Phoenix Point review – saving a new world the good old-fashioned way

I’m saving the world again, much like I’ve saved it a dozen times before. I’ve taken command of yet another team of ragtag soldiers and scientists, and returned once more to frantically scampering back and forth across a terrified planet, responding to panicked reports of strange creatures unleashing horrifying attacks. I’ve been scavenging their weapons, analysing their biology and reverse-engineering their technology. The fate of humanity itself rests on the shoulders of fewer soldiers than would fill a classroom and the invisible, intangible people who presumably exist behind them, fixing their weapons, tending their wounds and laundering their blood-stained undershirts at the conclusion of every suburban skirmish.

Even if a wider network exists around this handful of heroes (perhaps including whoever it is who does tech support for their radar, compiles their budget breakdowns and patches calls through to admin and HR), there can’t be more than a hundred people who support the human race’s last, best hope against a threat as cryptic as it is colossal. Phoenix Point, true to the X-COM and XCOM lineage to which it is so close a cousin, is fundamentally about guerilla tactics once again. Small squads of scrappy soldiers subvert a larger, slower force, turning its tools and equipment against it, before eventually finding and slicing off its head. And the key to this dynamic, the key to these guerilla tactics, is momentum. How it’s paced and how it progresses.

It’s really all about the journey, not the destination, and the friends you made along the way. In this case, those friends can include much bigger weapons, furious firefights and exciting revelations. I don’t remember how I completed any game in the X-COM series, but I remember so many examples of the first time I met a particular alien, uncovered critical information or turned the tide of a hectic battle. Phoenix Point brings back all those furiously exciting feelings, giving a gentle seasoning to some very familiar flavours. I’ve been thrilled by its surprises, intrigued by its developments and also a little bored by another scavenging mission where I wait for the last enemy to blunder into view.

Set after the release of a long-frozen alien virus causes mutations and madness across the globe, Phoenix Point has you trying to understand not only how to combat this apocalyptic change, but also why your Phoenix Project, a secret collective created to defend humanity from such existential threats, has completely collapsed. You are, it seems, the last cell of what was supposed to be a powerful and protective organisation.

The world is now factional and the first of those familiar X-COM flavours is the subtle tang of X-COM: Apocalypse. As you emerge, blinking, into a world ravaged by both climate change and a new trend toward tentacles with everything, you encounter three substantially different takes on how to get by: through discovering religion, embracing a new kind of ecology or just making bigger guns. Exploring an initially blank planet, your transport craft hopping between each location you discover in real time, you gradually map out a scattered network of survivors. Call in on any of these and you can trade resources, hire new personnel or even steal their lunch.

These factions will drop you a line to ask how you are, put in requests for you to perform tasks and offer subtle reminders of how their hot take on post-apocalyptic branding is always trending. While everyone gets along at first, each sliding into your DMs with passive-aggressive complaints about the others, it’s inevitable that this escalates. They press you to take sides and offer their technologies. Any actions or opinions that are seen to favour one inevitably frustrate the others. It wouldn’t be the apocalypse if humanity wasn’t turning on itself.

The ongoing exploration you perform in this broken world is closer to XCOM 2 than any other game in the series, making you an ever-hungry itinerant who much push farther from home, despite the risk of overstretching yourself. As well as uncovering more settlements, you also discover supply caches, a smattering of plot-critical locations and plenty of relics of the past. Something fishy is going on and through all of this runs the salty tang of series classic Terror From the Deep. Why did much of humanity stride off into the sea? What’s in the ever-encroaching mist that is slowly swirling inland? And is it really worth equipping your squad with melee weapons?

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I’ve been very selective with the screenshots and plot I’ve shared here, as the game’s slow reveal of its backstory matches well with the introduction of new elements and both can feel very satisfying. Another paragraph of plot is filled in just as you discover another class of soldier to recruit. You take a new weapon onto the battlefield only moments before facing something so much meaner than anything yet seen. The game escalates, at least to a point, and there are some very cool moments that I really don’t want to spoil.

And those turn-based battlefields feel resolutely X-COM and XCOM, with the modern presentation of Firaxis’ interpretation meeting the variety and fragility of the 1994 original. Yes, you can Blow Shit Up at your leisure, so worry not if no-one on your team has eyes on the enemy. There’s nothing to stop you blind firing into the middle distance, hurling grenades around corners or levelling a building with heavy weapons if you so much as suspect something scaly and wet is slopping around inside. God damn does it feel good to go to town with the heavy artillery and, when a faction reaches out in dire need of backup, it’s 1994 X-COM all over again when you incur no penalty at all for blowing their pristine property to bits. Just so long as everyone gets out alive.

