Friday 19 February 2021

Switch Review - Phantom Doctrine

A turn based tactics game for the 'XCom' fans. But can an incredibly complicated niche game find a home on the Switch - a system known for its mass market appeal? 

Developed by Creative Forge

Published by Forever Entertainment

Released in 2020

Sometimes, size and scale can be intimidating. When I scour the shelves of my local board game cafe, I will ignore the games that exist in giant boxes. I worry I'd never understand a game so heavy that it literally make the shelf it sits on bend and bow. Clearly, this heavyweight title must have a huge amount of rules, figures and components to fill that big box. “If I don't understand them all, I'll never enjoy the game” I worry. But to others, this gigantic package is enticing. The game within will be something you can sink your teeth into; an appealingly imposing game where satisfaction can come from understanding the nuances and mastering the complexity. A big box equals a game that you will need to set a whole weekend aside for, but one that has enough scale and scope to make that dedication feel like time well spent.

I find myself thinking of board games when I analyse 'Phantom Doctrine' an espionage game developed by Polish studio Creative Forge. The bulk of the game will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played a certain alien hunting strategy game, something Creative Forge themselves recognise. “It’s a tactical cold war thriller; It’s ‘XCom’ with Spies.” says designer Blazej Krakowiak. “‘XCom’ is definitely the benchmark in the genre, but then the formula is so wide, you can do so much creatively with it. Doing alien invasions are not the only thing you can do with it.” Consequently, the bulk of ‘Phantom Doctrine’ involves moving characters over an isometric grid. Playing like a game of chess, you position your team and then perform actions with them. These actions can be as simple as gunning down an enemy agent, or more complex tasks involving stealing files, laying traps or even interrogating, instructing sniping, breaching a room or going onto Over watch – when you’ll be on constant guard should the opponent perform anything untoward in your vicinity. Once you’ve spent all your agents allotted skill points it’s your opponent’s turn. They will then move and perform similar actions. Play continues in this way until, either your agents are all dead or you complete the mission’s objective. Obviously this means you’ll be sitting watching the computer do their moves for half the play time, but that’s to be expected in this kind of game.

Unlike other similar games, there’s no RNG and a reliance on luck has largely been removed. In ‘Phantom Doctrine’ the agents never miss. “Instead of doing what all the other games do in the genre, we were looking for something fresh and give players something they haven’t seen before” says lead designer Kacper Szymczak. Instead, ‘Phantom Doctrine’ has a meter for each agent that guarantees they'll avoid an attack. This reduces as they are shot at and once depleted, they're going to start taking damage. The problem is, this “awareness” resource is also used to perform special abilities and only regenerates by a limited amount each turn. When playing a mission you'll continuously ask yourself if a risky manoeuvre is worth trying. You’ll worry that such an audacious plan will use up so much awareness you’ll be an easy target in subsequent turns. A game like this must strike the fine balance between offering enough actions to perform and not being overwhelming. However, ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is attempting to be all things for all people. “The 3D tactical missions that you go on, support stealth or combat, it’s up to you” says Krakowiak. But, this means the learning curve in the game is a right angle. There’s a one-mission tutorial that shows you the essentials, then you are thrown straight into overwhelming scenarios, with a mind bending number of things your agents are able to do. Anything beyond the absolute basics must be learned through hours of trial and error, usually by repeatedly restarting failed levels, even on the easiest setting.  'XCom’ may be infamous for its ever-present danger and battles that can turn on a single moment of bad luck.  However, it gradually teaches you how to play before ramping up the difficulty. But 'Phantom Doctrine' does not ease you in at all. Once the stabilisers were taken off, I failed the first mission a total of five times before I properly understood what was going on. With each attempt taking about 20 minutes; it was gruelling. Admittedly it’s been sometime since I’ve played ‘XCom’, but I am fairly familiar with ‘Project X Zone’, ‘Valkeria Chronicles’, ‘Final Fantasy Tactics’ the original ‘Syndicate’ and the ‘Front Mission’ games. I know that failing a mission after over an hour of playing it is a frustration inherent to the genre, but that’s a pain that typically comes after a dozen stages, not one. Anyone considering ‘Phantom Doctrine’ must go into it knowing that there is a lot to learn immediately, but thankfully there’s also a lot of variety. You might be required to steal secret files at a nuclear facility in Pakistan, rescuing tortured assets, or assassinate a foe in a Russian hideout. The maps are all pre-made, but you see them in a randomised order and the pool they’re drawn from means you can complete the game twice and never see the same map repeated. Also in this globetrotting game, where the missions take place is also randomised, which adds additional variety. “Every mission can take place anywhere in the World” says Kacper Szymczak, “so there’s a lot going on”.

