Phantom Trigger Review: Dissociation
Kalvin Martinez / Sep 11th, 2017 No Comments
When a video game is firing on all cylinders, it usually strikes a balance between its sound, art, gameplay and story. But games tend to shine only in one of these areas. There is a constant push and pull when the balance is off between these different elements of a game. To what degree can an exceptionally strong element cover up a deficiency in another area? Does that strength matter if the game is a slog to get through?
Phantom Trigger is not a slog to get through by any means. However, it clearly shines brightest in terms of its narrative. What it does over the course of its story is fascinating. It helps cover for gameplay that often feels humdrum.
Stan used to live a normal life; working a normal job with a normal wife talking about an ordinary dinner. That was until he got diagnosed with a mysterious illness. Then life got interesting.
His doctor suggested the best bet to beat it was surgery, but Stan was obstinate against it, mainly because of money. He opted for an experimental treatment because it was cheaper, but there were side effects.
As Stan undergoes treatment, his mind begins to deteriorate along with his physical well-being. Stan creates a world inside himself and a persona to navigate it, The Outsider.
The worse he gets, the more severe his psychic breaks become and the stronger The Outsider becomes. The battle for Stan isn’t only physical, but mental. What is reality when your mind isn’t yours anymore?
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Phantom Trigger’s story hooks you from the very beginning. In a short scene, we get the setup for what will drive the narrative going forward. With little more than small talk between a married couple, we learn so much about Stan, his life, and his relationship with his wife.
The picture only gets clearer and bleaker as Stan gets more sick. This dreary personal drama sucks you in even when the richer, more colorful mental world takes center stage. As Stan’s story acts as interludes, you become more curious to see where everything will land with Stan and his illness.
When you learn more about who The Outsider is and the world he explores, you get an even deeper look at what happened to Stan and how he relates to his own world. Finding out who the weird creatures living in the hub world are is amazing. Even though the conceit doesn’t last very long, it doesn’t matter because knowing the truth helps give the events in-game subtext.
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The writing is excellent. Some of the dialogue in Stan’s world and The Outsider’s world is top notch. The Outsider’s side is full of oddly beautiful, philosophical musings often bordering on nonsense, while Stan’s world reminds you how hard life actually is. They work together and provide a stark contrast for the tone of each world.
Phantom Trigger has all the elements to make a great dungeon crawler/roguelike/hack-n-slash game. It just never congeals them together to amaze you. That isn’t saying the combat bad. It isn’t, but it is only adequate.
To what degree does meeting the bare minimum count? In Phantom Trigger a whole lot, but largely because it helps service a strong story.
The level design and boss fights elevate the story in many ways. Phantom Trigger’s structure reflects Stan’s personal life and mental state. Its structure leads you into these allegorical environments that reflect specific psychological states Stan goes through.
Even the enemies you face feel related to Stan’s illness, where you, as The Other, have to fight these mental stand-ins for Stan’s ailments. Going further, the hub world, its inhabitants and its deterioration over time all reinforce what the narrative is trying to accomplish. If only the actual combat felt as good as the world around it.
The Other begins his journey with a sword and a whip. One acts as a means to pull enemies in close and the other to attack and dispatch them.
While the idea is cool, the execution feels flat. More often than not, the whip is unwieldy, bringing in enemies you don’t want to grab at the expense of your health. There is also a bit of a lag for attacks, which can result in a gummy combat experience.
You also have the ability to dash off the bat, but it is imprecise. You dash a certain amount of distance, phasing through things in your way, which is nice, but in a hectic or blocked off area, you often run headlong into an enemy.
Eventually you get a set of gauntlets that pack a bit more punch than your sword at the sacrifice of speed. They don’t change up the experience much, but help you solve the game’s puzzles and the occasional late game color-coordinated enemies.
Puzzles in Phantom Trigger are basic color match games where you need to activate pillars with the corresponding weapon in a specific order. The first time, it is novel, but after a while it gets tedious.
Other puzzles involve solving an environmental/story related problem, which require you to battle through a ton of enemies to hit a trigger. It shakes things up, but due to the combat being just okay, it can be a slog.
Boss fights in Phantom Trigger also feel a bit like puzzles where you have to figure out their weak point or an environmental way to beat them.
One of the game’s bosses are a pair of totems that constantly move around the arena trying to kill you. The only way to beat them is to use your whip to throw an object at them, but it isn’t obvious at first. It takes a second of studying the boss and your environment before the answer reveals itself. Once you’ve figured it out, you can start whittling down their health, but constantly spawning enemies means you have to be quick thinking and reacting to do so.
It is boss fights in Phantom Trigger where the combat works best. Yet, they don’t happen often enough to make up for the combat in general. The real issue is it never feels visceral enough.
There are stakes but they don’t seem high. Its difficulty doesn’t come from clever patterns or enemies, but from numbers. Most of the time, you just get swamped or overwhelmed and have to do your best to survive but you still have the mechanics weighing you down.
Phantom Trigger doesn’t lack for good ideas. It certainly doesn’t lack for a gripping narrative. Where it does lack is in its combat. It never quite elevates past its adequate hack-n-slash mechanics to anything novel. Even some cool boss fights don’t do enough to make the gameplay compelling, but its story can push you through to the end, which says something.
Phantom Trigger was reviewed on Nintendo Switch with a code provided by the publisher.
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