Phantom Trigger is one of a handful of games that took heavy inspiration from the highly-anticipated and critically-acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter (see also Kamiko). Featuring a similar graphical and gameplay style, you wander around a sort of post-apocalyptic cyberpunk world defeating enemies and collecting items, trying to effect change on a world bigger than your own. While the game shines early on due to engaging combat mechanics, it unfortunately starts to lose its luster after a few hours, ultimately overstaying its welcome.
You play as the Outsider, a mysterious figure from a different land who stumbles into this one. You'll make friends with some creatures, collect items for them as you explore the game's four levels, and attempt to save the Creator. All the while, another story takes place involving Stan, a man who encounters a mysterious life-threatening illness that messes with his mind. The two components seem pretty disparate at first (though it's very obvious where the plot is going), but they later start intersecting in more interesting ways, which I appreciated.
The meat of the game is definitely the combat, and you're going to be doing a huge amount of it. You have three weapons: a short-range sword, an even-shorter-range claw, and a long-range whip that brings enemies right up close to you. Each one is color coded (blue sword, green whip, and red claw) and mapped to a different controller button, and it's easy to quickly move from one to the other during combat. The color coding comes into handy at certain points in the game, where enemies are only vulnerable to a certain weapon; they light up in the color they need to be attacked with, which is easy to understand.
Your other main move is an instant teleport in whatever direction you're holding the control stick. Whenever you tap the A button you move a good distance away, making it easier to escape dangerous situations. This lends itself to a natural flow of whipping enemies close to you, attacking them once or twice, teleporting away before they can counterattack, and repeating until everyone but you is dead. Of course, this strategy gets more difficult as the game goes on, as you can't always teleport away due to obstacles, or enemies may just be absolutely everywhere. You can also interact with the environment to launch projectiles or freeze foes; some enemies actually turn into projectiles after they die, though I didn't find these to be very useful.
As you battle, you'll level up each weapon individually; each one has its own experience bar. They don't grow stronger, but as you level up the different weapons you'll acquire more and more combos to use on enemies. Unfortunately, I didn't find these to be very useful; most of the time they don't do a whole lot in the first place, and even the more useful ones require me to stand still longer than I'm comfortable with, causing me to take damage (usually).
This presents us with the game's major problem: you don't really gain anything that useful from battling and you don't even get stronger as you battle. This makes combat feel kind of useless, which makes it feel like padding, which makes it ultimately feel repetitive after a few hours. This isn't good when you consider that basically 90% of the game is combat. While I was having a blast with the game early on, after a little while I was definitely losing interest in continuing on.
The one thing that does stay interesting as the game goes on are the bosses. Each level has a boss at the end, and they're much more entertaining than normal combat. They can't be damaged normally, and the way that you do damage them is usually obscure, so it's a combination of combat and puzzle-solving early on as you figure out how to take the giant thing down. It's the game's best feature by far, and I wish there were more of them.
When you're not fighting enemies, you're wandering around the world collecting items and opening doors by attacking certain poles in certain patterns. In addition to story items, you'll occasionally come across a shrine of sorts, which will give you a big chunk of experience for a specific weapon. You'll also come across the occasional checkpoint, which saves your game and is the only thing that restores your health. One detail I really appreciated with these was that when you hit a checkpoint, it will create an arrow showing you which direction will let you progress forward, which lets you comfortably go in the other directions and collect everything you can.
As you explore the world, the game will occasionally cut out and switch over to scenes from Stan's story, sometimes even in the middle of a battle. These scenes are entirely exposition-based, showing you dialogue between characters and occasionally letting you make dialogue choices, though I'm not 100% clear on whether or not they make any difference.
At the start of the game, and after each boss, you'll be transported back to a main hub world. This is where you talk to the few other characters in the game, who you will give story items to in order to progress the story in one direction or another. They'll try to convince you to ally with them against other characters, or sometimes even harm other characters, and it's unfortunately very easy to get locked into one story path and alienate all the other characters without realizing it, which is exactly what happened to me. The bigger problem, though, is that I'm never given any time to care about any of these characters. It makes no difference to me if one of them gets upset or even dies because I barely interacted with them at all, let alone in meaningful ways. I might as well be presented with a panel with four buttons that let me choose my ending.
Aside from the repetitive combat, the game suffers from a number of technical issues and bugs. First off, there isn't any windowed mode, which is always something that bugs me since it's my preferred way of playing most of the time. That's more of an oversight, though, and there are absolutely bugs worth mentioning.
- Whenever you pick up an item, it opens your inventory, but doesn't highlight the item you just picked up.
- Sometimes in menus, or during dialogue choices, the bottom option is permanently highlighted for unknown reasons.
- The first time I try to exit my game during a play session, it goes back to the menu, and then instantly back to my game. I have to exit twice.
- Sometimes the 'A' button simply stops working for short periods of time. This is annoying in combat since I can't teleport, but it is extremely annoying in Stan's cutscenes because I am completely unable to progress.
Graphically, the game is very nice for the most part. Enemies look good, as does your player character, and the environment around you is aesthetically pleasing as well. Some bits of artwork look very cool, like a giant felled demon, but these pieces are few and far between. Unfortunately, the main font used for in-game menus is hideous and does not fit the game in any way. The game's music is enjoyable, especially during boss fights, if not particularly memorable. Sound effects are good, especially the three musical tones that play when you attack three times in a row; the fact that they were the first three notes from "Smoke on the Water" were a little distracting, though.
The game has four levels total, and will last you somewhere around five to six hours. There are multiple endings you can get, depending on the choices you make involving other characters, but I know that I'm not going to have the patience to go back and try to get the others; the combat is not going to keep my interest through another playthrough. Also, if you're looking for achievements, it's going to take work to get any of them, let alone all of them; by the time I started the third level I noticed that I had not gotten a single one yet. They're almost all obscure or endgame stuff that requires a certain level of completionist to get, which may satisfy some folks.
I really wanted to like Phantom Trigger more than I did. The first couple hours of the game were very solid and enjoyable, aside from the technical shortcomings, but unfortunately I just couldn't stay interested in the combat for all that long. The repetitive nature of the game, combined with numerous glitches and technical issues, put a heavy weight on what could have been an excellent package. While the game's press kit claims that it has "roguelike elements" I could not tell you what any of those elements might be, because I didn't see any. Maybe you'll stay invested in the combat for the entire game, in which case you'll probably have a great time. For the rest of you, though, I might just recommend the game's inspiration, Hyper Light Drifter, instead.
Final score: 6.8 out of 10
A copy of this game was provided for the purpose of review.