Following in the footsteps of the likes of Sam Fisher and Solid Snake, often the best way to play ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is to be stealthy. “You can go through almost the whole game without shooting or attacking anyone” promises Szymczak. The best agents sneak in unnoticed, shut off security cameras and silently take down guards before evacuating. Of course, carelessly bounding into a new area will usually mean an enemy will spot your agents, blowing your cover and forcing your team to an inevitable fire fight. In most cases you will not survive having more than one enemy pointing a gun at you, so the threat of exposure adds perpetual tension to the gameplay. Sometimes, you’ll open a door to peak into a room and believe it to be clear, but when you then sneak in there’s two foes lurking in the shadows; surveillance is key. Frustratingly though, while you can rotate the camera and change floors, the isometric overhead view makes it tricky to see where windows are. This means you might think your agents are protected by walls, only to find them taken out by a hidden enemy sniper on a balcony. The line of fire and visibility arcs are also hard to determine. To be successful in the game you need to be in a heightened state of awareness. You need to continually study what’s going on around you during a mission, have an objective in mind, and yet remain adaptable should the situation change.

A successful player is one that’ll be able to act with patience and cunning; knowing that sometimes you should let an enemy target complete part of their own mission if it means you'll benefit In the long run. In one stage I found it better to let an enemy operative steal from me, as then I could follow them to their base and infiltrate it covertly, avoiding a full on fire fight all together. ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is a slow game, where rushing leads to ruin. It’s also slow due to the ludicrous amount of intermissions you have to sit through. When a shot is taken the camera zooms in, to show your agent leaning around a wall to gun down a enemy. When a sniper is activated you see them on a faraway roof taking the shot. Presumably this is there to make the game feel cinematic, and it certainly immerses the player in the action, as opposed to seeing everything from God’s perspective on high.  But the character models look awful up close, with PS2 era expressionless models and minimal texture mapping. The environments are great, but your agents look good from afar, but far from good up close. Of course games like ‘Fire Emblem’ do this zoom in thing too, but crucially you can turn it off when the novelty wears thin. I found it interrupted things, and the shifting perspective meant I lost track of where everyone was.

Once everything clicks into place; when you get a mastery of the myriad of icons and button combinations, the missions end up being quite tense and exhilarating. There’s always pleasure to be had, taking a momentary pause to let a guard patrol past you, only to shoot him in the back with a silenced gun on the next turn. Indeed, the missions become so enjoyable that when you’re forced back to base after their completion you long to be back on the field.

While the bulk of ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is a tactical turn based game, in-between stages you do more than upgrade your characters and equipment. Along with interrogating enemies and recruiting new members, you also have to piece together the intelligence you’ve procured. “Early in the production we decided the game should be about secrets” says Szymczak.  “As you go through the game you collect intel documents, which you then cross reference and connect them with a string on a board”. Szymczak makes it seem sexier than it is. This description makes it sound like that scene in so many spy movies, where a fast cut montage of press clippings and photographs are stuck to an evidence wall, quickly explaining how the investigators have cracked the case. In ‘Phantom Doctrine’ it is far, far, more laborious. Maybe reflective of how long it actually takes to link evidence together but not fun to do in a video game. In reviews, this section is frequently described as “busy work”. You methodically scour seemingly endless text, looking for curious words that you may have spotted elsewhere. Then you have to recall where you’ve seen it before and then link the two identical words up. After this, you have to do the same again, and again and again. What should be an optional mini game sometimes takes almost as long as a mission and it is really very dull. From your home base you can also research new equipment, though you shouldn’t expect to develop ‘James Bond’ style futuristic gadgets to give to your field agents. “It’s the 1980s cold war, the second most volatile period after the Cuban missile crisis, as the Soviet Union fell apart,” says designer Blazej Krakowiak. “So you’ve got mobile phones but they’re big and GPS exists but its clumsy! A modern espionage game would just be hacking from across the ocean, which is interesting but it’s not as fun.” It’s a fantastic time period to set the game, as it can include the campy 60’s style spy shenanigans that many of us are used to, but keep it relatable and more realistic. In a post Trump America, there’s a growing fear of communist China and Russia. “When we started doing cold war, we did worry if people still get it because it was a while ago” admits Kacper Szymczak. ”But now it’s suddenly so up to date”.

