Almost 30 years on from its conclusion, the Cold War continues to grip Western imaginations. The political landscape of two global superpowers locked into inactivity by the threat of mutually assured destruction, only able to flex their aggression through proxy wars, lends itself to tales of intrigue, espionage, and conspiracy. Predictably, the body of fiction touching on the era is vast, but voices continue to expand on its history and mythology, as well as presenting alternative stories of what might have been. With Phantom Doctrine, Warsaw-based developer CreativeForge Games becomes the latest contributor to this wealth of narratives, offering an inspired turn-based grand strategy game that casts players as one of the superpowers against a rogue third party trying to destabilise the precarious peace.
Whether the genre demands archetype be adhered to or because CreativeForge is uncertain of deviating too far from established norms, the premise of the story bear clear similarities to that of XCOM. In the face of a global threat—a clandestine, human organisation known as Beholder—the player assumes a commanding role in an effort to prevent annihilation. Blessedly, the grounded set dressing is entirely capable of drowning the sense of familiarity, and the decision to sideline the usual tropes of capitalism vs communism is welcome. As an agent of either the CIA or KGB, the player takes leadership of The Cabal, a distinct arm of the intelligence agency with seemingly unlimited power. What follows is a high-stakes Cold War thriller worthy of Robert Ludlum or John le Carré, but the telling leaves much to be desired. Key moments are divulged via animated storyboard scenes, but most narrative beats are not afforded the same attention. Instead, the tale unfolds primarily through audio conversations and text logs provided either prior to or following missions. While this approach does not detract from quality or enjoyableness, it does relegate narrative to the background. The resulting tendency for the player to overlook nuance is not of significant detriment to engagement with the story, but a similar sense of brevity is manifest in some of the tutorials.
The training provided grants players an understanding of the central mechanics across the layers of battle, strategy, and investigation; shortcomings emerge in the detail. For example, how the ‘awareness’ meter determines the likelihood of a character dodging an attack feels obscure and frequently unfair; player units sometimes take maximum damage even with a full bar while enemies—and particularly boss-styled units—can dodge even with depleted awareness. Similar oversights for several other aspects also exist, but they are more forgivable as the relevant mechanics can be deciphered through trial-and-error and genre familiarity. Furthermore, while the lack of handholding will almost certainly be appreciated by core gamers, Phantom Doctrine’s complexity and brutal early difficulty may be enough to turn users away nonetheless.
Even veterans of XCOM and its ilk may struggle thanks to the almost constant, overwhelming sense of disadvantage. Often, players are limited to taking only two or three agents into the field at any given time and, early on, the weapons and abilities at their disposal are extremely limited. Therefore, stealth is the preferred option, but the game does not make that particularly viable. Some abilities facilitate silent infiltration, but key equipment such as weapon suppressors can only be found in the field, and agents must possess proficiency with the gun in question before any attachments can be added. Consequently, agents almost invariably stumble into explosive situations, made more overwhelming by the enemy AI’s ability to call in endless reinforcements. However, as the game progresses, players gain access to ever more powerful equipment, and units also level up and gain passive buffs, increasing their statistics and abilities, resulting in an inverse difficulty curve. Even so, players must constantly be on their toes, as agents can be moles for the enemy side, turning against their comrades at inopportune moments in the heat of battle. This trait is just one of many to add elements of unpredictability, keeping Phantom Doctrine fresh across its lengthy campaign.
Additionally, the game is far from a simple knock-off of its forebears, though CreativeForge’s claim of a “next-generation” turn-based battle system is not entirely accurate. Alongside the aforementioned awareness mechanic, the only real standout feature is the semi-realtime ‘Breach’ ability that all units possess. This mechanic theoretically enables players to clear a room of enemies while remaining in a stealth state, but, in reality, its use-cases are relatively limited. More intriguing is the way that Phantom Doctrine ties together the disparate layers of combat, strategy, and research by having loot dotted around the environments. To progress the narrative more quickly and gather the resources required to have a fighting chance, players must scour the battlegrounds, collecting documents and resources as they go. Other games in the genre have tried similar methods, but few achieve the same elegance or implicit narrative justification for these inclusions.
Beyond the battlefields, Phantom Doctrine features a grand strategy board that demands users be aware of the world state at any given time. The map features a home base from which agents are sent across the globe to hotspots of suspicious activity. Unlike XCOM, in which almost all warnings lead to battle, reaching these areas can give players the chance to eschew combat, reducing both the danger posed to agents and the experience they earn, or uncover informants who will provide additional intel about ongoing investigations. However, this strategy cuts both ways. The player’s home base is liable to be raided when a danger level—determined by mission failures, new agent hires, and other variables—hits a certain threshold, resulting in significant losses to funds and resources. Unfortunately, despite being annoying, these raids are rarely truly damaging, as passive fundraising can recoup the setbacks in relatively short time periods.
Nonetheless, the moments following a raid are those in which the grand balancing act of Phantom Doctrine’s strategy layer comes to the fore. Agents often go missing for a time after a raid, meaning that the ability to respond to threats is curtailed, particularly if the player wishes to dedicate themselves to rebuilding as quickly as possible. To assist in this process, the base of operations is expandable with a body modification shop, a forgery, and additional slots for the infirmary and crafting workshop. These constructions provide ready access to extra skills, money, and equipment, but require agents to operate, thereby reducing the amount of units responding to threats. Therefore, success requires an ability to manage multiple concerns simultaneously, but the game is not as punishing as some of its contemporaries, wherein a slump locks users into a downward spiral to inevitable failure; Phantom Doctrine ensures players can always fight back.
The final third of the game, and perhaps its most novel feature, is the investigation board. Modelled after the corkboard and string connective deduction processes commonly seen in film and televisionthe idea presents an attempt to involve users with the unravelling of the narrative. Unfortunately, the process is reductive. Players are required to do little more than scan censored documents for obvious codewords, then connect them to complete the investigation. While gamers looking for an intellectual challenge will be disappointed by the simplicity, the approach is understandable. The decision to connect this mechanic to the story means that higher complexity is likely to act as an unwanted barrier to progression. With the investigation process already slowed by difficulties in acquiring documents from both battlefields and strategy board informants, CreativeForge’s decision to keep demand on the player low ensures the mechanic does not detract from the overall pace of the game any more than necessary.
Ensuring the game appeals to strategy die-hards appears to have been a driving force in development, and that approach pays off thanks to the high level of satisfaction arising from successful completion of missions. However, players sucked in by the promise of a “next-generation” experience are likely to be disappointed by the shortage of mechanics that truly push the genre forward. Meanwhile, the investigation elements are too simplified to make it a key draw. A number of minor bugs also mar the experience, but these issues are not severe enough to harm enjoyment. In many ways, Phantom Doctrine is a brilliant addition to the lineage of the turn-based strategy genre, introducing some novel wrinkles to make the typically disparate gameplay and narrative feel more cohesive.