Phoenix Point

Platform(s): PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Genre: RPG/Strategy
Developer: Snapshot Games
Release Date: Dec. 3, 2019

About Chris Barnes

There's few things I'd sell my soul to the devil for. However, the ability to grow a solid moustache? I'd probably sign that contract ... maybe ... (definitely).


As an Amazon Associate, we earn commission from qualifying purchases.

PC Review - 'Phoenix Point'

by Chris Barnes on Feb. 7, 2020 @ 12:30 a.m. PST

Phoenix Point is a turn-based tactics and world-based strategy sci-fi game by the original X-COM game designer.

In 1994, Julian Gollup levitated the strategy tactics genre to new heights with the release of X-COM: UFO Defense. Since then, he's been relatively quiet, floating behind the scenes of the gaming industry while contributing to minor projects. Chaos Reborn felt like the start of his redemption story, but the release of Phoenix Point finally reveals the genius of the man who released the galactic strategy classic all those years ago. As the name implies, Phoenix Point is Gollup's effort to rise from the ashes and breathe new life into an industry that's been sorely lacking in solid strategy games. There are blemishes to pick at in Phoenix Point that may turn away casual players, but otherwise, it's an excellent strategy game for genre aficionados.

I often hate writing reviews through a comparative lens, but it seems fitting in this specific case. Gollup has taken the roots of the X-COM franchise and made subtle but satisfying tweaks to the formula. Players will find themselves in a familiar situation. A hostile, alien invasion is underway on Earth, and the opposition is slowly dispersing across the globe. The Phoenix Project, a top-secret research organization headed up by Dr. Symes, was tasked with stopping the impending doom of Earth, but the project was all but forgotten following the doctor's demise. The player begins the game by bringing a base online. It's up to you to lead the forces on the battlefield to fight the invading hostile forces and reclaim the Earth.

To accomplish this, you'll oversee the global invasion through a map view. You can see where the enemy presence is most heavily located, view locations of friendly factions, unlock new bases across the seven continents, and more. The game starts at a manageable pace, with just one aircraft and a handful of soldiers under your control. As the game progresses, you'll invest time and resources toward tech research and building materials. This allows you to upgrade your soldiers' equipment, build new aircraft, and add buildings to your bases for extra perks. This process comes with the stress of the ever-growing enemy force, which is tracked through a meter that can't reach 100%. Otherwise, the player is greeted with an underwhelming cut scene, and the game's over.

While this loop will seem familiar to those acquainted with the X-COM series, there's a tediousness to it in Phoenix Point that may drive away more casual fans. I was always eager to progress and unlock new research and items in X-COM, but the same can't be said here. Players must navigate the globe with their aircraft to assist alliance factions, discover points of interest, and start story missions. Assisting ally factions adds to your diplomacy meter with that faction, which results in faction-specific technology unlocks. Other locations offer additional resources to draft ammo, guns, first aid packs, and vehicles. Unfortunately, the map is littered with these interest points, and it constantly felt like the clock was being paused.

Like its spiritual predecessors, there's a combat layer to Phoenix Point when you visit certain locations on the map. This is where the game's strengths lie, and it's what will draw players back for more alien-shooting fun. The core concept remains the same. Combat is turn-based, and your soldiers have a limited number of action points in a turn. Cover is scattered across the battlefield that can offer half or full cover, depending on its height.

The subtle but genius tweaks to the original formula really impressed me. Soldier movement is much improved, so players can have more flexibility in balancing traversal and shooting. Unlike X-COM, fractional points can be used for movement. The point allocation and turn-ends never seemed weird or limiting in X-COM, but I'm curious how I'd feel returning to the series after playing Phoenix Point. In hindsight, everything in X-COM felt arbitrary. Taking a shot prevents a soldier from taking additional actions. Movement is divided between two grids, and crossing a magical line meant the expenditure of another point. In Phoenix Point, there's so much more flexibility. Soldiers have four total action points, and movement takes away fractional points. This allows you to move a couple of tiles away, take cover, and still have three points for other actions. Alternatively, this means you can move forward, take your shot in a wide-open space, and still have points left over to take cover after firing. It's a freedom I never knew I was missing, and it makes for much more satisfying enemy encounters.

Another frustration that players won't miss are the aneurism-inducing RNG elements when attacking. When firing at an enemy, players can enter a free aim mode that displays a reticle (differing sizes, depending on the weapon). If the enemy is only taking up a portion of the reticle, there's a chance of missing your shot, but the system seems so much clearer and more intuitive. Even better is the ballistic system in Phoenix Point. Taking your shots isn't a binary stab at an RNG percentage. Each shot is calculated individually and has a chance to hit environmental obstructions along the way. It's a system that offers cleaner communication to the player and reduces the wonky and ever-present clipping in the X-COM series.

The free aim mode is more important than just a visual guide to communicate the chance of a hit. It also allows players to target specific body parts and equipment on enemies. Destroying some enemy body parts may result in beneficial status effects, like bleeding, while others may remove an enemy's access to certain abilities. This becomes increasingly critical as you encounter more terrifying foes in the latter half of the game. Your soldiers quickly graduate from simple grunt aliens to slithering scythe beasts with mind control abilities. It's critical to target the various body parts of these foreign foes if you wish to turn the tide of battle in your favor. Your soldiers are susceptible to the same dangers of combat as their enemies. Losing a limb or leg can lead to a deduction in willpower points and cut off access to abilities that are crucial to your success. Therefore, it's critical to reduce damage in combat.

If you're skilled enough to let your soldiers scrape by unscathed, victory on the battlefield results in XP. Experience can be spent on soldiers to unlock new perks and abilities or purchase base attribute points. These attribute points (speed, strength and willpower) affect a number of things in battle, including carry limits, health points, tile movement, and willpower points to use special abilities.

These points don't come easy, though. Skirmishes in Phoenix Point are rewarding but extremely demanding. If the depth and tediousness to the overworld meta game doesn't drive away genre newcomers, then the difficulty curve might. I found the mid-game to be very tough. My first run felt like it was going so well, but after 10 hours of minimal challenge, all of my bad habits and poor investments quickly caught up to me. This resulted in the death of all of my soldiers, and I was left with few resources to rebuild. Alas, I had nothing left but the minor satisfaction of watching the "game over" meter fill while the enemy presence spread its claws across the globe.

The story clips in Phoenix Point, including the various endings, are all presented as Ken Burns-inspired vignettes, with a melancholy narrative voice-over to set the tone. It gets the job done, but it makes it clear that this isn't a high-budget strategy game backed by a publisher like 2K. Somewhere, there had to be cuts, and it's obvious the story is where Snapshot made concessions. This only solidifies my point that this title is intended for strategy game gurus. Newcomers won't find any flash or forgiveness in the story or difficulty; this is a hardcore strategy game through and through.

None of those points deter from my overall enjoyment of Phoenix Point, though. It's a fantastic game, and I'm excited to see what Gollup has in mind for DLC. I certainly plan to play more of this game and improve my tactics. At the moment, my only Phoenix-like revival skills lie in save scumming.

Score: 7.9/10

More articles about Phoenix Point
blog comments powered by Disqus