Phantom Doctrine sneaked up on me like a disguised undercover agent out seeking their target in the dead of night. I was completely unaware of its existence until a few weeks ago when I saw and became intrigued by its trailer. All I could imagine was XCOM only with spies, espionage and a realistic storyline over the fantastical and science fiction story told within the amazing XCOM series – a first impression which both sparked excitement and curiosity for me.
I’m happy to say that both CreativeForge Games and Good Shepherd Entertainment didn’t disappoint in any aspect. Phantom Doctrine by far exceeded all of my expectations and beyond with it’s deep and impactful story combined with the perfectly constructed mechanics and processes – I believe I’ve just found a candidate for my game of the year.
Phantom Doctrines first interesting design choice comes into play when you’re choosing your new game – Which story do you wish to play? You can play the role of a CIA agent, be part of the KGB or even part of MOSSAD – each pathway (MOSSAD is unlocked after you have completed the game once previously) has the same intro, a different initial few chapters and starting points, then they come together towards the end. Also, another option you get upon completion is the option to play an ‘extended’ version of the game which offers you more insight into the story and you’ll get to experience events that wrap up any loose ends and questions you may have. I hope you have a cup of coffee because we have a lot to talk about!
The common story which you’ll be participating in will lead you through an espionage thriller that is set at the peak of the Cold War. Our main protagonist is the leader of a secret organisation known as The Cabal, yet you’ll be working along-side one of the three organisations above in your mission to prevent a global conspiracy, a global conspiracy that is out to pit leader against leader, and nation against nation. As you progress through the main games 40+ hour main storyline, you’ll be tasked with micromanagement, investigating, XCOM style tactical combat segments, research and more as you uncover as much information as you can about the Beholder Initiative and save the world from this deadly threat.
Okay, I’m going to refer to XCOM a bit within this review as everyone knows what that game is and the majority of those interested in Phantom Doctrine will have already played it. So, comparing various aspects to that one feels ‘right’ and should get across my points a bit easier. I’m also going to break down the review into various sections so that I can concentrate on one thing at a time – The first of which is the intuitive Home Base screen and options…
In XCOM, you have your HQ which can be expanded ala Fallout Shelter style by building new facilities underground which all work together in order to customise your playthrough, Phantom Doctrine doesn’t have this. Instead, we have the ability to research and unlock various new facilities within your base as you progress within the story. Initially, you can hire and fire agents, treat injured agents in the infirmary, research new items/facilities in the workshop and investigate various classified documents you find as you explore missions or talk to an informant.
By around the 25-30 hour mark of the story, you’ll also have access to the Comms facility which lets you assign agents to find new agents and documents over time, a forger which lets you earn money and change agents identities, a body engineering centre to enhance your agents with various un-tested chemicals, and the MK Ultra facility for torture, mind control, sabotage and other devious acts involving captured enemy agents! Not only that, each of the various facilities can be upgraded further with time and money as you research new slots and abilities in the Workshop.
Phantom Doctrine is very strategic and tactical both in and out of the combat sections. Two of the main sections from the base which I would like to delve into in more detail are the Investigations Boards and the MK Ultra facility…
The investigation Boards are both highly enjoyable and rewarding yet also the most tedious and annoying things within the whole game! At first, I loved these – you’re presented with a classified document which either an informant gives you, you pick up in a mission, or it’s given to you when you complete a story mission, and you must read through the non-blacked-out text and highlight the keywords which relate to a place, person or organisation. If you find the correct word then it’s highlighted and it appears alongside the document on the board.
Once you have uncovered all of the keywords (some documents come pre-completed with the keywords for you), you can press the Square button and link two matching words together in a kind of espionage dot-to-dot puzzle! No word will ever appear more than twice within each investigation, so it will only match up to one other document. Eventually, as you connect them all up, there will be a connection between the core subject matter on the file and a place, person or organisation which will result in the document highlighting the connection, rewarding you with new agents or Intel and the case getting closed.
This process kind of reminds me of the Six Degrees of Bacon in which every actor can link back to Kevin Bacon (https://oracleofbacon.org/) – These investigations are very similar – one thing will link to a document which links to another, then another, then finally link to the key Intel you need.
Now, after playing the main game on my first run for about 50 hours and completing at least 100 of these Investigation documents, it became quite tiresome and tedious. I ended up spamming the Cross button as I moved the cursor over the text to find the keywords and I would press Square and skim over the other pieces of evidence until the cursor turned green so I could create a link without reading what was in front of me. Sure, it was abusing the mechanics to make it easier for me but I was pretty much worn out with completing these by the time I hit 50 hours. However, the first 49 hours were a lot of fun working through them and making the connections.
