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The Rally Point: Phoenix Point's final form still frustrates as much as it innovates

Enhancement under the sea

Do you ever feel like you're sitting down with a game like a worried parent, saying "I just don't know what to do with you?" Because that's how I feel about Phoenix Point after the last few months of playing it on and off. I’ve definitely enjoyed it more than on its release in 2019, and its DLC adds more to think about and manage during what were once long lull periods. There's a lot to like about its final form. There's also a lot to... I don't quite want to say hate, but I'm also not quite sure why. It's one of the most evenly mixed bags I've ever rummaged around in.

When I (very quickly) got sick of the XCOM games, I uninstalled them. When I got sick of Phoenix Point, I started a new game. I like it overall, but after two and a half years of updates, it remains a frustrating game. This is no remake. Its influences include almost every effort to advance what is arguably a genre of its own since the release of its great-grandfather UFO in 1994. Prior to 2012's XCOM, most of those efforts were okay at best, but some were doing interesting things, and it's those things that Snapshot Games cherry picked from and formed into something fresh.

Replacing aliens with post-apocalyptic, Lovecraftian sea mutants (Pandorans) changes the structure as well as the tone, for starters. With the world already wrecked, there's no sitting around waiting for invaders. You actively explore the globe, reactivating abandoned bases, scavenging for resources, setting off flavour events with multiple choices, and chasing plot threads. Many of the locations you discover are occupied by human factions who'll trade food, machine parts, or science juice. Some offer a side quest or recruit for hire. You can raid them for resources, stolen aircraft and unique technologies, but must balance all this with the main priority: protecting humanity from Pandoran attacks.

Base management is surprisingly lacklustre. They're not the vital fortresses you'd expect from an XCOM game, and are mostly used to bridge the gap to the next plot-critical spots and triangulate Pandoran bases, which takes some getting used to conceptually. Uncovering the history of your own faction, the Phoenix Project, and its work are your only hope, since merely shooting monsters as they come is a losing battle. The plot ties in to the history and relations of the factions too, and it's a colourful enough ride. Overall, Phoenix Point feels more active on the strategy side. You're always flying off somewhere, scooping up resources, doing little side missions or trading or uncovering more areas. There's less of the waiting around, although there is a lot of repetition.

Three officials argue in a hallway in Phoenix Point.

But on the tactical side, things are more mixed. Despite its retro influences, Phoenix Point isn't an appeal to nostalgia. It takes notes from the Firaxes XCOMses too, but customises rather than copying them outright. Instead of the standard two-actions design, or a super-granular system with dozens of time units, Phoenix Point splits the difference somewhat. Soldiers have four action points, and can perform actions in any order rather than shooting immediately ending a turn. Even using up one AP on movement doesn't have to be done in one stroke. Unlike XCOM's frankly terrible way of forcing you to commit all or nothing, you can move in discrete portions, adjusting your path as needed, or even fire and still resume one AP's worth of movement.

It marries the simplicity of XCOM with the gnarly simulation of a UFO or Jagged Alliance, offering far more room for possibilities than the former without the pedantry and hassle of the latter.

It marries the simplicity of XCOM with the gnarly simulation of a UFO or Jagged Alliance, offering far more room for possibilities than the former without the pedantry and hassle of the latter. Its most visible innovation though is the overwatch system (which I somehow forgot to mention it before, although Stirring Abyss uses a comparable system). Anyone can enter overwatch, and instead of a blanket "attack anything in range", you determine the range and width of a cone of fire to cover. It combines well, though not seamlessly, with the direct aiming option, which swooshes the camera into a first person view so you can judge angles and obstacles.

Just like Silent Storm, Phoenix Point models every shot taken rather than rolling dice for an abstracted attack that either hits or does nothing. Aiming a gun displays a radius within which each bullet might land, and each projectile will hit something. Taking cover isn't abstracted either; things protect you only if they intersect a bullet's path. You can shoot through thin gaps or the tightest of angles for full damage. This is taken further still with a locational damage system similar to Fallout's VATS, and the multi-limbed arrangement of most monsters takes full advantage of this. One hit kills are rare outside the weakest enemies, so it's often best to aim for a limb first, weakening a target by causing bleeding injuries and disabling its special abilities.

A robed warrior aims their gun in Phoenix Point.
A soldier aims their gun at an alien in Phoenix Point.
A colourful warrior hides behind cover in Phoenix Point.

