Phoenix Point: Year One Edition

The conditions are actually quite depressing. Imagine yourself in the seat as Julian Gollop, producer of Snapshot Games, the Bulgarian development team behind Phoenix Point. Once upon a time, 35 years ago, you were involved in developing one of the most endearing strategy game series of all time with the Xcom Games. Then you went on to develop other games at other studios. Maybe you most wanted to enjoy the success and take it easy.

But then, almost ten years ago, Xcom is suddenly revived. Now the developers Firaxis are at the helm, completely without you. Xcom: Enemy Unknown, as the game was called, is very successful. Both in terms of sales and critics, as well as the sequel Xcom 2. You are one of the leading game producers of all time, do you not feel a certain desire for revenge that says you had managed this? That you could have come back with a new, spiritual sequel to Xcom that can beat the crap out of your fingers and show where the cabinet should stand? You can … well?

I named my first character after my partner. A surprisingly good sniper.

It is clear that expectations are skyrocketing, but unfortunately these stories tend to end in disappointment. I mean, look at the legendary Yuji Naka. The creator of Sonic intended to strike back earlier this year, but his Balan Wonderworld became nothing more than an involuntary laughter party, and we players learned once and for all not to rely on old credentials. Or did we?

Phoenix Point is Julian Gollop’s great return to the space strategy genre, or, the game was released last year to mostly positive reviews, but was still accused of offering a unfortunately rather buggy experience. However, this review applies to Year One Edition, an updated edition with all released expansions, additions and updates. This is also the first time the undersigned lays his hands on Phoenix Point and asks himself the question: does it live up to the hype?

Phoenix Point
Phoenix Point. Ugly, gray and sad.

The first thing that strikes me is how Phoenix Point, whose main competitor is of course the Xcom game of recent years, is surprisingly reminiscent of the Xcom of recent years. The interface and layout are almost confusingly similar, with a world map where I, in my role as part of the Phoenix Point organization, will protect the earth from aliens. By selecting points on the map, I dive into scenarios where, in a classic X-Com way, I direct my soldiers to crouch behind high or medium barriers and shoot aliens in turn-based rounds. After each scenario, I get experience rewards, an object or a dialogue sequence that takes the story forward.

Gollop’s and Snapshot Games’ ambitions to innovate the concept have obviously been high. Here is a complex system for free sight in battle, where I can choose to shoot at the aliens’ specific body parts for different effects. There are three factions here, called Synedrion, Disciples of Anu and New Jericho, with which you can interact and trade goods and make assignments. There is so much to do on the world map here – especially with all the DLC additions – that you can happily put in hundreds of hours to feel something almost finished.

Phoenix Point
The world map at the beginning of the game. The calm before the storm.

Unfortunately, much of what made the latest Xcom games so good seems to have been ignored or forgotten. It easily becomes so with pride: things should mainly be done differently, secondarily better. For example, the aliens are introduced in a very banal way, and the extremely deficient AI means that the enemies all too often become cannon fodder in the battles. That they would pose an unpleasant threat to the survival of mankind feels like a joke.

As if the developers tried to remedy this, the paths are far too long and, there is no nice way to say it: really ugly. They are purely generic transport routes, filled with scattered enemies running straight towards one. Not infrequently I start to lose concentration halfway into a course and just rush forward to discover where the enemy stands, to then be shot and reload the save file. It saves time and I do not have to sneak forward for a quarter of an hour at a time. Okay, maybe not a whole quarter, but you understand what I mean. The feels so.

Phoenix Point
Another course. Sigh.

If it were not for the AI, however, the battles themselves are quite okay. Especially on the more compressed tracks against opponents with firearms. It can be quite tickling to try to shoot the legs of a wildly speeding enemy with an automatic rifle in hand when solitary piano loops accompany the powerful shots. But it is unusual for these opportunities to arise. It’s a long way to the magical moments of hard deliberation in X-Com, where I can think for minutes before letting my soldier peek forward for a shot over the protective barrier.

Sure, some players may think that it’s fun with the fox game between the factions on the world map, where you can choose your partners and enemies, but for me it contributes the most to the sprawling and sketchy setup. Gollop and company have in the map mode managed to create a kind of strategy game Open World, with all that it entails of assignments to tick off and perform on the assembly line. Unfortunately, there is no ranking between the assignment points, so it is often difficult to know what really drives the story forward and what only constitutes side assignments.

Phoenix Point
It rarely gets this exciting.

In its desire to trump the Xcom of recent years, Snapshot Games has taken off from its toes and delivered a product that may not repeat Balan Wonderworld’s fate, but once again shows how time does not take into account your status as a world-renowned game producer. Play Firaxis Xcom instead. Call it what you will, fake or genuine, they are the indisputably better games.

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