As far as I’m concerned, the more takes on the classic X-COM formula of battling alien invasions on both a tactical and global scale the merrier. Phoenix Point has the distinction of being designed by the original creator of that formula, Julian Gollop, and it has some clever ideas that seem to respond to the acclaimed Firaxis-developed XCOM games that streamlined his original concept by reviving some of its famous complexity. Many of those ideas aren’t all that refined, though, and some wild balance swings and general bugginess make turning the tide against the invaders more of an uphill battle than usual.
Here, the unwelcome guests humanity is fighting are a combination of people and sea life that’ve been melded together by an alien virus unleashed by melting ice caps, which explains why many of the mutated enemies look like the revenge of the Red Lobster buffet. Basic grunts are an ugly jumble of crab-like parts and organic guns but some of the limited variety of more elaborate enemies have genuinely weird and creepy animations.
Phoenix Point’s look and feel is very clearly visually inspired by Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, though without quite as much visual polish or customization variety in how you deck out your soldiers (and really, can we ever have enough hats for our squads?). But while the basic ideas are similar, it takes a significantly different approach to nearly every mechanic. There are too many differences to list, but the trend is toward more complexity in everything from bringing back time units for soldier actions to body part-specific targeting and bullet physics to battlefield inventory management. Some of those are fun, flexible ideas that produce more memorable moments than they do busywork – like being able to shoot the gun out of an enemy’s hand before they can kill you with it – but more complex doesn’t always mean deeper gameplay.
When you take aim at a target, there’s a circle representing the range of possibilities where your shot might land based on your weapon accuracy and your soldier’s skills, which gives you a pretty good visual representation of your odds instead of the cold hard number we’re used to. If you’re trying to blow off a specific alien limb that’s sticking out, it’s going to be a lot harder to score a hit than aiming center mass and filling your entire scope with alien mass.
It’s an interesting approach because one of the common frustrations with XCOM is that the graphical light show that accompanies firing weapons is just window dressing for the dice rolls that determine the results, which leads to some instances where it looks like you’ve hit a target but you haven’t. Phoenix Point goes to the extreme other direction: every shot is modeled realistically, including individual bullets in an assault rifle’s spray. That’s great, except when things literally get in the way, which they pretty frequently do (and it’s sometimes hard to tell without zooming in on every shot). How much of an enemy is exposed is even frustratingly affected by their idle animations, which is odd because time is supposedly stopped.
Another weird thing is that low-slung weapons like heavy machine guns and cannons are often blocked by your own cover, which means the UI will sometimes tell you you’ll have a clear line of fire if you move to a location but when you get there there’s no shot. It also means cover doesn’t work how an XCOM player expects: even though it uses the familiar half and full-shield icons in to indicate how good your cover is, even in full cover you’ll probably take some hits when an enemy sprays you with machine gun fire. It’s virtually impossible to avoid damage like you can in XCOM, which took some getting used to.
Nearly every shot you take (with the exception of weapons like grenade launchers) gives you the option to zoom in and target a specific body part. Much like in Fallout, it’s pretty satisfying to blow off a chunk of a crab-man’s arm to cripple its weapons or shoot a face-hugging mind-control unit off an ally’s head with a well-aimed pistol. At the same time, the fact that headshots don’t necessarily do more damage but do affect mental abilities and Willpower points is a good twist that means it’s not always a no-brainer target.
That Willpower stat is also smart because it’s used as a combination of a mana pool for all special abilities and a morale system. The more you use your jetpack or movement-boosting dash or manual turret control, the more vulnerable you leave yourself to psychic attacks and panic. That’s a much more interesting tradeoff than a simple mana meter.
Phoenix Point’s seven soldier classes and abilities are reasonably diverse, if not especially inventive, and you have some degree of control over who you recruit based on which of the three factions’ bases you go shopping at: the authoritarian New Jericho troops are heavily armored, the futuristic ecologist Synedrion are stealthy, and the Disciples of Anu are weirdo cultists who are big on melee weapons (and can use mind control). Where it gets interesting is when a soldier hits level four and can unlock skills from a different class, which opens up possibilities like a Sniper with the Heavy’s Rage Burst ability, allowing you to empty your powerful rifle’s magazine into a distant target for massive damage. Some of these combos are questionably balanced because of how strong they are under the right conditions, but that can make them all the more satisfying. In any case, it sure feels good to drag and drop gear and ammunition onto soldiers’ loadout screens again – I’ve missed that level of control, even if it means having to manually top off ammo ahead of a mission.
