If you are a fan of deep, complex strategy games, then the turn-based spy simulator Phantom Doctrine is one that you will want to love. Unfortunately, the game makes it extremely difficult for you to do so. It's a shining example of how a game with a bunch of great ideas can undermine itself repeatedly with terrible implementation. In theory, Phantom Doctrine should be an excellent game. It's a stealth-heavy, Cold War version of XCOM: Enemy Unknown, complete with tactical combat, light RPG elements, and some base management gameplay in between missions. The devil is in the details, though, and the game commits some of the most egregious sins in the recent memory. It's a shame, because the occasional dopamine rush that you get when everything comes together nicely gives you a tantalizing view into what the game could have been. Unfortunately, between each of those moments is half a dozen gameplay frustrations, marathon loading times, and a bunch of nonsensical storytelling.
There are too many irritating examples of how Phantom Doctrine shoots itself in the foot to list them all, but perhaps one example can illustrate those problems for you. The game includes security cameras - a staple of many stealth games. Spread throughout most levels are a couple of consoles where, if you infiltrate deep enough, you can disable the security cameras and thereby access other parts of the level undetected. However, on some levels, those consoles are either behind a choke point that is, itself, guarded by a security camera, or in a room that is so loaded with enemies that you cannot possibly get to it unseen. Some of the consoles are completely worthless because they shut off a camera that isn't even guarding a secure area. And thus, shutting down cameras becomes of those game mechanics that you experiment with and then abandon because the level design ultimately makes it worthless. Phantom Doctrine has more than a few shiny toys with which you are not allowed to play.
As hinted in the introduction, Phantom Doctrine very much draws its inspiration from XCOM, as well as other turn-based gunfight games that are heavily dependent on cover, positioning, and flanking. It is, in some ways, reminiscent of the developer's most recent title, Hard West, which came out a few years ago. The gameplay in Hard West was a little too repetitive and its production values were rather rough. Still, I remember being somewhat impressed by the game and was looking forward to what CreativeForge Games could come up with in the future. There are times when Phantom Doctrine showcases a high level of developer talent. The game has, if nothing else, an excellent selection of gameplay elements that fit in perfectly with the Cold War setting. While managing to feel familiar to turn-based strategy fans, it adds more than enough flavor to this formula to make it an entirely unique experience. There are lots of typical spy elements, like analyzing secret documents, rescue missions, interrogations, fake IDs, code names, and assassinations. It's a game that could be patched to become highly enjoyable, but it has some distance to cover before it gets there.
One of the ways in which Phantom Doctrine impresses is its production values. The game is well above par for a niche indie title when it comes to both its visuals and, especially, its soundtrack. There are a lot of crisp-looking assets - enough that when you can spend more than 60 hours playing it through to completion, you won't feel like you are constantly seeing the same little objects or people over and over again. Because of the nature of the game, there is a limit to the amount of variety that it can show in its environments. However, it still makes the most of them by packing them with details. The environments are loaded with a combination of period-appropriate décor, political materials like pictures of politicians or flags, and technology bits - my favorite were the little CRT screens on the security panels. The soundtrack is wonderful. During more peaceful moments, it offers up a rich mixture of tense, atmospheric tracks, the best of which would fit in perfectly in a game like LA Noire. During the more action-packed sequences, the music switches effectively into a "spy thriller action scene" mode. As a lovely added touch, the game makes heavy use of the PS4 controller speaker, cleverly putting all of the radio chatter onto it to make it feel like you are holding a little two-way radio in your hands as you play the game.
Playing Phantom Doctrine, unfortunately, is a torturingly bipolar experience. Usually, when I give a game an underwhelming final score, it's because I was mostly bored and the game didn't engage me. That is far from the case with Phantom Doctrine. It engaged me plenty - enough to hate it and ragequit it at least half a dozen times. The game is supremely frustrating, owing to both how unforgiving it is, but also how it seems to have been designed for the express purpose of constantly screwing over the gamer. Everything, especially during the turn-based missions, lures you in, only to quickly turn around and say "LOL Gotcha" as the game sadistically murders your squad or trashes your mission. Like a lot of stealth-based games, one little mistake can destroy half an hour's worth of careful planning and setup. In Phantom Doctrine, the mistakes come in blizzards.
You start almost every level on "infiltration" mode, which means that the enemies have yet to detect you, and you are free to explore areas in which you are not trespassing. Once you begin trespassing, if a single enemy or NPC sees you, the game enters a combat mode. At that time, every enemy knows exactly where each member of your squad is. When the stealth breaks, you usually have no choice but to immediately reload your saved game. Enemies essentially get one round of easy shots at your agents and they can usually take out at least one of them during that turn. On most levels you are heavily outnumbered, and once combat begins, reinforcements show up regularly until the mission ends. By the time I was at the halfway point of the game, I didn't even bother watching what happened if I got detected before I accomplished my objectives - I just immediately went into the menu screen.