This system is definitely where Phoenix Point shines, and the genre as a whole ought to be taking it as a starting point. But for every few great moments, there's a frustrating turn of underpowered guns, limited options, or enemy moves that feel artificial and occasionally cheap. The Pandorans get more powerful, and irritating over time. Each type is a chassis onto which they gradually fit more abilities and weapons, trying new combinations, and apparently paying attention to which are most effective and fielding those more often. But your weapon technology is mostly sidegrades. Reverse engineer Synedrion's lasers and you get more range but less power than Jericho's gauss guns. Manufacturing is prohibitively expensive, and each class of soldier can only use one, or sometimes two types of weapon, dramatically limiting your room for variation. You just don't get many meaningful options, and must rely on high level soldier abilities, which exacerbates the too-punishing cost of losing them.

Most soldiers are your familiar assault, heavy, or sniper classes, although friendly factions can sell you their specialists. With class dictacting weapon choices, you have very few loadout options though, and a soldier facing an enemy his weapon can't kill is useless through no fault of your own. Some weapon categories are minimally useful. Shotguns and assault rifles quickly become outclassed, and heavies in particular are largely dead weight. Their weapons are slow to fire, extremely inaccurate, and they move too slowly to compensate. Snipers meanwhile are the only class that can use handguns, even though any soldier who gets an arm injury can't use any two handed weapon, rendering them near useless.

Enemies are too tough in general, with even humans taking multiple sprays of gunfire, and squad size maxes out at eight (and even that depends on investing in specific aircraft), so even if it's not fatal, one less gun on your side means everything takes another turn to kill, turning attrition against you, and a great many missions have the enemy reinforcing a map until you leave. Which you can't when one of your guys is rendered useless by panic.

A map screen from Phoenix Point.

Every unit has willpower points, which deplete when friendlies die or enemies fire off special attacks. Running out causes panic, which is fair enough. But some enemies can add viral damage to all their shots, which deplete willpower as well as health. The slightest grazing shot can thus shatter a unit's morale, and viral attacks do damage for multiple turns. Unless you happen to ally with the right faction, and have someone with the right perk nearby, that guy is plain gone for multiple turns, and will force the rest of your team to stand around watching while he freaks out. I dunno about you, but I think I could drag someone by the arm. It's honestly less frustrating when they die.

I have a heap of similarly esoteric complaints. Like most of Britain's problems though, the fundamental problem is the class system. Here you have an enemy defined by its ability to adapt, snapping parts together into new combinations over time, and yet your soldiers are all restrictions. As they level up they access new abilities, but most will be redundant, or too situational. Active abilities cost willpower to use, making them all a risk, and worst of all, most of the useful ones are plain dull.

Soldiers in Phoenix Point are too expensive to be disposable, but you have limited control over who to recruit or what you can do with them, so generally just take whoever shows up without much attachment. New recruits? Oh, but he's a heavy, so I can only give him terrible weapons that don't fit into my strategy. Or there's this sniper but her only good skill is biochemist, which is wasted on single shot weapons, plus she can't use any of my guns.

A soldier's stat and equipment screen in Phoenix Point.

Your best weapon by far is cross-training. Soldiers who live long enough can gain a second class of your choice, offering at last some meaningful choice, and letting you combine special abilities in the most overpowered ways you can find. And that's the crux of it: I seldom feel like I'm being tactically outplayed, but like I don't have the right abilities in my deck.

Phoenix Point's battles are too much of a hybrid. They're gnarly enough to alienate fans of XCOM's simplified approach, but not committed enough to its great simulationist ideas. Its two years of DLC added more rules and side features, and livened up its story with subplots and drama on the global map, but its underlying friction remains. I had hoped that mods might be the answer, but they don't seem to be coming, save for some tweaking around the edges.

In trying to compromise between both it falls short of its potential, and winds up an uncomfortable fusion of two clashing design concepts. The overwatch and manual aiming and ballistic systems set up a shooting game where your people are soldiers, but the class and ability systems fit a game about magical supermen chaining together special powers. I come at it like a strategic challenge, but to overcome the piled on enemy abilities I'm supposed to play Card Wars instead.

I hate having so many negative things to say, because I love Phoenix Point some of the time. I'm sure I'll play it again every few years until someone finishes the half-step forward it's made for the genre. I want to see it made right, somehow, but until it is, I just don't know what to do with it. It's too inconsistent to wholly recommend and too good to condemn.

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Sin Vega

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