X-Com is back! And it’s brought a bunch of hateful, griping idiots with it.
That’s not a slight on Julian Gollop, Phoenix Point’s designer and co-creator of X-Com, though he did cause a stir by making this crowd-funded game an Epic Store exclusive. The idiots in question are the leaders of Phoenix Point’s three factions who, in this spiritual successor to the alien-hunting strategy game, are constantly at each other’s throats.
It doesn’t matter that Cthulhu is squatting on their doorsteps, that millions of people marched into the ocean, emerged as horrific aquatic mutants, and laid waste to the world. They’re happy to assault each others’ havens, roping you into their conflicts if you want their assistance. And since you’re building your own organisation from scratch, you’re at a disadvantage if you don’t get your hands on their tech and resources.
It’s an odd dynamic, one that takes some getting used to, particularly if you’ve spent time with Gollop’s original. There are three factions; a well-meaning collective, a cult that probably keeps an eldritch creature in their basement, and an army led by a billionaire who everyone thinks is God until he invents a papier-mâché flamethrower. There were times I welcomed their help, and the opportunity to deliver a little diplomacy, since the alternative was going through post-apocalyptic skips for scraps. Other times I resented Phoenix Point for undercutting the independence I’d enjoyed playing the original X-Com.
But that’s my biggest bugbear with Phoenix Point, which is easily the best strategy game I’ve played in ages. There’s a Lovecraftian narrative and a definite endgame, but the day-to-day business of pushing back against the slimy things never gets old. Your organisation, the Phoenix Project, starts off with one tiny base and a limited view of the world map. Through turn-based combat, research and co-operation you expand your operations to the point where your foes, the Pandorans, are driven back to the sea.
In theory, that is. The most appealing aspect of Phoenix Point is the way it surprises you with new enemies and new foes, just when you think you’ve got the upper hand. Taking another cue from X-Com, combat takes place on an isometric battlefield, with objectives that are more varied than just annihilating everything in sight. Another bonus is the way that many objects are destructible; I had a rude awakening when the wall one of my team was crouching behind crumbled, leaving them defenceless.
Ten missions later, when I was ploughing through walls in a mini-tank and cackling like a maniac, I didn’t mind so much. But that was when Phoenix Point decided to play catch-up and pitch me against a previously unseen behemoth who demolished the vehicle I’d spent a ridiculous amount of resources manufacturing. The game’s enemies are smart enough (at standard difficulty) to give you a run for your money, employing tactics that force you to second-guess your own.
Having your squad clump together, each watching one approach seems clever, up until you notice a flaming grenade descending on your position. Permadeath is an obstacle, particularly since your soldiers level up, but I resorted to reloading the game when I’d lost half my squad. Not because I didn’t want to admit to my mistakes (success is so very sweet in Phoenix Point) but because recruiting new soldiers is a bit of a pain.
You’ll feel guilty about losing Dave Spanners to a facehugger and seeing Chunky LaFunga get murdered by a giant crab, but you’re also having to roam the globe to get new soldiers while events tick on. Logistically, it makes sense that you wouldn’t have a massive pool of soldiers doing nothing, but it’s frustrating to be reminded that Haven X is under attack and you’ve only got half a squad.
Phoenix Point’s combat is such a joy that the game could be about shooting sentient trains in the face and it’d still worth playing. Destructible scenery aside, zooming in to watch an enemy get taken down and being able to manually take shots is one of many neat touches. But what further elevates the game is the way it drip feeds you its unsettling lore. You’ll uncover some of the game’s secrets through research, uncovering the distressing genetic composition of the creatures who have been trying to murder you. But you’ll also get intermittent messages, advising you of the soldier who killed his squad then sat quietly till he starved to death.
Phoenix Point doesn’t quite have the sense of urgency as X-Com did, since there’s already been an apocalypse, but watching the Pandora’s influence slowly rise reminds you that you should actually be doing something and resource gathering, as essential as it is, isn’t a substitute for uncovering the true origins of your enemy. There are lot of barnacle-encrusted plates to juggle when playing Phoenix Point; don’t expect your first run to end with anything other than humanity’s doom, but you’ll rarely resent the game for it. And, each victory, no matter how fleeting, is a real rush.
Phoenix Point’s blend of combat, research management and global exploration is thoroughly compelling, even if the factions can be a little trying. Whether you’ve got fond memories of Julian Gollop’s original game or not, he and his team have taken old school strategy and dragged it kicking, screaming and gurgling into the modern day.