Okay, so this is quite similar to XCOM and a little on the fantastical side of things rather than being based on real life, but it’s still a great addition to the game and offers a lot of changes in the way you approach the various missions in Phantom Doctrine. When you have developed the MK Ultra facility within your base, the enemy agents you ‘capture’ can undergo a number of different experiments and ‘influences’. Saying that – you can also run most of these procedures on your own agents if you wish, just don’t expect them to remain loyal if you do!
For a measly amount of cash, you can basically re-wire an agents head and get them to do various things to both help your cause and infiltrate the enemies. Some of the actions you can do are:
BrainWashing: This allows you to wipe the enemy agents mind so that they forget they ever worked for the opposition and are more willing to join your team instead – this results in the agent losing all of their talents though.
Interrogation: Obtain information and documents.
Control Phrase: This lets you take control of an enemy agent if you encounter them in future combat sections – you basically trigger a command in their brain and take full control.
Saboteur: This will command the enemy to return to their base and literally suicide bomb it so both the agent and the base are destroyed.
There are a few other events you can do such as kill the agent, let them go, recruit them and even place a tracker within them so their base appears on the map. One thing you need to be aware of, any agents of yours you fail to get out of a mission can also be captured and have the same procedures implemented on them. That’s how you justify doing this to the enemy – they do it to yours so why shouldn’t you do it to theirs?
So, I know what you’re all here to find out about – the Map! Okay, maybe not, but still, the map screen has actually got a lot going on!
Just like XCOM, you have a map of the world which you can pause and unpause the timer on whilst events happen all over the place. However, unlike XCOM, you can send all your agents (who aren’t in a facility) out to any point on the map without buying planes or spaceships. Every now and again you’ll get ‘investigation points’ pop up. You must send at least one agent in order to uncover if it’s a plot against you, an informant or an enemy base. I say at least one but I always send them in pairs as you’re less likely to get ambushed that was and you can instantly stop whatever they are plotting without waiting for another agent to fly over.
First of all, informants are as you’d expect – you have a set amount of days/hours until the informant will give you information on new agents to hire, the identity of enemies or more intel for your Investigation Board. However, ever now and again your informant will get a target on their head and it’s up to you if you wish to try and kill their assassins first or just let them die. Alternatively, you can perform the same action as…
..The conspiracy events. These are events where the enemy is either planning on assassinating your informant, they’re building bombs or just looking at attacking the city and causing ‘danger’. As you research, you’ll unlock various things you can do to combat these events – the main one is to infiltrate and stop the events without you doing anything. This takes two people (which is why I always send two) and you have to respond to the event before it reaches a certain deadline. The second common action is to do some Tactical Recon and gain the ability to use support units and disguises (which I’ll talk about soon). Finally, you can straight-up ‘Assault’ the event and send in 2-6 agents (depending on the mission) in order to defuse bombs, kill or capture enemy agents or other various missions.
You’ll obviously have story missions to complete which will revolve around taking over a base, sending people into ‘rabbit holes’ as they investigate things, or even jumping back to your base and completing an investigation in order to uncover new clues.
In regards to the ‘Danger’ meter – you incur ‘danger’ if you don’t stop a conspiracy, if you evacuate a mission late, if you’re holding enemies in your base or if you have an enemy base near yours. Once it hits a certain level you must relocate your base as the enemy has found you, failing to do so will lead to a game over.
Okay, okay! The real draw of Phantom Doctrine has to be it’s actual combat segments and oh my god, was I impressed?!?! I was expecting an XCOM clone with a few tweaks here or there but ultimately the same game – which technically it is but the changes are so much better overall. We have an overhaul to the actual RNG operations, the ability to go undercover and destroy the enemy from within, the chance to use a number of support abilities and more! So, let’s dive into it and break down why I love the combat in Phantom Doctrine and why you will too if you’re a big fan of XCOM…
RNG: One of my biggest complaints about XCOM was its RNG in regards to the actual combat. Not the fact you sometimes got a high or low damage amount at random – as this was sometimes justified – but the fact that even if you’re stood right next to an enemy, you could sometimes miss and never understand why. Phantom Doctrine goes one better by giving you a min and max value of every shot all the time. Sure, there is RNG in regards to what damage you’ll do between those two numbers, but you’ll never get less than the min value. This allows you to plan out and strategise a lot easier. Also, Phantom Doctrine bases your damage given off the enemies cover, their armour, what bullets you’re using, your location, distance, and line of sight. So it’s a lot less RNG and more strategical!
Also, something I forget to initially mention is the ‘Awareness points’. You start a mission with an initial amount that goes down as you perform special attacks like takedowns and headshots, or when the enemy attacks you with certain weapons. As you progress in the story and upgrade your characters, they will ultimately end up using their Awareness points to ‘dodge’ some attacks so you only lose points and not energy when you’re attacked – or a combination of the two. The enemies also have these points, which you can see, so you can judge if someone is likely to dodge or not before you open fire.
