Phoenix Point had an intriguing development before it got launched in late 2019. Julian Gollop was the co-creator of the original X-COM, so its no surprise that Phoenix Point is like a spiritual successor, and a look at what Gallop thinks a modern XCOM game should be. The game’s development came through crowdfunding, but then controversy hit when the developers signed a 1-year exclusive deal with the Epic Game Store, angering fans who had donated money to the project under the belief it would be available on Steam. It was certainly a shady decision, and the developers must have surely known it would rankle their supporters. But for now let’s put that aside and review Phoenix Point, shall we?
The plot describes a world that has gone through a massive heat-wave, seemingly unleashing a virus that lay dormant in the arctic. Named the Pandoravirus it first infected the sea, rapidly mutating everything it came into contact with. Then came a strange mist that not only linked the Pandoravirus hive-mind but also acted another method of transmission, mutating everything it came across on land as well. We pick with humanity firmly on the back foot having been caught off guard by the unleashed virus which is creating almost Lovecraftian inspired creatures.
The narrative gets delivered in dribs and drabs as you play, the origin of the virus and the history of the Phoenix Point operation being revealed at a pleasing rate, at least in the opening hours. Later when you’re just trying to keep everything together, bouncing madly from problem to problem, the story pacing falters simply because it’s hard to find a moment to actually get to the main missions. Still, I found myself enjoying the slow uncovering of the mystery, even if the quality of the writing itself is pretty meh.
As it turns out Gollop’s vision is pretty close to the modern day XCOM games. Stop me if this sounds familiar: you’re in control of a group that needs to defend the world against invasion from strange creatures, which you’ll do by building up bases, recruiting soldiers and fighting in turn-based battles where death is permanent. Success in the campaign on your first go, or even your second or third, is unlikely.
However, Phoenix Point does bring plenty of its own ideas to the table, starting with how you take shots at the enemy. While XCOM displays what percentage of a chance you have of hitting the target, such as 60%, Phoenix Point gives you a circular reticule that gets bigger the farther away the target is. Your shot can land anywhere within that circle. It’s essentially the same thing, but the circle feels more intuitive. All the bullets are also individually modelled, so shots aren’t always a clear cut hit or miss.
The real bit of brilliance is how you can opt to aim the shot yourself. Not only does this let you finesse angles a bit, but it also allows the targeting of specific spots. Aside from the obvious inclination to shoot everything in the testicles, this lets you do stuff like destroy weapons, disable legs to reduce movements points or decimate an arm. Doing this can also remove a foe’s special skills, thus the deadly Chiron’s acid bombardments can be stopped by focusing fire on its abdomen while shooting a Siren in the face is a terrific way of reducing its mind-control powers. It’s a smart system that opens up new tactical options.
Another thing that gives you plenty of options is how Phoenix Point handles movement and shooting. Each squad member is allocated four action points to spend, and while XCOM ends your turn as soon as you fire a weapon Phoenix Point lets you mix actions however you like. That means you can move out of cover to get a better line of sight, take a shot and then move back into cover. It’s a much more fluid and interesting way of handling things, providing loads of flexibility in how you approach situations.
There’s also a healthy chunk of environmental destruction, with some weapons, big enemies and vehicles being capable of wrecking walls and bringing down ceilings. It keeps you from feeling completely safe while also presenting you with some fun opportunities. It looks rather silly, though, because different materials react exactly the same and nothing blows apart in a convincing manner. It’s weird to watch a chunk of concrete go bouncing around like it has no weight before magically fading away into nothingness.
Indeed, Phoenix Point as a whole is a challenging game, sometimes in a good way and sometimes not. Just like in XCOM a choice you make early in the game about what research to pursue or whether or not you search for new bases or any number of other things can leave you hurting later on. This is especially true on your first play through where failure is more than likely because you don’t really know what’s important yet, and the game isn’t fantastic at explaining certain things. And on the battlefield mistakes are punished harshly with dead soldiers staying dead permanently, and there’s not even a memorial wall to mourn the losses. These are mostly enjoyable challenges, though, the same kind that makes XCOM so satisfying to play – you lose, you learn and you come back better. But although it has been improved since launch, Phoenix Point is guilty of the difficulty suddenly ramping in and leaving you feeling like someone just kicked you in the unmentionables.
Just like XCOM, Phoenix Point is good at creating memorable stories and moments in its fights. You might remember bits and pieces of the plot, but more likely you’ll remember your sniper nailing a seemingly impossible shot across the map, saving one of your other guys from meeting an unpleasant and squishy end. Or you’ll remember the mercilessly destruction of your best squad as every single thing that can go wrong does, leaving you to watch helplessly as they are decimated.
Annoyingly it’s like the camera doesn’t want you to experience most of those moments, though. It has a nasty habit of floundering around, choosing daft angles or giving you a fantastic up-close shot of a bloody wall.
