Review – Phantom Doctrine
Phantom Doctrine is a turn based tactics game that focuses on combining turn based stealth and combat to tell a story of CIA and KGB espionage. The game is played on an isometric map with similar actions and user interface to that of XCOM. On paper Phantom Doctrine should be perfect, but it falls flat thanks to convoluted actions and slow gameplay.
Naturally I started Phantom Doctrine by choosing to align myself with the CIA, because why would anyone from Boston waste their time with the KGB? In the tutorial stage, players are talked through an infiltration mission, instructing players step-by-step in such a way that it makes learning how to play more difficult. Successful tutorial stages give players direction as needed, providing guidance, while simultaneously allowing players the freedom to make decisions for themselves. When each move is fully dictated by the game, leaving no room for player experimentation or error, players don’t learn how to play so much as they go through the motions in order to progress. When it comes time to make decisions for themselves, players often stumble around with the nuances of game mechanics. Even as someone familiar with tactics games and recurring commands such as Overwatch, Phantom Doctrine adds so much nuance, that I struggled beyond enjoyment on my first unguided mission.
Phantom Doctrine plays in a similar manner to XCOM: Enemy Unknown, with each character under the player’s control moving across an isometric grid-based environment to complete stealth and/or combat based objectives.
In stealth missions, players often infiltrate restricted areas by disguising themselves in various sets of gear. Should infiltrators behave oddly, they are exposed as spies and immediately attacked by the enemy faction. But the term “suspicious behavior” leaves room for interpretation that can lead to fatal miscalculations.
The very first stage following the tutorial mission has the player sneak into a classified zone, take photos of a number of documents, and then rush to an evac point. Disguised in a hazmat suit, I snuck into a secure facility, posing as someone who belongs there. After a bit of exploration, I discovered the first document that I needed to take a photograph of. Surrounded by scientists in white lab coats while I was donning thematically similar garb, I decided that now would be the ideal time to take that much needed snapshot.
It turns out that white lab coat types do not get along with their hazardous cleanup counterparts. Immediately sirens blared and red flashing lights told me that I just made the wrong move. The guards I so casually walked by earlier pulled their guns on me and it was time to defend myself.
I quickly ducked behind a few crates. Using pieces of the environment, I stayed in cover and fired back at the guards, desperately hoping that I would be able to make my way to the evac point. Thanks to Phantom Doctrine‘s accuracy mechanic, I couldn’t miss. One shot after another, I took the down the guards and dashed to my ride out of danger. But alas, I spent too much time getting revenge and I missed my flight.
While it all sounds like fun, it does not translate well. Games like Phantom Doctrine depend on players’ ability to strategize. At no point does the game clarify how closely disguises have to match the environment in order to be effective. Other games with similar mechanics, such as Hitman don’t need to spell it out, but do provide enough environmental clues. I got ambushed to taking an action that hindered my mission success, solely on account of poor direction.
I understand that it sounds like I’m being a sore loser, but I can assure you, that’s not the case. In fact, parts of the game are too simple in their execution. While in the intense heat of a firefight, Phantom Doctrine‘s characters will never miss a shot. Every attack you make will land, but it will do a varying amount of damage. I think it fair to say that every gamer would get annoyed when they plan an attack to find that it completely misses the target. XCOM 2 practically became a meme for that exact reason. However, when you remove the ability to critically fail, you remove some of the game’s tension, and ultimately, immersion.
The reason it took so long to complete this review was because I simply couldn’t motivate myself to play the game. I love tactics games, but even though the entire genre requires players to take their time and calculate their moves, Phantom Doctrine was simply too slow. While early patches fixed some of my initial issues with bugs, Phantom Doctrine simply misses the mark on what makes this genre otherwise so engrossing.
Textures are solid, but character models are underwhelming without combat’s dynamic camera.
The game is acceptable, but clunky. Slow enemy turns leave play feeling more like a chore than a game.
The soundtrack is atmospheric, but adds little to the overall experience.
Fun Factor: 4.0
What Phantom Doctrine set out to accomplish just doesn’t translate well to this genre.
Final Verdict: 5.5
Phantom Doctrine is available on PC.
A copy of Phantom Doctrine was provided by the publisher.