The random nature of the game also bleeds into the actual missions themselves. If you find you’re having trouble with the mission you’re currently on, simply load up a save just before you entered the mission and jump back into it – you’ll be in a new location more often than not!
I really don’t like stealth games, as I’m crap at them, but Phantom Doctrine uses the mechanic perfectly. If you’ve performed a Tactical Recon before entering a mission, you can disguise up to four characters (depending on how far into the game you are). These people will automatically be placed within the various buildings as they mingle with both the enemies and the civilians. As a disguised agent, you can walk around freely and bypass all the cameras. However, if you shoot anyone with an unsuppressed weapon or take someone out in front of another, then all of you basically blow your cover.
This was my key to success in my playthrough – send in a bunch of disguised agents and let them take down the enemies from the inside – you can literally walk up to every guard and slap them to sleep before they know it! Once you’ve killed or knocked out any civilian or enemy, you can ‘dispose of their body’ ala Hitman style. Although you don’t have to find somewhere to stash the stiff, you just pick the option and if you have enough action points you’ll pick up the body and hide it somewhere. This is crucial if you don’t want people randomly spotting the body and setting off the alarm!
Pretty much every mission can be completed either in stealth or all guns-a-blazing – however, if the enemy hears your guns or if an alarm is set off then every few turns either more enemy reinforcements will turn up in the mission or an airstrike will commence as it drops bombs on the agents not hidden within the buildings.
An agent is only as good as his/her guns. This is very true within Phantom Doctrine. As your agents level up, you can send them off for specific training which increases their proficiency with certain weapons as well as adding new passive and active abilities to their personality. If you equip an agent with a gun they are proficient in (indicated by a star), then you get to use mods with the said weapon! For example, you can have a shotgun with a silencer so you can quietly fill an agent with lead without alerting anyone – or how about putting toxic bullets in your pistol or a new barrel to make your machine gun bullets even deadlier! If you wish to proceed on the harder difficulties you really need to get used to using and abusing this mechanic!
I’ve also touched on the supports as well – what are these? If you’ve done a Tactical Recon then you can have up to six non-active agents provide support via various off-screen actions such as uncovering a large area of the map, sniping the enemies, launching toxic bombs and more. Where Phantom Doctrine gets even better is the fact you have to assign each of these agents to either the North, East, South or West of the screen BEFORE you play the mission. This means an agent placed in the south won’t be able to hit someone who is on the north side of a building due to having no line of sight for example.
One thing which you may not know as you play the game, as not everything is explained very well in Phantom Doctrine and some options are so small and easy to miss – when you’re in the loadout screen, if you press R1 then you’ll enter the ‘buy’ mode where you can purchase new gear and weapons for your team. It took me about 25 hours until I spotted this option and it completely changed the way I played the game!
Bugs and issues:
Not everything is smooth sailing though – I love the game to death, I’m on over 70 hours at the moment, but there are some issues that I encountered. Just to be clear here as well, there is a day one patch coming ‘soon’ but it’s not out yet for me – plus I’m only talking about the PS4 version as I understand it isn’t at the same level as the PC version yet (due to the missing patch).
I can’t change the difficulty once I’ve started a game – it ends up freezing the whole game. The cursor sometimes has a fit and spaz’s out all over the place in certain situations. The game stopped progressing based on certain choices I made in the story. Key items were randomly placed in a way I couldn’t access them. Agents continued to work for me after I killed them or they left my employment. There were also a few smaller issues that didn’t really impact the game as much as the above.
Issues-wise: Square is the button to progress time on the map as well as the confirm button, which leads to a lot of unintentional skipping of important pop-ups. Enemies will comically slide across cupboards or jump in and out of upstairs windows if you’re blocking their move-to point. Again, there were also a few smaller issues that didn’t impact gameplay which happened.
The good news is that I reported all of these issues over a week ago and I was advised that pretty much every point I raised is now ‘fixed’ in the Xbox and PC versions (PS4 just needs the patch) and the issue I had where the game wouldn’t progress if you choose certain dialogue options is being looked into and should hopefully also be resolved in the patch. Just in case it isn’t – save regularly with manual saves in Chapter six 😉
**Update** – So, Patch 1.01 for Phantom Doctrine has landed and I’ve just spent about 5 hours playing the game. I’ve crossed out the issues I can confirm which are now fixed – the others may or may not be fixed, I have no way of checking – however, the patch notes are huge! So I imagine everything should have been resolved by now! I’ll post a full patch notes update soon but pretty much all my issues and concerns, including the lower quality agent select screen, appears to have been looked at and amended in some way!
