One of my biggest surprises from last December was finding the Phoenix Point game on Steam. The game had already been announced since 2019, but its release, to my misfortune, was through a temporary exclusivity with the Epic Games Store.
As a longtime fan of the genre, I decided to give a chance on this new adventure, which promised, in addition to several improvements in combat, unique elements that would differentiate it from other TBS’s (turn-based strategy). But were these new mechanics enough to accomplish this deed? Has the project managed to untangle everything that has been accomplished by other games in this niche?
Discover these and other answers in our first review of 2021.
Developed by Snapshot Games, and designed by the British producer and designer Julian Gollop, Phoenix Point is a tactical game focused on strategy and turn-based combat, very similar to the famous X-COM game series. And that’s not a coincidence, as Julian was one of the main responsible for the franchise creation in mid-1993 when it was still called UFO: Enemy Unknown.
Because of this, we can say that both games have the same identity, which resembles both their gameplay and their storytelling. So if you’re already an X-COM fan or already familiar with this genre, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs of the article, because I’ll detail the main mechanics that made both games an outrageous success.
Basically, in the weirdest and summarized comparison, Phoenix Point, just like X-COM, resembles a chess game. Each map is formed by an “x” number of squares in which soldiers and enemies can move around; and for each of these movements, a point of action is spent. The main idea is simple, to complete the previously designated objective (combat, rescue, item collection, investigation, etc.), with the fewest possible casualties. The task seems quite easy, but as the old proverb says, “the devil is in the details.”
Each character on the battlefield has their moves and attack styles, corresponding to their class and proficiency level. That is, a rookie soldier, for example, can move between fewer squares than a veteran, just as he has a better chance of missing shots, and the same goes for enemies. And that’s where things get complicated, the player needs to develop the best strategy possible to succeed during missions, considering the number of soldiers, the enemy types, the amount of ammo, medical kits, grenades, and so on. In addition to various other mechanics that will have a direct impact on the campaign's success or failures, such as resource management, choice of which missions to perform, relationships with factions, and more.
One of the main elements that differentiate Phoenix Point from other games is its history, shown through several dialogues and cutscenes. Unlike what was expected by some fans of the genre, the title has no relation to extraterrestrials, but rather to a virus, Pandoravirus (it’s very bizarre to write about this subject during the biggest viral pandemic ever seen, but let’s continue).
In mid-2022, scientists discovered a new and unknown virus circulating in several countries; its origin is unknown, but many believe that it is an ancient organism, which was trapped in the Arctic ice, that returned to circulate on the planet thanks to the melting of polar ice caps. At first glance, the virus appeared to present no risks to the human body, but in a few days, humanity was discovering what it is capable of. Several people around the world were gradually contaminating and turning into extremely aggressive beastly creatures, very similar to marine animals, with shells, tentacles, and tweezers.
25 years later, with humanity already decimated, survivors gather in a few safe places around the world. Some factions control much of the resources and territories, and our group of soldiers, the Phoenix Project, is the planet’s last hope.
Created in 1945, in the post-second world war, the operation arose to maintain peace between nations, acting quietly to prevent new conflicts from arising. At its peak, it brought together thousands of soldiers, scientists, engineers, and a hundred bases around the planet, but after a disastrous mission on the surface of the moon, several countries began to rethink its effectiveness and necessity. Years later, with the appearance of this new threat, the project rose from the ashes (clear pun) to defend the safety of humanity once again.
Along with the Phoenix Project, three other factions have roles in the game. The Synedrion, a pacifist survivor group that seeks to create a new and utopian society, based on science, ecology, and communalism. Disciples of Anu, a religious order that aims to control and use the mutations created by pandoravirus for their own good. And finally, New Jericho, a militarized organization led by Tobias West, an old man with strong fascist tendencies who makes no effort to exterminate the creatures and reconquer the planet.
Throughout the whole game, our team of soldiers will, or not, perform a series of “favors” for one of these three groups, thus defining the impact that it will have for the plot unfolding. For example, if you prioritize New Jericho’s missions, your game will take a more violent approach, causing the other two factions to stop sympathizing with your cause, which will make it impossible to exchange items, information, resources, and more.
