Phantom Doctrine’s take on XCOM- style strategy manages to be exciting, original, dull, and underwhelming.
Phantom Doctrine is a stranger XCOM with rougher edges. The combat doesn’t compare well to Firaxis’ cinematic chess game, and it does little to explain core systems that differentiate it, like stealth and detection. As you approach the end of its campaign, each mission begins to feel like the last. It reminds me a lot of Jagged Alliance— occasionally brilliant moments emerge from unpredictable systems and opaque rules, but more often I just felt bored. At the beginning, you decide if your main character is ex-CIA or ex-KGB, and this choice sets up a distinct intro to the bad guys, a conspiracy group called The Beholder Initiative. When you’re not playing the turn-based portion of Phantom Doctrine, you’re engaged in a pausable global board game against this shadowy opponent, moving your agents between cities like pawns, playing whack-a-mole as Beholder agents try to locate your base or deny access to NPC informants. The metagame portion becomes a slight mess of alerts and micromanaging, but it adds urgency along the way.
A more pleasant noncombat task is the conspiracy board. Your cabal uncovers documents during missions, and this intel takes the form of a corkboard where you have to drag yarn between documents. It’s a word-matching minigame, but a captivating one. It made me feel like a crazed Charlie Day as codenames swirled around in my head.
When Phantom Doctrine leans into its theme like this, it reminds you of how much interesting unexplored territory there is in the spy genre. It’s unfortunate that such a core component—the spies themselves— are underdeveloped. Because agents pick from the same perks and can carry any weapon, I struggled to build fun specialists. It also hurts that the agent hiring menu continually serves up high-level, powerful spies, offering instant upgrades over the agents I’ve invested hours into. A couple of odd design decisions make it even harder to create unique agents. Melee takedowns are powerful in Phantom Doctrine: Any agent can execute a one-hit kill as long as they have more HP than their target. Perks that increase an agent’s HP or damage resistance become no-brainers. Pair this with the Actor perk and a disguised agent is effectively invisible to all enemies. It feels like having a cheat code.
If an alarm is triggered, a squad of reinforcements drop into the map. Things can go belly-up when four or five extra enemies appear, especially if one of your agents is incapacitated. But around half the time, I was able to throw a single grenade that annihilated them all.
Spies like us
Although it’s a bit sparse, the story wrapped around these combat encounters kept my interest. CreativeForge elegantly weaves a fictional conspiracy into Cold War history, and the plot avoids getting bogged down in convoluted geopolitics. However, my favorite moments are the choices Phantom Doctrine sprinkles throughout its campaign. When I got a notification that Agent Wraith might not have been completely honest about his ties to the NSA, I had to choose whether to spend money verifying the truth, confront him or execute him.
These are delightful twists. If Phantom Doctrine had doubled-down on these moments of flavor, my agents might have felt like genuine characters with histories. The same is true of the twists that activate during combat, which desperately need an exciting layer of presentation around them. One of the biggest payoffs in the game should be ‘activating’ an enemy who you’ve brainwashed. But there’s no fanfare, dialogue, or musical sting to accompany their turn. You simply gain instant control of the enemy, the game’s code coldly transferring ownership to the player.
It sucks that so many of Phantom Doctrine’s good ideas are underdeveloped. Completing missions undetected made me feel clever, but melee takedowns are a skeleton key for combat. The random events that target your agents present fun choices but are fleeting. Mindcontrolling enemies seems dark and interesting, but mostly amounts to buttons and icons on menus.
Intel takes the form of a corkboard where you have to drag yarn