Indie Wonderland: Phantom Doctrine

A few hours in

Welcome back, agent. Do you still remember the password?

No? That’s a shame.

The time is now two weeks later, and my internal Steam clock lists Phantom Doctrine as 16 hours played. That in and by itself isn’t any metric of success or failure, but I was a little surprised by how high it was. Early Phantom Doctrine is a little… to call it ‘glacial’ isn’t too far off the mark, with its slow pace, repeating mechanics, and subdued storytelling. If you’d asked me for my thoughts after the second play session or so, I’d probably have thought I wouldn’t stick with Phantom Doctrine for altogether much longer. But it does pick up after the first chapter, albeit in a subtle way that makes you just a little inclined to play just a little more. And a little more, and a little more, until it’s suddenly midnight and you suddenly cracked two digits of playtime. I’m aware that ‘it gets better with some time’ isn’t an incredibly good look right now, but all the same it does. So consider this my official notification for Phantom Doctrine: Not Quick Escapism.

Even after that time investment, though, Phantom Doctrine remains difficult to classify. It’s very much a game of two faces, which I guess is fitting for the subject matter. On the one hand, it’s a game that cares a great deal about spy fiction, espionage, and tradecraft, and goes to great lengths to portray as much of it as (fictionally) accurate as it can. On the other hand, it’s a solid tactical combat game that improves over the XCOM formula in several clear ways. The issue at the heart of Phantom Doctrine is that these two approaches are very often, if not directly at loggerheads, then at least rubbing up against each other in a way that causes friction. Each half looks to portray an experience that often doesn’t gel well with the other half’s intent. Rarely, the two halves actually clash, and you can see the game’s design conflicts played out on the main stage. Equally rarely, though, Phantom Doctrine‘s two halves actually align and work in sync, and whenever this happens you can see the really cool and interesting game that it continually struggled to be.

But since that’s difficult to visualize in a wall-of-text-breaking image…

So. On the one hand, Phantom Doctrine is a game that cares really deeply about spy fiction, espionage, and tradecraft.

I pulled an example on the previous page of the 2015 spy-themed action game Clandestine, and I’m going to expand on that here. I generally describe Clandestine as a game made by people who obviously cared about the spy story side of the project much, much more than the well-designed functional gameplay side. So Clandestine is rough, janky, and unpolished, but it’s also one of the best period piece asymmetric coop games I’ve ever played. Its theming is incredibly strong, and so central to the intended gameplay experience that it actually takes the weight off the imperfect implementation — we forgave it for being janky because it was so cool. If you don’t at all care about the subject matter (infiltration, espionage, global intrigue) it won’t be a game for you, but it definitely was for us.

Phantom Doctrine is like this too. Clandestine focused on the experiences of individual spies in a small agency in the early 90’s, so it included elements like dead drops, social engineering, disguises, allowed versus disallowed areas, and a comprehensive list of all the things you could do that would leave any sort of evidence. Phantom Doctrine instead focuses on agency-versus-agency conflict in the later Cold War. You’ll wage a shadow war across the globe, sending questionably-loyal operatives on missions of tailing and recon and assault in a play-counterplay battle with the mysterious Beholder Initiative. If you’re expecting to decrypt cryptic messages, learn archaic codenames, set up clandestine supply routes, and operate way above any sort of government oversight — you’re on the right path.

Step one: Get the information. Step two: Question its legitimacy.

On a high level, you play the role of the Cabal, a pan-agency collective with global reach and resources. Your mission is to track down and thwart the Beholder Initiative’s plans. You’ll do this by sending the agents under your command out to trace leads, protect informants, and engage in covert or overt sabotage ops. Meanwhile, you analyze signals and communications, set up trade contracts for necessary equipment, interrogate enemy operatives, and forge money to stay in business. Key to the whole affair is that while you’re hunting the Beholder Initiative, they are also hunting you: Their agents engage in recon missions to find your headquarters, while independent cells around the world track your signals and disrupt your cash flows. Beholder matches you for limitless resources and agents, and if they ever find your HQ… well, it wouldn’t be game over per se, but you probably don’t want to let it happen.

Mechanically, the flow is similar to both new XCOMs. There’s a main storyline, consisting of missions offered in a mostly linear fashion — sometimes they’re handed to you, sometimes you chase them down, sometimes they require particular upgrades, and so on. In the meantime, new smaller missions are procedurally generated: You can choose to ignore these, and face the consequences, or attempt them, and face the potential risks. It feels a little more XCOM 2 than XCOM 1: Beholder generally has a plan they’re trying to complete, above and beyond ‘kill the player’. Of course, you’ll have to figure out what that plan is first…

Whenever this works, it works, and you can really see how much the developers care about portraying the espionage experience. It starts at the world map, where Beholder plans don’t simply ‘pop up’: Instead, your informants send you information about potentially suspicious behaviour, and it’s up to you to send agents there to check things out. Most of the time, they’re false alarms, and/or informants from your side coming forward with extra information. Sometimes, they’re not.

