From the originator of XCOM, Julian Gollop, comes a title to challenge the genre-defining game he was responsible for, a strategy turn-based behemoth appropriately named Phoenix Point: Behemoth Edition. Containing all the DLC and updates from its 2019 PC release, PP (as we shall call it) was unleashed on consoles in October 2021.
Humanity is on the brink of collapse from an alien threat known as the Pandorum and it’s your job as leader of the recently revived peace-keeping force the Phoenix Project to pull the world back from the precipice, form alliances with warring factions, and take the fight to the threat that has laid waste to the world with its virus and mutated army.
How you go about this though is entirely up to you, with tremendous freedom to tackle this threat however you wish.
The remnants of the old world are divided into 3 very different factions – New Jericho, who advocate human supremacy and who wish to return to how it was before the invasion; Synderion – who advocate a lack of a ruling structure and wish for co-existence, and the Disciples of Anu, who worship an alien god and wish for humanity to progress through mutation. These 3 have their own cities known as ‘havens’, their own technology and armies. Rising like a phoenix from the ashes, you need to pick up the pieces of the Phoenix Project, reactivate your long-abandoned bases and amass an army to push the world forward.
Who will you side with to achieve this goal? And how many times will you sacrifice your ideals to see to some semblance of normality? This is grey area where PP thrives and it’s a great compliment to the gameplay, allowing you to feel immersed in the world and sympathize with its inhabitants’ plight.
Gaining the factions’ trust is essential to ally with them and can be had by talking with them, defending them, and even the mandatory (and sometimes unwilling) sabotage of one of the other factions – but war my good friends, in PP, is unavoidable. Once you have built your relationship to certain levels you can gain access to their research, and even their equipment, which you can hugely benefit from as there is a great variety of very effective weapons specific to certain factions. It’s not a permanent agreement mind you, so if you fail to protect them from an attack, or irritate them by talking kindly to other factions and you’ll lose favor and any benefits you previously gained – so you need to flex your democratic muscles wisely.
The ‘home’ map offers the world (or ‘Geoscape’) as your playground and it allows you to expand your influence from your bases outwards with your aircraft being your tool to explore once you have the ability to scan the area. From your base and the map itself, you can scheme and plot which missions you should follow, where you wish to explore next, and also what to construct and research. The enemy will expand and evolve their influence from their nests, with roaming flying attacks and a virus that spreads a lovely shade of red all over the world.
In terms of the battle gameplay, the characters have upgrades depending on their assigned type and you are able to research and develop more equipment for them throughout the game as you can across more resources, your use of which is key to your success. Overspend your resources of ‘Tech’, ‘Materials’ and ‘Food’ and you put yourself at a huge disadvantage and in a hole that is hard to climb out of.
Launching into missions places you on an isometric grid battlefield with a team of up to 6 members and with the choice of 3 different types (Snipe, Assault, Heavy) as well as vehicles, you have the freedom to attack how you wish. Loadout with a team of snipers where you can perch on top of map’s buildings or equip a team solely with grenade launchers, you can approach the missions in completely different ways each time. After developing research or relationships with the other factions you can also recruit a large variety of different soldiers with very different skills.
The enemies are, in the beginning, equally few in number, but evolve and increase as the game goes on, becoming larger and more dangerous.
You are able to take multiple actions on each turn through the action point system, that might let you maneuver to a good shooting position, shoot and then even return to cover from fire by dipping into your ‘Will points’, assuming your character has that ability, which there is great flexibility in how your attack.
Players familiar with XCOM will be right at home with how PP plays with an overwatch system and action points that you have available each turn, but one aspect that differs is a free aim shooting system, which allows you to go from the standard isometric view to a behind the shoulder and then to a first-person view to shoot at the enemy. If that wasn’t awesome enough, they’ve also added a detailed damage system that allows you to focus on specific limbs causing effects like removing equipment, restricting movement, or adding status effects.
Permadeath is also very much a threat and combined with a decent customization system, and even a memorial page for fallen soldiers, it should have made for some particularly tense moments when a customized character is on the verge of death, but it, unfortunately, leaves too much of that dramatization down to your imagination with very little dedicated to the loss within the fight itself. Sure, your characters groan with their last breath, and your remaining team members all lose ‘will points’, but there is a big gaping hole where the theatrics should be, lacking recognition between your teammates, no matter how small, to suggest that they care. Paradoxically this actually helps the game create an impersonal and dark atmosphere, one of inevitability and futility where losing entire teams to poor planning and impossible missions is perhaps expected.
Unfortunately, the enjoyment of the battle-based gameplay is handcuffed by surprisingly poor performance. It goes without saying that one of the game’s most marketable features should not be its worst-performing, but its free shooting animation freezes both the visuals and audio each and every time you fire a gun. That, all by its lonesome, can be gotten used to (until you see footage online of people playing without it), but what is harder to forgive are the game’s 2-3 minute loading sequences times and the soul-destroying bug that crashes the game every hour or two. It should be said that this is a well-known feature of the Unity game engine, but even by its own standards, this is a little extreme, bringing back memories of Soldier of Fortune‘s 2.5-minute loading screens on the SEGA Dreamcast – oh the nostalgia!
To get the most out of PP right away though you’ll need to do your research – unless you’re happy with wasting a 10+ hour campaign trying to figure it out. I, for example, went hours into the game with only one squad to battle the Pandorum, but the many dormant Phoenix bases and the worldwide mayhem that you need to keep an eagle’s eye on requires at least one other squad. Slow to pick this up, I found the virus and the enemy had reduced the world’s population down to an unrecoverable amount and when I tried to hastily create another team to counteract this, my leveled-up units were spread too thinly across the two teams, and my playthrough ended in a pathetic whimper, unable to defeat any meaningful missions with the few resources I had left.
Impressive is the game’s interface, with the menu and map design suiting the PS4 controller perfectly – which is frankly, nothing short of a miracle for a game with so many options. The visual quality of its assets and audio, though, is contrastingly average and does little to add to the overall experience, clocking in and clocking out at the right times but doing nothing noteworthy during its shift.
The worldwide political dealings and minuscule machinations provide by PP are something I greatly enjoyed. Add the customizable system, depth in both gameplay and story and everything you’d expect from a strategy game is here, it’s just not been actualized in the way you might have hoped.
Phoenix Point: Behemoth Edition offers incredible value with potentially 100s of hours of content and multiple endings, but there is no mistaking that the PS4 is probably not the greatest platform to play it on, with loading times that’ll give you time to do the dishes, clean your clothes and doomscroll twitter with time to spare. Assuming this game can be played without said extended delays and the frequent crashes, though, this is as good a strategy game to lose yourself in as any, and with the constant updates that it receives there’s no telling how good it might get.