Phantom Doctrine is the cold war spy thriller of my dreams, spinning an intricate web of intrigue and conspiracy. The game has you staring at a world map, trying to unravel the increasingly complicated plot while sending your agents all over the globe, doing spy stuff in turn-based encounters. It’s a moody, highly atmospheric game that perfectly captures the essence of spy flicks and novels, but sadly, it also has a few issues.
Creative Forge, developers of turn-based Weird West tactics game Hard West, certainly hit all the right beats here. Most of the narrative developments take place in the strategy mode, where you pull the strings of your covert organization – this includes literally connecting documents with strings on a Pinboard to uncover new plot elements, which is all kinds of amazing.
You can develop your headquarters, add facilities to forge money and documents, improve your agents via questionable implants, or brainwash captured opponents. If you mess up too often in the field, your operatives’ covers will be blown, requiring new identities. Likewise, if you let your enemies operate without foiling their plans, your headquarters’ location will be compromised, requiring you to destroy all traces of your organization and set up shop elsewhere.
The spy business is not a straightforward affair, so you will be tasked with managing your different operations. There’s always someone travelling somewhere, working on something, or performing duties in your HQ. Keeping all the players safe in the field while actively working towards larger goals and keeping track of stuff that spontaneously crops up – rumors of enemy activity in Beirut! A possible informant in Paris! – will put your multi-tasking abilities to the test. It’s stressful in a rather pleasant way. There’s always something going on, but you never get the feeling that you’re treading in place.
Thematically, all of this is spot-on and, as far as I am concerned, enjoyable enough to overlook several issues, which mostly manifest themselves in the field. Let’s say your task is to infiltrate an enemy building to kill or capture an important informant. You deploy two of your agents outside, and the first step is to find a point of entry without raising the alarm right away.
Your agents would certainly be outnumbered, and considering how combat works in this game (trading the traditional “to hit percentage” with a system where most shots hit and damage is calculated by taking factors like cover and distance into account), this would make your mission very difficult indeed.
So you’re outside, and you’ll spend the first few turns looking for a way in. One entrance is well-guarded, the other one is covered by camera surveillance. There is always some loophole, some way of knocking out a guard and sneaking in or breaking in through an unguarded window or whatnot, but finding it may take a while. This is particularly true in the beginning of the game, where for some reason, silenced weapons are not at your disposal. Seriously, a spy thriller without silenced pistols? Heresy. In any case, the pacing feels off.
Suppose you’ve made your way inside now. Let the save-scumming begin! Each new room you walk into could somehow alert the guards of your presence, so your way through these tactical encounters is filled with trial-and-error. It’s utterly satisfying when your plans work out, but there have been situations that forced me to try again way too many times in order to prevent early detection. It’s overall a bit fiddly and the game doesn’t always explain its mechanics too well.
When it works, it is glorious. Missions where my team had to shoot its way out of an ambush, or stealthy abductions that turned awry in the last minutes and became edge-of-your-seat escapes will certainly stay with me for a while. On the other hand, there are covert missions, which – when played right – just aren’t that exciting. If you come here, expecting a more XCOM-like experience, it might take a bit until you fully get along with the game’s idiosyncracies.
What I am getting at is that you probably shouldn’t play Phantom Doctrine for its moment-to-moment tactics gameplay. Not yet, that is, as the developers are currently hard at work tackling issues that the player base has with the game. Sweeping changes to some of the mechanics have been announced, and they might shake up the turn-based missions quite a bit. Until then, you should absolutely get this for the phenomenal cold war spy stuff. Play on easy, save-scum the hell out of the missions, and just enjoy the intrigue.
You can purchase Phantom Doctrine from GOG and Steam. The game has also been released on the PS4 and will be out next week on the Xbox One. For more information, visit the game’s website or follow latest updates on Twitter.