Most places are crawling with enemies and NPCs, and the multitude of ways in which you can accidentally end up in their cone of sight is downright infuriating. Peek through a door to see what is in the next room, get spotted, break the level. Enter a room with windows, get spotted by a guard outside of the building, break the level. Try to get from Point A to Point B, only to have the game's pathfinding take you through an enemy's cone of vision, get spotted, break the level. Silently take out some guards as you infiltrate, only to watch helplessly as an enemy agent gets suspicious and walks directly to the closest guard's body. It gets spotted, you break the level. That mechanic, the one where the game actually penalizes you for knocking out guards, is one of the more obnoxious ways of punishing the player that I have ever experienced.
In theory, you should be able to shoot your way through each level, and Phantom Doctrine offers a fairly robust combat system for doing just that. Unfortunately, the ridiculous odds that you face on most levels render most of that system useless. Exactly how some of the mechanics work isn't clear (a common theme throughout the game). Ideally, the combat should involve pinning down enemies and flanking them while keeping your agents always in cover. In practice, through, enemies are too spread out for you to take advantage of your agents' mobility. If you move out of cover to get a better firing angle at an enemy, chances are you are exposing your back to an enemy or two that might be able to kill you in one round. In combat, there's always a timer ticking down, after which enemy reinforcements or air strikes will arrive Since these reinforcements continue indefinitely, you never have an opportunity to be patient and use careful tactics. Even if you are patient and careful, just about every location in the game is exposed from some angle. If you are sandwiched between enemies, then it's impossible to be in cover against both of them, and you are toast. The lines of sight are frustratingly long, and enemies are adept at finding your one agent who isn't standing behind a box and picking him or her off.
One of the reasons why Phantom Doctrine is so unenjoyable for such long periods is because it does a poor job of explaining everything but the basics of combat to you. Even with those explained, it helps to be a veteran of the genre. And, even if you are just that, you might still find yourself wondering "how exactly does the Awareness mechanic work?", "what does Damage Threshold mean", or "how come I can't put this silencer on this pistol?". This issue extends out of combat and out of stealth into the base management gameplay as well. There, you may find yourself wondering "why should I brainwash an agent" or "what exactly am I supposed to be figuring out when I solve these secret dossiers?". Phantom Doctrine teaches you its lessons the hard way in almost every circumstance. Each one of those moments, be it your squad getting cut to pieces or one of your agents being spotted by a random NPC who walks around the corner, is accompanied by an even more frustrating loading screen. The loading times in Phantom Doctrine are horrible. The time that it takes to load your game from within a level is the same as the initial load for the level. You have to sit though one of those funkillers every single time when you load your saved game. You may do this as many as ten, twenty, or even thirty times on a level, depending on how tough it is and how well you have learned the game's mechanics. I am fond of saying that difficulty in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but it does exacerbate a game's issues. In this case, it is the loading times that overshadow what Phantom Doctrine gets right.
Another aspect of the game that is explained to you quite poorly is its story. Since it's spy fiction, there's something to be said for holding back information for the curious gamer. Phantom Doctrine, however, holds back the basics, like what you are even supposed to be doing in the first place. You are member of a shadowy multinational spy organization known as The Cabal, and your enemies are the members of a rival organization known as Beholder. The game gives you absolutely no background or context for what the Cabal is or what goals it has. Nor does it explain to you who Beholder is. How did the Cabal come to exist in the first place? Why is there a spy organization consisting of CIA, KGB, and MI-6 agents all hanging out in Moscow? What are Beholder's motivations? Phantom Doctrine fails to give you any reason to fulfill your objectives, other than because you need to fulfill them to advance the game.
At one point while playing Phantom Doctrine, I was faced with a tough challenge. I had only one round to silently take out three enemies, and I only had two agents. Fortunately, I was able to call in sniper support to kill one while my two agents quickly knocked out the other two. When I pulled off that perfect little feat of timing and planning, I quietly celebrated with a fist pump before returning to the game. It is moments like this one for which the game was clearly intended. To its credit, those moments are definitely there, and the correct gameplay elements were chosen to make them happen. Unfortunately, each one of those happy highs was followed by at least a few moments where I wanted nothing more than to walk away from the game and never return again. Phantom Doctrine is a game that is not without merit, but if you decide to tackle it, then you should prepare yourself to endure that sort of love-hate relationship with it. And, if some of the game's issues, like the frustrating details of its stealth and its badly inadequate tutorial can be addressed, then it suddenly becomes an easy one to recommend.