My full patch notes can be viewed here: https://www.gamepitt.co.uk/phantom-doctrine-ps4-patch-notes-1-01/
Graphically, Phantom Doctrine is a beautiful game. The character models all look great both at a distance and when zoomed right in, the environments have clearly had a lot of care and time put into them in terms of their graphics, layout and the overall theme and feel of the game is spot on. The only issue I had with any of the visual aspects would be the agent’s passports. When an agent has too much heat you can give them a new ID via your forger facility. However, this lets you pick a new passport picture and name but the character model doesn’t change to reflect the character you pick. This breaks immersion as I had an in-game stocky black woman with a thin Asian woman as her passport image. The airport attendant who cleared her should be fired immediately!
I would have liked it if the developers had made a character model for each of the 40+ passport images so that as we changed that, the in-game character changed as well. However, that’s the only thing I had an issue with – cutscenes are mainly static images with voice over and are well-drawn, just like everything within the game! One other small issue is the team selection screen – the character models look like they have half loaded in and are a bit blurry. in-game they aren’t that bad, but this screen is a bit strange.
Soundwise, Phantom Doctrine really get ambitious. If you’re playing as the CIA then expect your in-game acquaintances to speak America or Irish, the KGB throws in some Russian speaking voice-overs and the Mossad also utilises a foreign dialect (not sure which one). Every single voice in the game, and there are a lot of them, sounds real and authentic – I didn’t have any issues with any of them. Well, maybe one. “I’m listening so hard right now” is not only a rather strange thing to say but it’s also something you’ll hear a lot as you play through the CIA story.
The music in all of the various missions, the base music, the map, the cutscenes – I can’t falter it. I need this soundtrack! I’m going to try and hunt it down later on when the game goes on sale on Steam as I want to add it to my collection of soundtracks to use when writing my reviews! The only small issue with the voices is regarding the repetitive nature of the lines – especially when you’ve played the game as much as I have! Also, the foreign speakers have a lot of subtitled text in the top corner whilst talking in their native tongue – which could annoy some people.
Do you have friends?
An aspect of the game which I never actually got to try out is its multiplayer mode. From what I gather, it’s a 1v1 standoff of one person’s team against another. You can either host a public game or join anyone else, simply pick what map, how many turns, and how many points each player has and away you go! The points are used to hire and kit out your team, so the higher the number, the more weaponry you can have!
Overall then, how does Phantom Doctrine stack up against other great tactical RPG games such as XCOM? Personally, I prefer Phantom Doctrine over any variation of this genre I’ve played to date. If you look past the bugs and issues (which I’ve been assured aren’t in the latest update) then you have a very solid game with strong mechanics, lots of depth and micro-management as well as tonnes of content and a very, very long story – especially if going for the platinum as it requires playing as all three factions. Sure, there are only a certain amount of locations that are re-used every now and again, but the placements of the enemies, their attack patterns, your own loadouts, it’s all different and helps create a truly unique experience every time you play it.
The developers have done an amazing job of portraying a realistic story combined with beautiful imagery and a multitude of weapons and abilities. Throughout my 50-hour first playthrough and my 20+hours in my second playthrough, I’ve not got tired or bored of it and I can easily see myself doubling that time as I experiment with the final faction as well. I have to admit, I’ve lost many nights of sleep and fell behind on reviewing some games because all I can do at the moment is play this game – it’s that addictive and the satisfaction you get for successfully completing a mission that’s been annoying you is indescribable!
Phantom Doctrine is the best tactical RPG I’ve played this generation so far. It takes heavy influences from the rebooted XCOM series yet adds it’s own spin and design onto the whole game in order to make it it’s own with new mechanics and possibilities. Focused more on the realistic over the fantastical, Phantom Doctrine delivers three similar yet different storylines which will keep you engaged for over 40 hours per faction as you delve into their respective perspectives of the same events and beyond. There is very little not to like with this game, the Investigation Board can get a bit monotonous after a while but every combat section is as engaging and exciting as the last one.
If you’re a fan of the XCOM series, you need to do yourself a favour and pick up Phantom Doctrine today. You won’t regret it and you’ll most likely become as addicted and infatuated as I have done!
- - Great story told through three separate, playable factions (40-50 hours each in length)
- - Rock solid mechanics both in and out of the combat sections
- - Great soundtrack and voice acting (for the most part)
- - Not only is there three factions but there is also two game modes (basic and extended)
- - Loads of weapons, abilities, support units and case files to collect, use and read
- - The Investigation Board does get a bit monotonous after a while
- - There are issues with the PS4 version (see above) which is awaiting it's patch
- - The tutorials and in-game help doesn't teach you everything