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Phantom Doctrine is essentially X-COM but with spies. It’s set during the Cold War and sees you picking a side, going on covert missions, upgrading your base, kitting out your operatives and piecing together clues to discover your enemies’ plans. Missions are turn-based with you moving your characters around the map to achieve an objective and escape before being caught or killed. As you’re spies, stealth plays a huge role as you equip disguises, quietly take-down enemies and sneak through a level. And it’s rubbish.
That’s probably a little mean. As an overall game Phantom Doctrine is fine. I didn’t like it but there’s enough there that if you want to, you could have an alright, if mediocre, time. As a stealthy turn-based tactics game, it doesn’t work. The stealth is imprecise and confusing, working out how much damage you do when shooting a gun makes no sense, and line of sight often doesn’t work. It comes close and if it had stealth more in line with something like Invisible, Inc., then we wouldn’t be having this conversation. However, it doesn’t so I’m here to talk about this game’s only saving grace – the investigation board.
As you progress through the game, you’ll come across confidential documents in levels and find clues to the overall mystery of your enemy. When you do, it goes into your investigation board where you pin down photographs, transcripts and blueprints and attempts to connect the dots. You do this through identifying the keywords of each item (some already have it know such as a location) by reading the document and selecting parts that spring out. This might be something that looks like a codename, another location or a repeated phrase. Once you’ve identified these keywords, you then use your string to connect them. The aim is to connect your central piece of evidence and discover where it takes you, and once you do this unlocks something depending on what you’ve found out.
Where this element shines is reading through documents and realising that something is a red herring or you’ve spent 5 minutes connecting the dots on something entirely unrelated. The investigation board allows you to feel like you’re uncovering this mystery and piecing the whole thing together yourself rather than the game explaining each element more traditionally. It also ties in with the core turn-based missions, as you want to explore more and find that last piece of confidential information that might lead to the missing piece of the puzzle. And when you put the whole thing together and the answer is revealed, you feel like the spy who snuck in, found those plans, snuck out, pieced it together with a redacted document and linked everything to the mystery man you’ve been hearing chatter about, and bam you have compelling spy fiction.
Unfortunately, for Phantom Doctrine this means engaging with the rest of the game. Like I said it’s not awful, it just isn’t anywhere near as interesting as it could have been. And double, unfortunately, the investigation board could have been so much better. If the document you’ve got isn’t a written piece, the keyword is automatically unlocked. This feels like a shame as you could have tried to discover landmarks, road names or anything to help uncover the secrets in a photograph. There’s also sometimes a lack of clarity about what you’re looking for and why (something Phantom Doctrine struggles with in general), and this means that you can easily just spam the select button, match everything together until you move onto the next screen. Which can lead to the entire investigation board feeling pointless.
However, when it works it really works. There are plenty of spy games about stealthing and sneaking but not enough about piecing together a mystery like an analyst. I hope that the developers realise that they were onto a winner with the investigation board and delve further into the possibilities that a full-blown game centred around it could provide. A part of me wants to recommend Phantom Doctrine so you can experience it, but unless you get it majorly discounted that isn’t something I can do in good conscious. Instead, for something similar but that gave me a similar experience, check out Orwell: Keeping an Eye On You and Orwell: Ignorance is Strength. They are both excellent, we’ve got reviews of them, and you steadily form this map of possibilities and it relies on the player to uncover the central mystery of the game.
Thanks for reading. Check out the Orwell links above or for more stealth-y-ness why not read our Hitman 3 Best Bits. Alternatively, check out the first game we’ve covered in our new Bargain Bits series – Doll Explorer Prologue.