Genre giant, Julian Gollop, is back to reignite the turn-based strategy world with Phoenix Point. Elements of his other works (UFO: Enemy Unknown and X-COM: Apocalypse) can be found here, but this latest offering stands on its own. Having such a prominent name attached to a project leads fans to demand a top-quality experience. Luckily, developer Snapshot Games has produced a highly entertaining ride, that despite small flaws, rises higher than our lofty expectations.
The year 2020 marks when humanity changed forever, as scientists discover an extraterrestrial ‘Pandoravirus’ melting from its permafrost state in Antarctica. All living beings that come into contact with the disease become horrible mutations, losing all memories and willpower. By the end of the same year, the world was almost entirely infected, leaving a wave of monstrosity and death everywhere. Phoenix Point was a secret cell ready to help humanity if such a catastrophe were to happen. The year is 2047, and you take up the last front of Project Phoenix. Your objective? Restore fallen bases and help humanity, at all costs.
With an accessible mode made for complete newcomers, Mr. Gollop has led a project that is meant to be for everyone: a challenging objective within this niche genre. There are several other difficulty tiers for the experts out there. The tutorial phase is a great way to learn everything you need to know, but, as usual, mastery comes with experience on the field. One of the best features included for those who like to test different scenarios is the ability to save your game at any time you desire so that you can try out different strategies at any given spot. This simple feature that some might see as cheating is, in reality, significant as it motivates different approaches while in combat.
As you’d expect, the game is turn-based that heavily emphasizes exploration and resource management. Gameplay-wise, each member of your squad uses Action Points that can be used to move, reload weapons, fire, cover other squad-mates, and hold the position. Soldiers have their own points and move one at a time. Effective strategies include flanking the enemy or searching for the best spot to use your member’s abilities.
When you come face to face with the terrifying abominations that are your opponents, players can use two different fire mechanics: the natural way that moderately aims at the enemy, and the first-person aim mode that has more precision. Both modes are represented by a double circle that determines the probability of success. The inner-circle can lead to 50%, while the outer circle has a 100% chance of damaging your foes. Hitting a specific limb of an enemy may cripple it and cause extra damage to effect statuses. Observing the animation of the injured further reveals the best area to shoot, which is a fantastic combination of mechanical design and tactical gameplay. Players are also free to aim at whatever they want across the area, which leads to even more strategy.
Most items on the battlefield can be used/destroyed to your advantage. One tactic is to blast through your opponent’s cover. However, the same applies to you as your hiding spots can become nothing more than an open invitation for enemy fire. This design choice opens more doors: for example, the combination of having a massive squad member blasting enemy harborage, while a sniper who hits that bullseye shot feels incredibly satisfying.
It should be noted that creatures have different defenses and attacks, so relying on one tactic like the one above will not serve you well. Your foes are varied in their assaults: from biological threats to chemical, and even from mind control. The last one is dangerous as your squad is manipulated to attack each other. While I felt the enemy A.I took advantage of some of their abilities, they fell for certain ambushes and strategies. It made battles feel natural and quite responsive.
Phoenix Point gives players a lot of freedom, as each squad member has a specialty that can be used to change the tide of battle. Snipers can benefit from long-range targets, and Heavies are less vulnerable to damage: this made them perfect for first encounters with the reliable support of the Assault Soldiers. And while a lot of factors can determine the success of your squad, aesthetics usually isn’t one of them. You might find that customizing your team’s armor, name, body type, gender, and even voice might make you want to keep them alive even more.
Each teammate will gain experience points based on their performance, and they can extend three main attributes: 1) Strength, which increases the number of items to carry and overall enforcement, 2) Will Power, which is the moral and psychological condition of the individual. If they lose their will, the soldier would panic or become insane. 3) Speed, which adds movement action points. Players must balance their team based on the combat preferences and the different rollouts of the stats above. Your special abilities can also be unlocked as perks, and these offer additional capabilities to be exploited in the field.
Although one of the strong points of the game is turn-based combat, thanks to Julian Gollop, this experience goes beyond what was found in the XCOM series. Phoenix Point’s exploration and resource management is equally important and well developed. At the Geoscape (world map), one can search and explore new points of interest to scavenge and interact with other factions on the planet. There are three main groups: The Disciples of Anu, New Jericho, and Synedrion. The first is a mix of religious and post-apocalyptic cults that firmly believe in an alien God. The second is human purists and intend to eradicate the alien forces at all costs, maintaining their domination. The last has the most advanced technology and seek a new and superior civilization for humanity.
Maintaining good relationships with each faction depends on the decisions you make along the way. Most times, pleasing one group will displease others, which will give a negative reputation. This mechanic intensifies on a second playthrough (or save-loaded replay), as players can stick with a faction and raid the others to steal resources or even their vehicles.
When exploring and discovering abandoned Phoenix bases on the Geoscape, players must restore them. This involves bringing back basic needs such as power stations, medical facilities, and all sorts of other buildings. These help boost your squad and can be extended, and each soldier that needs comfort and snacks. However, some aspects of base restoration are more narrative-driven.
The research function allows players to study alien corpses to understand their biology. This will improve your overall knowledge of what truly is the heart of this Pandoravirus. Relationships with other factions come back into play here and will also reveal more secrets to be a motivation to keep exploring. Unfortunately, the lore isn’t strong enough to make players grind through the game enough to get to the final answer. But it’s still there, present for both story enthusiasts and completionists alike.
Technical design and visuals are strong, but the real star is the gameplay mechanics. These are well developed, with procedurally generated environments and enemy mutations. The latter change aliens in their appearance and define their weak spots and defenses. This makes battles even more exciting and one-of-a-kind as you progress through the story.
Levels are based on different locations. As players travel across the globe on the Geoscape, each region will have its own design and atmosphere. This directly influences the level of the infection for that area. Some factions will also impact the world design with their themes and aesthetics marking the land. Overall, Phoenix Point’s presentation is impressive, aiming to deliver vast content and creativity within a procedurally-generated framework.
Developed in Unity, the game has some smart optimization. Those with medium-range cards such as GTX 1060 or AMD’s counterpart RX 570 or 580 can easily enjoy the game on High Settings, maintaining a stable framerate of 60fps. Other filters and additions can be toggled on or off, such as Chromatic Aberration, which is rare in Unity Games.
Phoenix Point is, without a doubt, one of the best strategy games to come out in the last few years. With an absorbing campaign and a captivating management system, the overall experience is fantastic. While the story could use some more attention, elements such as an excellent PC release and well utilized procedural mechanics show that Snapshot Games understand and love this genre. Julian Gollop has not lost his incredible skill as a top designer within the turn-based tactics field.
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