Coming from tinyBuild and Bread Team, Phantom Trigger is described as a “Hardcore Neon Slasher”, a genre of games that I wasn’t familiar with until I started playing this one. As well as being hardcore, neon and slashy, the game also contains roguelike and RPG elements, basically meaning that as you play through and slaughter the bad guys, you will occasionally level up and find new weapons. With an appealing pixel art graphic style, I set out to discover if the game is as much fun as it looks.
Playing as Stan, you find your breakfast is rudely interrupted as you keel over and appear to die, while your wife is chattering merrily away about what you’re going to be eating. As the game fades back into view, you are riding a boat down a subterranean river arriving at a dock. It’s not made clear what river it is or why you’re there, but it’s reasonable to assume it’s the River Styx, in my mind at least. Arriving in a kind of encampment, you’re greeted by a group of friendly folk, who tell you to go and speak to a tree. Don’t worry, it gets weirder from here on out!
The tree in question is an obliging soul, and promptly hands you a sword; a blue blade imbued with the power of ice. You already have a green whip when you get off the boat (maybe acquired from the Duty Free shop?) and with these weapons in hand, you are invited to step into a portal and go and have an adventure.
So far, so good, but on stepping through the portal, you find a world full of enemy creatures who want to kill you, puzzles to solve, rooms to explore, and ambulatory televisions to kill.
Luckily, controlling Stan is a doddle, with simple, easy to grasp controls. A is mapped to a short range teleport, which can phase through attacks and enemies, and is mainly used for getting out of trouble. X is attached to your sword attack, and besides killing baddies can also be used to smash any blue crystals that block your way. Y is the green whip attack, which is used to bring enemies closer, and within range of your sword, and can also be used to set off stationary weapons that are dotted about the place. Finally, B sees you fire out a fist attack, which has a very short range but can hit multiple foes.
In addition to using your weapons in an offensive capability, they are also utilised in puzzle sections. See, every now and then you’ll come across a locked door next to a mechanism of some kind. Upon application of a weapon, pillars rise from the ground and flash in a sequence of colours that correspond to the colours of your weapons. Hit the correct pillar with the correct weapon three times and the door will open, usually giving you something worth picking up. Get a pillar wrong, however, and the puzzle will reset and a handful of monsters will spawn, making your life a lot harder than it needs to be!
As you’d expect from a ‘Hardcore Neon Slasher’, as you progress through the levels, various different monsters will attempt to to thwart your quest. These range from the simple that wander up to Stan and attempt to administer a good spanking, to blobs that set the floor ablaze in a trail behind them, to others that cause an AoE explosion when they jump. Luckily, as you gain XP and level Stan up, different combo attacks become available to our hero, unleashed by specific series of button presses. My personal favourite is the one that ends with an ice attack, freezing enemies solid for a brief period. Once frozen, a good slash will get rid of the chilly monsters, and this can prove a lifesaver when you are getting swarmed.
As Stan gets further through the game, better attacks become available, turning him into a card carrying, monster slaying badass! This is as complicated as Phantom Trigger gets; apply some blunt force trauma to some monsters, solve puzzles, unlock doors, and defeat bosses.
And yes, as you’d expect, the boss monsters are a lot more of a challenge. In fact, they require some serious lateral thinking to take down, and this sees the culmination of each level coming across as a frustrating one… until you work out how to take advantage of the weak points and/or patterns of attack. I’m not going to share any tips here about how to beat these guys, but there are various strategies available on a popular video sharing website! You’ll need them too.
Gameplay-wise and Phantom Trigger actually puts me in mind of Diablo 3, without the loot. With the same hack and slash gameplay, a similar XP grind, and the urge to explore every corner of the various maps, I think it is a fair comparison. There are, as you explore, various checkpoints built into the levels, which restore your health to maximum, a lot like the bonfires in Dark Souls. If you kill everything in the area before running over the checkpoint, however, the enemies stay dead, which makes life a bit easier. However, if you die, any progress you have made since the last checkpoint is lost, so you can find yourself retreading old ground if you aren’t careful. Each point can only be activated once as well, so choosing the right time to do it adds a layer of strategy to the game.
Graphically, the neon elements found within are woven into the background very well, making Phantom Trigger look like a pixelated Tron movie. The interplay of futuristic style visuals and old skool hardcore slashing gameplay should jar, but it’s a testament to the design that they don’t. Further to this, as Stan travels, various cutscenes are also played out, with branching dialogue options to choose. These scenes are rendered in the game engine, and in comparison to the fighting stages, the real world looks drab and washed out, as you may expect from someone suffering from a disease, as Stan appears to be. There are four different endings to unlock as well, depending on how you play the game, so the replay factor is there if you should need it. Sonically, there’s not really a lot going on, apart from the various slashing sound effects, but the minimalist design somehow matches the rest of the design choices.
All in all then, Phantom Trigger is something a bit different. It offers a branching story, lots of action and an appealing graphic style, but the designers have, for my money, taken the “hardcore” part of the synopsis a little too far. This is not an easy game by any means, and I will admit I had to lower the difficulty from the default “hard” to “normal” to make any meaningful headway. The gameplay is unforgiving, but with tight controls, and perhaps some younger reflexes than my own, I think that there is fun to be had here. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you when the monsters swarm you inches from a checkpoint!