Now let’s go to the most important part, the combat. For each mission, we have up to six soldiers, and three of these can be replaced by a vehicle, very similar to a tank. As stated earlier, their classes define what kind of action can be performed, and they are: Assault, the default one; Heavy, focused on heavy weapons; Sniper, great for ranged attacks; Technician; focused on the use of auxiliary tools, such as sentries and drones; Infiltrator, sneaky and discreet, perfect for reconnaissance missions; Berserker, specialists in melee attacks; Priests, with abilities that affect the minds of enemies.
Also, each character can carry a limited number of items such as grenades, medical kits, tranquilizers, and ammunition. The possible moves during combat are already known, such as running, protecting, shooting, and overwatching. But, there are new ones that differentiate the game's combat. Unlike the common three actions, Phoenix Point allows the player to perform up to four moves for each turn, meaning that you have an extra option to define your approach during combat.
Another very interesting new implementation is the aiming mechanics, where a soldier, regardless of the class, is able to aim at some specific part of the enemy, to disable them. For example, an enemy specialized in two-handed weapons, such as machine guns and shotguns, will be unable to use them if you focus your firepower on one of its arms. But be careful, this same action can be performed by your opponents.
Speaking of enemies, most of them consist of the many humans affected by the virus who have been transformed into strange creatures, with unique characteristics. The Triton, for example, is a biped creature that seeks to flank the adversary, to attack him at close range; the Siren, an annoying one, resembles a snake and can mind control enemies for a few turns.
Each one of the enemies also has some variations, or mutations, as they are called, that modify their characteristics. All are presented progressively throughout the campaign and, in addition to these, we can also confront the faction's fighters, as well as bosses.
The idea was to find something that was alien but not quite so alien, so we generated the idea of a mutation virus. The idea was that we can combine elements of humans, creatures, and then something very alien. The mutation system is designed to give the aliens a sense of progression and change over the course of the game, and also give the player some interesting and fresh challenges — Julian Gollop
Unfortunately, not everything works well in this new IP. The customization of characters is the most basic possible, with very few options for the soldier itself as well for their armor, vehicles, weapons, etc. The base administration also suffers from this same lack of whimsy, with few construction options and a very disappointing design.
Besides, during my gameplay, I witnessed some strange bugs, especially with the audio, there were times when I heard a clear delay between a shot and its sound, and with the camera, which sometimes moved alone, harming the gameplay.
As stated earlier, the version used in this review is the one on Steam, the “Year Where Edition”, which has three expansions. Wich is — Living Weapons, which adds new missions and unique equipment based on the mutations seen in the game’s enemies; Legacy of the Ancients, bringing new missions, weapons, armor, enemies, and maps, all related to an ancient and lost civilization; and finally, Blood and Titanium, a DLC that introduces us to a new group of enemies, or allies, entirely made up of humans who have had their bodies modified cybernetically.
Two other DLCs are already confirmed, both with no release date.
The game is certainly a great recommendation for TBS fans, especially for those familiar with X-COM. You’re very wrong if you believe that Phoenix Point is just another X-COM copy. Of course, it has several similarities to the Firaxis Games game franchise, especially if you consider that both are creations of the same person, but its history, its new combat systems, and resource management make this a unique game that deserves, in my opinion, more attention.
Unfortunately, while it presents itself as a fun and addictive game, Phoenix Point is also quite complex, obtuse, and unbalanced, having a very serious problem in its difficulty curve, which can drive away new players and even veterans — as seen in various comments scattered on the internet.
And if you, for some reason, decided that you will give a chance to this game, I strongly recommend (seriously) that you watch some videos of tips and of mechanics explanations. I understand that many players do not like this kind of help, but Phoenix Point is a fairly complex title, full of rules that are not so well presented and small changes, compared with the X-COM franchise, which can define your team success or failure. I will also link, at the end of the text, a very useful mod that helped me to get around some of the small problems listed above.
[Some images used in this article were taken from Google or game community profiles on Steam]
Mod link: nexusmods.com/phoenixpoint/mods/53