The story ‘Phantom Doctrine’ tells is a complicated one. The narrative is primarily driven by cut scenes, but you’ll only fully understand what is actually going on by reading every piece of text and intel you find in the game, and probably taking notes.  The game is set in a fictional 1983, albeit one that’s based on real life conspiracy theories and apparently “censored truths”. "The events you are about to see may have been buried or covered up” on screen text claims as you start the game.  “Those with traceable records have been marked with the specific date they occurred on. Verify at your own risk, but trust no one." It is a backdrop of paranoia; brainwashing and corruption are real dangers in a world controlled by a shadowy agency known as the Beholder Initiative. After customising your character you immediately pick between being a CIA or a KGB spy, codenamed Deadpan or Kodiak (dependant on the political allegiance). Ultimately your player comes to lead a secret resistance organization known as The Cabal, who wishes to expose and dismantle the Beholder Initiative. “We’ve put a lot of emphasis on the story, which is sometimes secondary in other tactics’ titles” says narrative designer Pavel Zagrebelny. “The story is divided into smaller chapters, with a big overriding plot to feel more like a TV series than a movie”. It has the makings of a gripping yarn, and by the conclusion of ‘Phantom Doctrine’ you would have been all over the globe on a twisting turning adventure. But while a complex plot may work over a ten hour TV series, it feels too much in an overly bloated game. “The intrigue had to be deep enough that you can discover it over 40 hours and not get bored in that time” says Zagrebelny. Unfortunately, something that happens in the first hour you’ve forgotten by the thirtieth. This makes it hard to connect the two, and you forget the consequence one may have on the other.  It reminds me of the much derived Bond film ‘Quantum of Solace’; many in the audience had no idea what was going on as it had been years since they had seen its prequel ‘Casino Royale’. Knowledge of the minutiae of the first was essential to follow the story of its sequel, without it the characters just seem to be talking nonsense.

Drenched in neon lights casting long shadows ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is incredibly atmospheric. The mood is certainly enhanced by a wonderful cinematic soundtrack composed by Marcin Przybyłowicz, best known for his work on ‘The Witcher’ and ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ games.  ‘Phantom Doctrine’ is a dark and moody, gritty game. “This is a very cruel world, where human life isn’t worth too much. We have a lot of stoic, poised, calm and cold agents, and most of the characters are not meant to be very emotional”. While this may be reflective of cold blooded killers, you never really feel that connected to any of the characters as a result. Everyone feels like a blank canvas. The game offers an “ironman” mode, where a character killed in a mission remains dead for the rest of the game. You’re far more likely to mourn the loss of “that character who has more awareness” than Rebecca, codename Night Sparrow. “We wanted this game to be big, and we wanted the campaign to be big, at least 40 hours” says Zagrebelny. After that long I should know who my agents are, they need to be more than just avatars on the field. In truth I have had a bigger bond with characters in ‘The Sims’ after playing with them for an hour (which coincidentally ‘Phantom Doctrine’ sometimes looks like!) It seems like the game is long, simply for the sake of being long and researching around the development explains why. “Our previous game ‘Hard West’ was criticised for being too short” admits Zagrebelny, “so the whole game was designed from the ground up to be longer.” But, in some ways this makes the game feel more intimidating, as not only is there a difficulty barrier to entry, but there is also a big time investment required to see it through to its conclusion.

‘Phantom Doctrine’ is simply going to be “too much” for the majority of players. Too hard, too complicated, too long. But it’s worth noting that “the majority” doesn’t mean everyone. I have no doubt that to a hardened ‘XCom’ veteran with time to spare; ‘Phantom Doctrine’ could very well be the perfect game. To them “too complicated” becomes “incredibly versatile and robust”, “too hard” evolves into “an enjoyable challenge” and “too long” naturally becomes “I never wanted it to end”. You just have to know what you’re signing up to. ‘Phantom Doctrine’ should never be “My First Tactical Strategy game” , if you’re buying it thinking this then you’re going to hate it – no matter how much you love spy films and the eighties setting.  Play ‘Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle’ first, then work your way up to ‘Phantom Doctrine’ if you enjoyed it. But if you are clamouring for the next ‘XCom’ sequel this game will certainly tide you over till it’s release, and may well become your favourite strategy franchise. I’d also wager you’d be excited for the ‘Phantom Doctrine’ sequel that’s just been announced.


A copy of this game was provided for free. 

The publisher and developer have not seen or had any influence on the content of this post prior to publication. 

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