Which of these red exclamation points are things I actually need to pay attention to?

Key here is that your agents have physical presence and location in the world. If all of my agents are in Vladivostok, and something happens in Berlin, it’ll be something like fourteen hours before any of them can make it over. And those hours are costly, as enemy plans unfold in real time. Even if you do make it there in time to see things happen, you might not be in time to do much of anything about it.

For example, take this enemy operation in Moscow. I sent agents Theremin and Cannon out to investigate. They made it very early, so I can see the op still has seventeen hours to completion.

Shown in the top right corner.

I can react to this op in three ways. Since I have two agents on-site and more than sixteen hours to spare, I can Interrupt it, basically canceling the danger before it begins. I can only do this because I got here early enough. If I had thirteen hours and three agents here, I could instead Tail the enemy agent, letting them complete the mission and then trailing them back to their HQ. With ten hours and two agents, I can do Tactical Recon, which lets me gather information about the environment. And if all else fails, I can always launch an Assault, which takes us into the tactical battle part of Phantom Doctrine — but more on that in a bit.

Crucially, while I can do these things with the agents I have present, I don’t have to. I can assign distant agents to these operations as well… assuming they can get here in time. If this op has seventeen hours left until completion, and I need sixteen hours to Interrupt it, any agent that’s less than one hour away can be tapped. If I want to do Tactical Recon instead, any agent six hours or closer will do.

Agent Capote could assist with this operation. Everyone else is too far to do anything.

The practical outcome of this is that very early on, you’re going to want to have (groups of) agents stationed here and there and everywhere. The wider your net, the quicker you can respond to Beholder’s every move…

…except you’ll also want to keep some agents around your base, where they can do valuable work. Forging cash, crafting equipment and consumables, training, analyzing data, or just healing from previous injuries. Basically, agents in the field can do everything to stop the enemy, while agents in your base can do everything to advance your organization. And you’ll constantly want both. And your maximum number of allowed crew members is always way, way lower than you want it to be.

Where did you *think* our cash flow was coming from? *Legitimate business*?

No, but seriously, don’t underestimate how much you’ll want your agents to do all the time, even from early game on. For example, your agents can train to gain certain skill sets. Agents don’t have ‘classes’ in the XCOM sense; instead, each agent can train in between one and eight different modules (from a selection of fifteen or so), each granting them new skills and/or proficiencies in certain weapons. Each agent starts with at least one training slot filled in, and also has some ‘intrinsic’ skills and proficiencies, based on their Special Forces background. But as they gain levels, you can mix and match and retrain skills at your leisure (as long as you can pay).

There broadly seem to be three ‘paths’: Covert ops, urban ops, and weapon training. But you don’t have to keep to any of these categories, and there’s benefit to doing so.

Note that this systems is different from perks, which are small generic bonuses agents gain when leveling up. And they’re also different from talents, which are passive abilities that indicate agents are particularly good at certain things… either that, or they’re Beholder sleeper agents set to turn against you when you least expect it.

But listen, about these *perks* again…

Agents can also craft items in your HQ’s workshops, provided you have the necessary blueprints. Or you can buy certain items outright, provided you have the necessary trade contracts. The former is cheaper than the latter, but takes an agent’s time — and if you only have the trade contract, that’s all you’re going to get. Items include a frankly staggering amount of different guns, gun modifications, ammo types, consumables, grenades, bullet-proof vests, combat armors, lockpicks… Agents can carry two guns, one armor, and two items, and generally all agents can carry and use anything — though some skills and environments might modulate that. But feel free to send an agent into the field with two variations of heavy machine gun! I did it once and it worked out terribly, never do this.

And then, of course, there’s the document analysis. If you’ve seen people talk about Phantom Doctrine at all, there’s a good chance they were talking about how cool this system is. The long and the short of it is this: You’ll occasionally be asked to figure out the meaning of a code word or set of codes. Who is ‘Patriot’? Who are the ‘Olympians’? Where is the location called ‘Dustbowl’? You’ll do this by collecting and collating a number of heavily redacted documents that feature those code names, then linking them together with thread on a pin board.

Say we have this situation: We’re trying to figure out who ‘Aguirre’ is. We have some documentation that their real name is either Dean McMackin, or Larry McDonald. McMackin is connected to some location called Chamberlain, which itself is connected to ‘Constable One’; McDonald is connected to a person called Cover Girl.

I haven’t drawn all the lines yet, but you can see how this works.