Like most X-COM-style games, Phoenix Point’s tactical maps are procedurally assembled from pools of parts, which has the benefit of keeping them from becoming too predictable but also tends to keep them from being especially memorable. There’s a small number of tilesets to draw from here – urban, junkyard, and one for each faction – and they mostly look respectable until the janky destruction comes into play, with pieces falling off and quickly vanishing. And some of them are not well optimized at all, which is especially apparent when the camera zooms out for a long grenade shot and the frame rate slows to a crawl no matter what high-end hardware you have. One time I had to restart a mission because an enemy spawned inside some indestructible terrain – it could shoot me but I couldn’t shoot it.
The most common mission types have you defending resource crates or structures from attacking aliens, and you keep the surviving spoils. Those get fairly old, especially since the enemy will often destroy a few crates before you have a chance to get close enough to stop them, but there are a fair number of other types that pop up from time to time. Those include defending faction settlements from attacks in which you must rescue civilians and destroying enemy nests from which those attacks are launched and, of course, base defense. There are also story missions occasionally, and while it’s nice to have more hand-crafted scenarios once in a while some of them are pretty annoying, such as one that sends you to retrieve an objective on the opposite side of a large map and then makes you walk your whole squad back even though you’ve already cleared out all the baddies. And, due the procedural nature of the mission generation, I’ve had some laughable ones where the objective was in range of my snipers in the first turn.
The global geoscape map, which faithfully reflects the climate change cautionary tale fiction by submerging most of Florida, among other places, actually doesn’t add a lot of complexity to what we’re used to. In fact, it’s in some ways simpler than Firaxis’ XCOM. Base management, for example, is so simple it’s depressing, with no adjacency bonuses or anything to consider when placing buildings and no defensive advantages. Meanwhile, all you’re really doing is moving your dropships from map node to map node and scanning each one, and you’re slowed down only by needing to do radar sweeps of each area to uncover new nodes. The rewards for scanning them are discovering faction outposts, mission opportunities, and random story bits with moral questions that affect your relationships with each faction (such as what to do with defectors or who to turn pieces of technology over to).
These faction relationships are one of Phoenix Point’s best strategy-level ideas, and they’re crucially important because they double as a major part of the tech tree: while you do have to capture and research aliens for a fair amount of things, most of the gear you get comes from the factions you align yourself with – and half the time they’re sending you after one of the others and will even directly go to war with each other, trashing each other’s outposts if you don’t intervene.
There’s some great stuff here, like being able to raid human faction outposts to steal resources, technology, or even dropships through special missions. In a lot of ways it’s the kind of meaningful faction interaction I wanted but didn’t get out of XCOM 2’s War of the Chosen expansion. On the other hand, the way the tech tree works is confusing as a result, and progression isn’t nearly as satisfying as the traditional tech tier system because you rarely get new guns that are flat-out better than what you had at the beginning – even as the enemies’ stats improve by sometimes large amounts as you reach various story milestones.
The real problem – the one that forced me to give up on actually finishing a campaign for this review after more than 40 hours of attempts – is that at a certain point the difficulty goes absolutely crazy. Two separate campaign attempts were thwarted by mandatory story missions that put me up against multiple heavily armored artillery units that shelled me into oblivion from across the map while infantry forces slowed me down as I tried to reach them. This included one where the field was crowded with four extremely tough Sirens, which are creepy millipede-like units that can each mind-control two Phoenix soldiers in a single turn – and taking one down even as a big chunk of your roughly eight-person squad’s collective firepower turned against you is no small feat. It’s absolutely vicious.
I’m not saying these missions are impossible to beat with the right squad composition and a fair amount of luck (since the bombardments aren’t super accurate) but they sure stopped me dead in my tracks. I’m certain I made significant mistakes and oversights as I learned how everything worked, but this was on the “normal” Veteran difficulty – only the second of four. As someone who routinely plays XCOM 2 on Commander difficulty, it seems extreme. According to the developers at Snapshot Games, the difficulty is at least partially dynamic and will adjust to better match your skill – but this seemed to work against me because it’s taken to absurd extremes, especially if you make use of the restart mission button to prevent squad wipes.
That’s one of many areas of Phoenix Point that needs some fine-tuning. I could list dozens of issues that reflect a general lack of polish, from the absence of features like key remapping or announcing which of your soldiers was just killed, or conveniences like being able to switch to another soldier after you’ve given a movement order but before the animation has played out, to frequent small glitches and outright unfinished descriptions for items and research options that simply say “Needs Text.” Phoenix Point has the feel of a game that could’ve used another six months or more in development to iron out issues and fill in the gaps that are needed in such a direct competitor to Firaxis’ XCOM games.