Hands-on: Phantom Doctrine’s battlefield goes off the grid
CreativeForge's cold-war conspiracy lets you play the way you want.
Part of what makes indie development so exciting and important is the absence of expectation and pressure from the powers that be. While so many AAA games feel the need to check a bunch of boxes (open world exploration, rideable mounts/driveable cars, dialogue choices and endless fetch quests), indies have the freedom to include and exclude features however they please. Andrew Brophy, the developer of Knuckle Sandwich, recently told us he's approaching the RPG genre with his own personal preferences in mind, doing away with the RPG features he dislikes while focusing on the things he loves. Similarly, CreativeForge (Hard West) is crafting (another) X-COM-esque turn-based strategy Phantom Doctrine and giving the player the agency to play the game they want.
When we sat down to play through Phantom Doctrine's three modes with Blazej Krakowiak, he explained CreativeForge's emphasis on letting players take what they want from the game. The meat of Phantom Doctrine is, of course, its turn-based tactical action. However, there's also a puzzle segment in the investigation board, where players connect piles of evidence using recurring keywords and themes (with red string and all) and a base-building/management component. In its natural build, these three modes are all intertwined and come into play as the game progresses. However, as Blazej explained, CreativeForge isn't going to foist all three modes on the player if they're not interested in every section. Came for the turn-based tactics? No problem, you can ignore the investigation board and base building and dive straight into the game's complex and incredibly satisfying core mode. Maybe you're into base-management sims? Go crazy moving your elite team of spies across the globe, subjecting enemy soldiers to some horrid torture or transforming them into a Manchurian candidate before embedding them back in the enemy's ranks.
CreativeForge is calling this a "modular campaign" and it's an interesting move towards making incredibly complex games like Phantom Doctrine accessible to a wider audience.
While it draws obvious inspiration from X-COM (with fewer RNG elements and dice rolls), Phantom Doctrine's world extends past the grid-based map and CreativeForge are doing a bang-up job of nurturing that. Little touches like the base-management and investigation board obviously give you busy work outside of the usual battles, however there are a few neat features that really help sell the world.
Like most tactics games, each agent has special abilities that can be actioned after meeting set criteria. This is nothing new. Most turn-based games have time or turn-based abilities with a cooldown period. What's interesting about Phantom Doctrine's is how they help create that world outside the map. There are operatives waiting in the shadows to the north, east, south and west of the map. The trick is, you have to be on the corresponding side of the map to take advantage of each support agent. For example, if the controlled character is on the right side of the map, they can give a sniper the green light to knock an enemy off. It also activates a short cutscene where we're treated to a visual of said sniper answering the call.
Despite a long 45-minute hands-on with the conspiracy-laden Phantom Doctrine, I feel like I've barely scratched the surface. I'm looking forward to seeing how deep the rabbit hole goes when the game releases in 2018. For now, check out the hilariously dark live-action trailer starring Mahria Zook (who played the hilarious Chief Synergy Officer of Devolver in their "E3 press conference").