Whenever the enemy lumber into view, it’s a palpable pleasure to squint down your sights and decide if you first want to shoot their head, their legs or even the weapon they’re holding in their briney hands. The crosshairs shrink as you take control of your seasoned sniper and shoot a foot out from under the protective shield of a crab-like creature. Then your assault trooper misses wildly with two shotgun blasts, cutting a nearby tree in half and blowing up some discarded gas canisters. This is a normal day at the office for Phoenix Point employees, though be warned all this excitement is occasionally marred by the third-person camera choosing to bless you with some truly terrible and utterly inscrutable angles.

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Combat mixes older mechanics with newer ones to present a palatable package. There’s the cover system, different classes and specific abilities we know from our modern XCOM, but also more freeform movement closer to earlier X-COM. A technician can shoot four times if they sit in the same spot, or a fraction of this proportional to how much they run around. An experienced assault trooper can unlock unique dash actions, while your heavy weapons soldier launches into the air with a quick burst from their class-specific jetpack.

All this is rationed out through two different currencies. A soldier’s action points determine how much they can run and gun, but most special abilities are triggered by will points, which gradually increase with experience. Will points are also a soldier’s morale, sapped by seeing friends die or by psychic trauma, replenished by a quick rest or taking out an enemy. This is simple and pleasingly effective, substantially limiting the amount you can press everyone to perform their party tricks. It also presents many important opportunities for spending both to get the upper hand. For example, it takes two will points for a sniper to reduce the cost of their next shot, which opens up the possibility for them to spend action points to both fire and go into overwatch after. They can’t perform this combination indefinitely, but at critical moments it’s the right way to use a limited resource.

And so you do, and as your ever-pressed soldiers start to take the same locational damage as the enemies you’re blasting limbs off, they begin to sound exasperated and doubtful. Did that one just second-guess their orders? Probably, but they did just lose the loss of one arm and, with it, the ability to fire their fancy rocket launcher.

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There’s opportunities for cross-class combinations, too, with skilled snipers dashing like assault troopers, and curating and customising a roster that begins to fill with weird specialists hired from other factions is both fascinating and occasionally fiddly. While it’s again possible to name a heavy weapons grunt after a close friend so that you can tell them how they blew up a cache of alien eggs last night, I do miss the stats that track how many kills my soldiers have, the missions they’ve been on and a record of those lost in the ongoing struggle.

It’s good that Phoenix Point makes all this granular gunplay so gratifying because, as the game gathers pace, you can find yourself fighting a lot of similar skirmishes, over and over. Shooting things itself is fun, but the wider context of small squad tactics isn’t quite as thrilling. The enemy AI is mostly interested in closing with you and then firing, with any flanking more a result of their initial deployment than any situational awareness. Enemy powers don’t change your tactics a huge amount either and include the now very familiar mind control, smokescreens, turning invisible and occasionally covering everybody in sticky goo. Hunkering down into overwatch mode or a steady and methodical march forward become reliable and mundane tactics, with the deadliest counter you face being simple weight of numbers. This, as you might expect, is best offset by finding and manufacturing bigger guns, but later fights increasingly feel like battles of attrition.

And it’s here that Phoenix Point’s pacing falters. Plot developments can slow in the face of rising inter-faction tensions and more and longer skirmishes. More time in skirmishes only highlights their AI shortcomings and rising attrition, meaning those familiar flavours start to taste overfamiliar and stale. That compulsion to push ever forward remains a powerful one and the game will keep your interest, but its spark does fade somewhat.

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Arguably every game in its lineage has faced this problem at some stage, with the thrill of discovery and rush of the new dampened by a growing need to manage bases, battles and bottom lines. For some players, it meant never quite navigating the endgame and ultimate conclusion, but many of us pressed on undeterred to find ourselves eventually hailed, yet again, as the savvy saviours of our scrappy little species. I don’t see things going much differently for Phoenix Point, a commendable new take on a now so very tried and tested concept, a classic recipe with a few fresh twists. It thoroughly deserves its place amongst its peers, neither standing head and shoulders above them, nor falling short by any significant metric.

Playing Phoenix Point has been a powerful propulsion back through my past, pinballing me through 25 years of alien-fighting nostalgia. And if I still find myself returning to it again, keen to blow the floor out from under another tentacled terror the moment I finish this review, then you know it’s got much more right than wrong. Even if I never reach the end, I will still have enjoyed the journey, and the friends (soldiers) I met (renamed as my friends) along the way.

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