Still, for the most part the turn-based action of Phoenix Point does manage to capture the same tension and one-more-turn beauty of XCOM. It doesn’t last, though, because the game really does struggle toward and middle and end to hold your attention. There’s just so many skirmishes to be fought and so few enemy types that it becomes…well, tiresome. As for the collection of curious crustaceans and fantastical fish-monsters you’re fighting, they aren’t the smartest creatures to have crawled out of the ocean. They are prone to standing in the open, and don’t seem able to make true, deliberate use of the destructible environment. Nor do they appear to be capable of pulling of flanking manoeuvres without it being a complete accident, although I suppose you could argue that as mutated monsters the finer points of tactical combat may be lost on them. And sometimes enemy’s will just wander around like they’re looking for the contact lenses they dropped earlier But they still prove a hefty challenge, mostly due to sheer numbers but also because some of them are just bloody massive. Then there are things like the Siren, a snake-like creature capable of mind controlling your troops, or the Mindflogger which literally latches onto a soldiers head and takes them over completely, at least until you manage to punch or shoot it off.
As you level up your soldiers they’ll get access to new abilities and skills, with the way you use them being another of Phoenix Points more intriguing ideas. Basically, each soldier has Will Power points (which you can increase when levelling them up) and by spending those they can activate their cool stuff. The catch is that when Will Power hits zero they’ll freak out, and the same goes for the enemy. Points can be regained through a couple of methods, but the most notable is by killing enemies. On the flipside, a team-mate getting murderized causes the whole team to lose points. It’s a cool way to add yet another layer of risk vs reward into the already tense and engaging combat.
Another cool thing about your troops is that you get an option to train them up in any other class you currently have access to, leading to some pretty fun mixes. Personally, I was a fan of mixing a sniper with the heavy class, because then I could get a skill which traded 50% accuracy for a burst of five shots. Used at the right time it can swing the tide of a fight. Combine this with how you can change out armour and gear and you’ve got a nice, versatile system. Good stuff.
The battlegrounds on which you fight your fishy foes are all pieced together randomly using an assortment of tiles, which in theory helps keep things interesting. In reality it means there are no memorable locations, and since the pool of tiles the game draws from isn’t huge most areas look the same. But given the nature of Phoenix Point it likely would have been too time-consuming and cost far too much to create enough bespoke maps, so ultimately I don’t have much of a problem with the small arenas.
Outside of the turn-based combat you get to try your hand at managing bases, recruiting new soldiers and defending the rest of humanity from a horrible death at the pincers of strange sea monsters. You do this by loading up aircraft with your soldiers and then heading out to various nodes scattered around the map which you can find by performing scans. These will often be scavenging missions, a prime source for the materials needed to expand, produce new gear and recruit soldiers. But you’ll also come across side-missions, new bases or havens where the remnants of humanity are hiding out.
Speaking of the havens, there are three distinct factions that exist within the world of Phoenix Point, each of which is busy doing there own research and trying to fend off attacks from the Pandorans. There’s New Jericho, a militaristic regime spearheaded by a charismatic leader; the Synedrions are busy trying to figure out how to structure a new society: and finally the Disciples of Anu are basically a bonkers cult who are all up for harnessing mutations. And in true human fashion all thee hate each other and cannot be bothered putting aside their differences to combat the true threat.
These guys are vital to your efforts because they are the source of new recruits, so by defending their havens and destroying Pandoran nests you’ll improve your relationships with them, which also eventually unlocks their research trees for your own devious use. Unfortunately for you, and in the world in general, none of these three factions get along very well, so helping one typically means pissing off another. And indeed, to become allied with a faction and gain all the benefits of doing so, you’ll need to complete their special diplomacy missions which typically involve raiding or sabotaging the other factions. In theory this should push you toward picking a faction above else, but I actually found that I was easily able to maintain a solid relationship with two factions, whilst being fully allied with another. Personally, I feel opting to go in fully with one faction should have been a bigger decision than it felt.
You can deliberately get on a faction’s bad side by actively attacking them, raiding their havens for aircraft, resources and other potentially useful stuff.
Research and new technology is handled in a strange manner, too. In the likes of XCOM there’s a pretty clear progression in terms of gear, but Phoenix Point opts for a more level playing field. While some weapons and tech are clearly better than their predecessors, for the most part the equipment you can build and use to kit out your troops is quite even. On the one hand, I miss the sense of obvious progression, but on the other hand it does make almost all of the weapons, armour and items viable. It’s less about what’s statistically better, and more about what works for you.
Before we bring this train-wreck of words to a screeching halt I need to chat about the raw performance, which is rather questionable. This isn’t a great looking game, but it’s certainly passable. Considering, then, that it isn’t pushing the boundaries of visuals and has been out for several months it amazes me how much it stutters. It’s even worse if you’ve set fire to anything. It’s like the sight of flames terrifies Phoenix Point. But the worst offender seems to be the Synedrion maps which feature lots of glass.
While I don’t think it manages to match XCOM 2 or XCOM: Enemy Unknown, Phoenix Point is still a solid addition to the genre, and while it’s certainly rough around the edges it’s absolutely worth playing if you’re looking to scratch that turn-based itch.
3 out of 5