Now, CreativeForge Games’ Phantom Doctrine didn’t enjoy the best of receptions when it launched on Steam on August 14, and in the two weeks since the release has seen five patches introduced to help improve a handful of the mechanics that have been widely criticized in the meantime.
From visualizations of characters leaning out of full cover (instead of visually being shot through walls) to User face redesigns, Phantom Doctrine has been seeing reactive changes to many of the complaints the player base has voiced. On the one hand, these efforts to refine the overall user experience are commendable, and the game really is polishing up where it is needed most. But on the other hand, it makes forming an opinion on the time spent with the game an incomplete one, as the picture it paints today might be different to the one it represents tomorrow. With this in mind, the game I played was around Patch 1.0.2, so some of my concerns are likely to have been addressed for those of you looking to grab it in the future.
So, what is Phantom Doctrine really? Well, those familiar with the X-Com franchise will immediately recognize the tile-based UI and isometric view, but assuming Phantom Doctrine is happy emulating the ‘tried and tested’ is far from the truth, as Phantom Doctrine takes some of the fundamentals of cover-based combat and reinvents it. Gone are the days of shots missing thanks to RNG, as ‘awareness’, a mechanic introduced to display how alert an agent is, will dictate how much damage is inflicted from shots that always connect… unless you have high awareness, so they might graze, or you might dodge it completely… And I’m not sure how it actually calculates either… What IS apparent however is the strong story narrative and tactical gameplay.
Phantom Doctrine will have you commanding agents and support casts as you infiltrate, assassinate, steal, and generally shoot your way through tight environments and even tighter enemies (they really don’t miss).
At it’s heart Phantom Doctrine is an ‘espionage thriller’, set during the peak of the Cold War, but the turn-based nature sadly conflicts with the art of stealth. Fluidity is what comes to mind when I picture spies navigating restricted areas, clinging to the shadows or hiding in plain sight, but always reacting to enemy movements and developing situations as they occur. Moving to a corridor and then having to wait inactively as an enemy walks around the corner and triggers combat is such a horrid experience, and one that is often difficult to foresee as the environments are largely indoors.
Once stealth goes out the window Phantom Doctrine becomes a real slog as enemies appear from off-screen in all directions, and shot after shot chips away at your agents’ health bars with laser precision. I truly believe they missed a trick when they decided that the entire mission would be turn-based, instead of adopting a Divinity 2 approach and letting the player move around in real time until combat began. This would have offered a more rewarding ingress, as you could position your agents at multiple points and observe AI patterns before deciding on where and when to strike.
This lack of meaningful observation, combined with the confined spaces and restricted line of sights, led to me stumbling into combat more than executing it myself. For a game pushing intelligence to the front, it likes to hide a lot of information from the player, and most of the missions had me bounding from cover to cover until someone noticed and raised the alarm. This could have been addressed much earlier by introducing silencers as a standard, something you would expect to be readily available for an outfit such as this, but spending the early missions without them promoted a style of play quite difficult for a newcomer to achieve.
The combat in a game such as this needs to feel enjoyable and fair, and Phantom Doctrine struggles on both fronts. Having awareness determine shot damage and accuracy more than cover often felt like a slap in the face, as I would position an agent behind full cover, only to have them step out from it as an enemy took aim. Why put them into cover in the first place? Your guess is as good as mine. It’s also quite a task positioning agents during these encounters, as often the objectives would be positioned in a way that exposes an agent from multiple sides. This isn’t a deliberate push against an opposing force, keeping your enemy in front of you, it’s delving into an anthill and sighing when the enemy pops up in your pocket.
Outside of missions, the real espionage shines through as you will be sending operatives across the globe in the hopes of gathering intelligence to advance the plot. Documents and intel gathered are all handled via the Investigation Board, pinning documents and photographs and stringing meaningful connections between them. This is a nice little touch, but largely underutilized, as making the connections either work or don’t, there isn’t room for incorrect ones.
The intel itself also requires you to click on significant words and phrases to help make the right connections, but understanding the documents is largely superficial. I actually enjoyed this side of the game more than the missions, as sending agents to locations introduced some nice management aspects to the game. Leaving some locations unattended might see enemy operatives taking up residence, meaning counter-intelligence also needed consideration.
There are other aspects to being back at base, as some agents will need to be rested to recover from missions, while others are tasked with researching new tools to help in further missions. It is also here where agents can improve their versatility via perks acquired, adding more diversity to your roster and allowing for agents to specialise in certain areas. It’s quite a standard approach, but the man management aspect isn’t done poorly here.
Visually Phantom Doctrine looks polished, especially in the more spacious levels with action taking place outside. Navigating around buildings at night in the rain really pushes the flavor of infiltration, and the lighting and sound design don’t distract, but instead adds to the tension as you cautiously try to find your best path towards your objective. CreativeForge Games have captured the aesthetic perfectly. Inside is where things can become a little cluttered and nondescript, but this is likely more in line with the era.
One thing that the visuals didn’t represent (but which has since been worked on) was the action of ‘sidestepping’, or Phantom Doctrine‘s approach to a more fluid combat when working with square tiles. In theory, having an agent in his immediate tile, and also in adjacent tiles for the sake of Line of sight meant you could use cover in a realistic way during your turn. You would expect your agent to peer around the corner and be able to shoot at an enemy a few feet away. The issue is when it is the enemies turn, and you want your guy to stay behind cover.
Before the sidestep animation was clear, enemies were seen to be shooting agents through walls, something which confuses unless you are aware of the design. Even with the visuals patched in, the idea of being in one place and also every surrounding square means it can be quite difficult finding suitable cover from more than one direction as this system visually misleads, something which exacerbates my earlier concerns around the combat.
It is important to note that this WAS something that Phantom Doctrine needed to tackle, with much of the game taking place indoors a more robust system needed to be implemented to allow the combat to flow at larger distances than rooms and corridors would allow a more standard cover design.
Phantom Doctrine is a game of three faces. The game outside of missions is flavored just right and really emphasizes how tall an order it is for a small collection to be everywhere at once. The game inside the missions, however, is a game of two halves, and neither feels right. Stealth and espionage in this turn-based system have such a large margin for error, that once invoked is irreversible; there is no re-entering stealth. Combat once in full flight is poorly represented, as angles are no longer clear due to the way cover and position is calculated.
For a strategy game, having the player constantly thinking ‘I don’t actually know if this will work how I think it will’ is a bad sign, one further stressed upon by the lack of information available in the confines of an office building. For those of you with a real passion for this form of gameplay, I believe Phantom Doctrine does have the tools for you if you have the patience for it. For the rest of us, Phantom Doctrine is likely to prove too frustrating in its representation, too unfair in its design, and too stingy with its information.