Well, someone’s been looking at somebody’s worksheet.
Yeah, truth be told, I didn’t like Hyper Light Drifter. It felt muddy in all the places it needed to be clean, and that stupid visual storytelling gimmick doesn’t work when the visuals can’t be referenced to reality. Still, people did, which is probably why this anomaly showed up on storefronts one day. Ladies and gentlemen, I bring you the Phantom Trigger.
This is the new ‘hack n’ slash’ affair from Eastern European studio Bread Team, who are… an enigma, to say the least. Their website doesn’t offer a whole lot of information and seems to list a third member of their team, despite two of them actually existing in some form online, and the third is nowhere. Still, unless it’s an ARG, it doesn’t matter. What’s Phantom Trigger about?
See, the thing about the story is that from the get-go, it’s a bit “Spoiler Avenue”. It’s got that SOMA vibe where you don’t know what reality is supposed to be the real one. Nevertheless, you follow the story of Sam, who awakes one morning wanting French toast, only to collapse in front of his wife and be told he’s dying. With the help of an experimental treatment, he gets to play the world’s simplest Hack n’ Slash in his head.
There’s a certain delusion going on here. Bread Team believe that they’ve got some incredibly smart narrative framing here, which is fair enough. Even at the beginning, intrigue is at an all-time high, and some of the dialogue does imply a bigger field of play. If only it wasn’t all spoiled at the beginning by a talking tree and a blue sword.
Yes, mess around with the weapon in the starting area, and the entire story gets spoiled for you immediately, and it’s not the same thing as allusions, mind you. For example, in God of War (2018), it’s foreshadowing, a hint with absolutely no context whatsoever, something that no first-time player is going to figure out right away. Here, the “hint” is a downright spoiler, removing all pre-tenses, and it’s because you might want to mess around with the combat, which is good.
Actually, before we get into the nitty-gritty, we should address the elephant in the room, and that’s the obvious comparisons to Hyper Light Drifter. In truth, the game actually isn’t a clone of it, and may only seem like it at face value, as Phantom Trigger is a lot more linear in how it flows, and it doesn’t even seem anywhere near as pretentious. Right, done, combat now.
The gist is that you have three weapons almost immediately at your disposal, and part of the difficulty comes from how well you can integrate all three weapons together. You have an Ice weapon, Fire punch, and a Green Whip, and the best combos come from variety; The Ice is a general all-rounder weapon, the Fire is essentially your heavy attacks, and the whip is used to bring your enemies much closer for the kill.
Even though it takes a while to get into any meaty fights, it all works fine, there’s definitely a lot of skill needed to save face and health, which is more necessary than the usual hack n’ slash affair as time goes on. Bread Team expect a lot of you right away, and thanks to a stunning lack of enemy variety, it won’t take long to mash combos together that always work.
Despite being incredibly easy to pick up and master the combo timing, one thing that will always bugger you over is a lack of pacing and telegraphing from enemies. The screen is quite zoomed out in combat, which not only makes you miss monsters lining up their attacks on you, but it also increases the graphical density on display.
Not only are you trying to focus on the enemies, but there’s also the fire pits you need to dodge, and the screen glitches out every once in a while, so watch out for that, and don’t forget the background environment getting in the way. There’s an incredible amount of visual noise in fights, and it’s one of the main reasons you’ll die more often than not.
One mechanic that was a bit of an arse to get around was the fact that you need to use weapons more in order to level them up, and gain more combos. Sounds fair in your head, but we’re dealing with a three-button combo system here, and there’s not a lot we can work with from there. In truth, the combos you gain at the beginning are much more effective than the combos you unlock later, so keep slamming X, X, Y, and you’ll be golden.
From there, everything else continues to be this underwhelming force. The game tells you to play it with headphones for the full experience, but I never understood why, as nothing that adds or detracts from the experience was heard. Maybe it’s an atmosphere thing, but the music is never really relevant, and nothing ever popped out from the sinister and creepy music that played. Whatever the point of the audio design was, it was ironically muted in execution.
The story, as stated previously, fails to blow you away with any narrative twist it provides. Even when disregarding the massive spoiler at the beginning, the issues come from revealing too much at the beginning with the character. You could’ve made it a lot more subtle by having the NPCs make allusions to your otherworldly self in a blasé fashion, as opposed to the prick just asking for breakfast being the first thing that comes to mind.
Another issue coming from the story is the fact that it has no space to evolve into something more sinister. The game’s only six hours long, and throughout that, there’s not much deviation from the norm. Yeah, you get those vague flashbacks (or flash-forwards? Hmm.) every once in a while, but they’re always isolated to one room, and once again, it’s not hard to piece together the twist from the beginning.
Despite the complaint of the graphics getting in the way more often than not, it still needs to be said that this game is gooooooorgeous. Hyper Light Drifter comparisons aside, these murky caves detailed with thick, deathly monuments and slightly restrained colour palettes are quite a sight, and it’s a wonder to see this cyber-horror world light up.
While I’d love to comment on further aspects of Phantom Trigger, I’m afraid I can’t because the game outright hates me. After attempting to play through the campaign three times, the game decided to delete my save data randomly each time. Once was near the end, once was near the beginning, and one didn’t even save after a three-hour binge session, so it’s nice to know that I’m welcome.
Is Phantom Trigger good? Yeah, by a hair, and I don’t know whether I can give a game a good pass on it just meeting the minimum amount of quality. The combat is in a catatonic state, the story is insultingly snobby, the characters are annoying, and the visuals are really nice. Everything in this game is working against each other as opposed to working together, in what can only be described as a “boring car crash”. If you really, really, really miss Hyper Light Drifter, and want something like it, then yeah, get this. If not?
I dunno, play Hyper Light Drifter again, they’re both the same level of quality, that being “not very”.
This review of Phantom Trigger is based on the Xbox One version of the game.
Yeah, it's okay. It's an okay hack n' slash. It's so ok, that Ok Go sued it for being so ok. Ok? Ok.
Owner of the largest collection of indie games in the Western Hemisphere, and TimeSplitters’ biggest fanboy.