Strategy games can be overly complicated sometimes, and in a genre that is already based on depth and interlocking systems, this balancing act of deep strategy and accessibility can be the difference that makes or breaks the long-term success and sustainability of an otherwise interesting title or fledgeling series. Xcom and Xcom 2, the Firaxis revivals of the turn-based tactics classics, found the sweet spot better than most, mixing a pausable real-time strategy campaign with pulsating turn-based battles against alien invaders. Building on the exact same foundations comes a game called Phoenix Point, and when it eventually lands next year we're going to find out just how wide the aforementioned sweet spot actually is.
You mustn't call Phoenix Point an Xcom clone either, which is a claim you can level at a number of studios that have, over the years, released grid-based tactics games that borrow heavily from the sci-fi series. Phoenix Point gets a pass from accusatory labels because its creator-in-chief, Julian Gollop, was one of the two main architects of UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense as it was called Stateside) back in 1994. If anyone knows the genre, it's him.
But enough talk of the past, even if it is relevant. The Xcom comparisons are easy and valid, especially in the sense that they paint a fairly accurate picture of the basic structure on offer in Phoenix Point. We've been playing the backer version of the game, which was recently updated with a second build, and while it's rather limited in some respects, it also does a good job of demonstrating the vision that Snapshot Games has for what could well be described as a genuine spiritual successor to the strategy classics.
While similar - humans versus aliens - the settings are actually very different, and Phoenix Point puts players on an Earth overrun by a strange alien mist that washes over rust-covered cities, bringing with it monstrous beasties and creatures formed of human and animal DNA. We're wading deep into the future here, where the soldiers of the Phoenix Project are trying to claw their way back from the brink. This isn't a fight against assimilation, rather this is avoiding extinction. The aliens we're battling here are very different too, with mutating enemies that seem to spawn shields and weapons mid-fight, to giant arachnid boss creatures that stomp onto the battlefield when you're worn out and running low on ammo, causing a deadly ruckus.
The enemy types that we've seen look grim and deadly. The lore explains that the pandora virus allows these beasties to adapt to your tactics, although we've not seen a clear evolution of this ability over time due to the structure of the demo. Still, we're intrigued to see how this feature unravels, especially as you advance through the campaign and presumably unlock new weapons and abilities. You'll certainly need all the advantages you can find as the alien monsters are hard as nails, mixing up heavily-armoured melee and close-quarters units with ranged variants not afraid to take a pop at you from distance.
One thing that we particularly liked was the more granular approach to troop customisation. You can dig a bit deeper in Phoenix Point, change that bit more, and this freedom could prove to be very useful over an extended campaign. It's still early days, but that extra level of detail feels like a promising elaboration rather than a confusing layer added to an already complex game. We're back looking for that sweet spot between depth and accessibility, but we're hopeful that Phoenix Point is going to land in exactly the right area.
The demo has two parts - one a more authored scenario presumably plucked from the planned campaign, the other an option to play on procedurally generated levels. We played the mission first and it was a punishing introduction to the game. Even after reading the guide and knowing what would be coming, the introduction of a giant spider-like boss at the end was an overwhelming conclusion to a tentative first meeting. It didn't help that we hadn't been particularly economical in the build-up to the endgame, but it's also safe to say that taking out the hardened bosses is going to be a real headscratcher.
Taking on enemies means using a fairly standard action points system whereby you use each character's points allocation to perform actions, such as moving to cover or popping off a few rounds into an alien grunt who gets too close. More interesting is the willpower system that gives players a second resource to exploit, which can be used during your turn to get you out of trouble but can also erode over time when performing actions in the enemy's turn such as overwatch. Think of it as each character's nerve, and as the temperature rises and the action intensifies, you can and will watch your more vulnerable soldiers unravel. It looks like it's going to make for a fascinating meta-narrative.
Another thing that may well turn out to differentiate Phoenix Point from its contemporaries is an emphasis on inventory management. Characters can switch their gear easily, and players have to make a point of picking up the loot crates placed around the map. Doing so offers up a helpful resource boost but can potentially draw you away from a strong position or worse, tempt you into splitting your team (a move which can prove disastrous as safety really does come in numbers here). We see plenty of tactical potential all over the battlefield, but it seems like there's also going to be a range of interesting decisions for players to mull over. It doesn't, however, look like there are going to be any easy answers.
We enjoyed exploring the randomly generated maps; pleasingly detailed and built using many of the same assets as used in the campaign mission. Despite their seemingly random nature, the less authored skirmishes still offered up plenty to think about and lots of opportunity for clever tactical thinking. You have to be mindful of your soldiers and their respective abilities and position yourself accordingly, but by creating bottlenecks out of the (surprisingly destructible) environments and funnelling your enemies into harm's way, you can be very efficient. That said, the number of opposing units encountered means that you'll need supplies and you'll have to find the previously mentioned crates in the levels and grab the gear held within. It often seems like there are more enemies than you can cope with and you're only one step away from disaster.
There's a grim feeling that hangs over Phoenix Point, an oppressive atmosphere that points to a compelling story yet to come. The game is heading to PC and Xbox One next year (although you can buy into the early access build on PC if you're so inclined) and when it lands it's going to give tactically minded players plenty to think about. We're increasingly optimistic about its prospects based on a few hours spent with the backer build, and we're very much looking forward to getting our hands on the finished game when it lands next year.