It’s hard to believe that it’s been a year since Phoenix Point came out on the Epic Store. Fast forward to today and developers Snapshot Games Inc. have released three installments of DLC, a metric ton of updates, graphical updates, new equipment, and even a rebuilt tutorial to help new players acclimate to the unforgiving tactical combat. Time to put our boot to some alien crustacean butt and see what’s new under the sun in Phoenix Point: Year One Edition.
For those who skipped the Epic Store launch, Phoenix Point is a spiritual successor to X-COM: UFO Defense, a brilliant turn based tactical title that holds up to this day. In Phoenix Point, humanity is facing extinction having released a deadly virus (dubbed Pandoravirus) from the melting permafrost in the arctic. This virus immediately begins to mutate anything it touches, turning any creature into beasts straight out of any good H.P. Lovecraft novel. The year is now 2047, and seemingly all hope is lost. You are the leader of a secret group of soldiers called Phoenix Point who intend to fight back against the spreading Pandoravirus by any means necessary.
As you take your fight to the enemy you’ll encounter three other factions who are also pushing back against the alien threat, but have wildly different ideas of what that looks like. The Disciples of Anu worship “the Dead God”, and believe that they can evolve humanity with limited exposure to the alien mist to allow them to “evolve” into their higher forms. In short, these people are cultists, but that doesn’t make their advancements any less viable or useful. Synedrion believes that technology is the key to dealing with the alien threat, but they intend to use their advanced tech to build a wall that can repel the mist. Since this hasn’t worked ever in the history of the world, it’s unlikely that this is the path, but their technology could be the key to rebuilding the dying planet. The last faction is New Jericho. New Jericho is a ragtag group of mercenaries and ex-military who are mounting a resistance with captured military and industrial gear left from the old world. Their ability to manufacture weapons and equipment are very useful in a war where resources are extremely scarce. Who you align with is entirely up to you, as are the consequences of alienating the others.
If you’ve not picked up on it, Phoenix Point looks to provide you with a wealth of options, allowing you to pick your playstyle with alignments to any of the three competing factions. Do you align with one and use your combined might to raid the resources of the others? Do you try to straddle the fence and balance all three? No matter what you choose you’ll face an ever-evolving and dangerous foe that will stretch your tactical skills to the limit.
One of the biggest changes to the X-COM formula is the addition of willpower. Willpower allows you to unleash special moves but also serves as a barometer of your soldier’s morale. The willpower system was meant to inject flexibility in the field, allowing you to “stretch” a soldier’s turn to allow them to take different actions than just move, shoot, power, or run. Instead, you could, as an example, run into the open for a better shot using one action, shoot using two action points, and then use one last point to dash back into cover. Similarly, you could use four action points to simply fire your pistol four times. Sniper rifles take three action points, so your options are more limited. Where willpower comes in is stretching beyond these action points. Expending a willpower point allows you to reduce that sniper rifle action down to two, granting some additional flexibility to reload, move, or take two shots with a pistol to finish off a nearby target. The hitch? Willpower doesn’t regenerate. Killing foes will restore some of your willpower, but the only real cure for tired soldiers is rest. Since the enemy can also take advantage of the willpower system, figuring out how best to manage this limited resource
The issue at the launch of Phoenix Point a year ago was that there were a number of exploits for willpower. You could find loopholes that would allow a single sniper to kill everything that moved, wiping out the enemy in a single round. Most of these have been removed, thankfully, but a few remain. Once I got a handheld stunning device for capturing units, I found that I was able to use it without cost, slowly killing even the largest of enemies in a single turn. I’m sure more will be found by inquisitive gamers, but suffice it to say that it’s improved, but not quite “done”.
There are a lot of balance improvements in the Year One Edition. While it’s still very possible to have an entire team wiped off the map by a tough encounter, the game has shifted a little bit towards sanity. I no longer felt like the game was cheating or setting me up to fail, I just felt like I was unprepared for the task at hand — a very welcome shift. Thankfully, enemies evolve a little slower now, so it gives you time to grow your team before you’ll have to change tactics.
On the overworld portion of the game you have to use your Manticore troop carrier to jaunt around the world and investigate various points of interest. Before you had to find all of the Phoenix Point bases before you could clear them out and invest the resources to reactivate them. Now, those base locations are known. This helps balance out how quickly you can expand your footprint, which eases some of the boot-on-neck difficulty when the game launched a year ago.
One of the things that Phoenix Point did very differently than its contemporaries is the use of “Free Aim”. Any time you line up a shot your troops will aim at center mass, but you also have the option to take control of the targeting reticule directly. Aiming with your mouse allows you to select individual body parts on your target. The reticule is split into an inner and outer ring. 100% of your bullets will land in the bounds of the outer ring, but at least 50% of them will hit the middle ring. Given that this can be the difference between disabling an enemy or just pissing it off, this becomes important. Whether this makes you feel like a master tactician or if it becomes tedious is entirely personal preference, but I am more the former than the latter. That said, the symbols in this system are utterly confusing. Are more arrows inside of the ring better? Less? What causes them to change? What’s going on? After 20 hours I still don’t know. Let’s talk about shooting the arms off critters for a second.
Phoenix Point’s enemies, be they human or otherwise, are all made up of component parts. Vehicles have tires, turrets, armor, and more, and people have arms, legs, head, torso, etc. Each part has a purpose — movement, holding a gun (some are two handed), perception for aiming (head) etc. What makes Phoenix Point unique is that it takes this formula, which has been present in a lot of other turn based tactical games, and tries to adapt it. Enemies you fight will notice that you’ve decided to try to shoot off their heads and might evolve a massive chitinous plate over their skull. Maybe you like to pick their legs off — expect armor there too. It turns the enemies into puzzles, especially the bosses, requiring some positioning, forethought to bring the right gear, and a little planning and tactics in the field. Is it perfect? No, but it does mean you can’t rely on the same tactics throughout the entire game, and that’s worth the occasional missed shot that you know should have torn off an arm, but instead landed squarely on a massive shield instead. The only downside in having a system that relies heavily on modification of an enemy through swapping their parts is that it can make the foe roster feel shallow.
When the dust settles, a year has been extraordinarily helpful to Snapshot Games. The AI is sharper, the animations are better, the fight feels more fair, and the game takes risks that make it feel fresh. While there are still some bugs to iron out, and the UI can be confusing at times, there’s a lot to enjoy in Phoenix Point: Year One Edition.