we bugged out. Its movement advantage is obscene and in future encounters, as soon as we spotted one on the battlefield we knew we were in for a tough ride.
Phoenix Point came with direction from the original creator of XCOM and with it comes a certain expectation of the finished product. Some of its ideas, such as simulating each shot, raiding havens for resources or kit brings something new and interesting to the party. However, overall, everything feels a little unbalanced with the difficulty spikes being the biggest offender. There is downloadable content waiting in the wings and it’s entirely possible that these will come with patches to change some of this up. Until then though, Phoenix Point feels a touch rushed but brimming with potential.
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