Some documents immediately give up their code words, but others you’ll have to scan manually. For instance, there are three code words in this document: ‘Cover Girl’, ‘Big Daddy’, and ‘Aguirre’, the one we’re looking for.

Figuring out which words in these texts are code words is something you’ll get better at with practice.

So put that document on the board, and now we can link Aguirre to Cover Girl and Big Daddy. And since Cover Girl was linked to Larry McDonald…


Easy, right?

It’s probably always that easy.

Documents like these are gained from informers, or through missions, but your agents can also do signal analysis or document analysis for them. If they’re not busy being interrogated, or getting pumped full of drugs, or traveling, or forging new identities to lose heat, or…

Are you maybe starting to feel overloaded? Like these are a lot of gameplay mechanics? Because if so, congratulations: You’re me.

When I say that the developers of Phantom Doctrine care about the portrayal of spycraft more than they care about game design, this is what I mean. It’s very important to the fiction piece to have a system that simulates an agent gaining heat from missions. And if that heat gets too high, their cover identity is blown, and they’ll need a new one. It makes sense! It’s also a whole subsystem that only exists to perpetuate itself. It’s very important that all period weapons are included and portrayed accurately, even if functionally all handguns and all SMGs and all shotguns have the same attack patterns with only slightly different numbers. It’s very important that Beholder is constantly on your tail, and that if your Danger meter rises too high you’ll have to relocate or be attacked, even though in practice all that means if you’ll need to hold back some cash when the meter starts climbing so you can off scot-free. It’s very important that your agent’s unique background and particular training matters to their ability, even though in practice there are so many skills and abilities and options with such niche applications that you just start playing the ball as it lies. It’s all very important, I understand that and this is not a running joke, but it’s implemented in such a way that expressly values theme over mechanical design. And the result of that is a game that’s, well, this one. Interesting from a theme perspective, but alternatively feeling packed with useless mechanics or glacial in its pacing as all those mechanics struggle to gain ground.

That’s the one hand of Phantom Doctrine. On the other hand, Phantom Doctrine is a solid tactical combat game that improves over the XCOM formula in several clear ways.

Immediate upsides: Funnier character code names, no Chryssalids.

I’m going to pull from a wildly different direction here and talk about Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle. Yeah, remember that one? When it came out, I spent some time babbling on Twitter about how much better its approach to combat was over XCOM‘s: Instead of the tried-and-tired approach of hit percentages, it divided every attack into ‘sure hit’, ‘sure miss’, and ‘essentially a coin toss’. It made for a streamlined combat experience that managed to convey the same highs and lows without the random-chance bullshit.

Phantom Doctrine does a similar thing. To quickly recap the previous page: Shots in Phantom Doctrine never ‘miss’, because your characters are all trained professionals. Instead, each character has a pool of Awareness. Characters automatically spend Awareness to ‘dodge’ incoming attacks. Each attack has two damage values: If the attack is dodged it deals the lower value (which can be 0 but often isn’t), and if it isn’t it deals the higher value. Your character can be armored, which lowers damage, or in (full or partial) cover, which has the same effect, but if someone can draw a bead on you there’s really no avoiding getting tagged.

I love how simple this system is on paper. You’re given perfect information about everything except the exact amount of Awareness enemies have, which means you can make accurate plans. If this attack deals X damage, and this attack deals Y damage, and they have Z health left… The only bit of uncertainty thrown in is that Awareness number, since it can be tricky to ascertain whether or not they’ll have enough left to dodge. But even that becomes something to deal with: If you absolutely want someone dead, make sure someone with a burst fire weapon drains their Awareness first before going in for the kill.

What do you think? Over or under? One gets me out of here alive, the other gets Coldface a retaliation attack.

What goes around comes around, so your characters are bound by Awareness too. Your agents are generally stronger than most normal enemies, but all the same, one agent in a shootout with two cops is generally not a winning proposition — any more than that and you should probably be leaving. It makes for very lethal gameplay, underscoring that although your agents are top of the line, they’re still as human as the rest of us. And getting into a direct gunfight with Beholder agents, who are every bit your equal, is never something to cherish.

The tactical combat itself is fine, it’s fun and good and I enjoy doing it. It’s more freeform than XCOM and associates, due to the aforementioned freedom in skill training and equipment loadout. That’s something you’ll learn to deal with. The maps are cool and well-designed, and all of them offer plenty of space to play with restricted/unrestricted areas, scoping out the joint, different venues of attack and retreat, and so on. It’s also more forgiving than you’d expect, for such a lethal system: While your agents can get tagged fairly easily, they never outright ‘die’, but instead go into critical condition. If another agent can carry them to the evac point, they’re guaranteed to survive — and trust me when I say this will happen.

Alert, alert! Man down!

It’s also unintentionally hilarious in places. On Easy difficulty, the absolute easiest way to take out an enemy you have the drop on is to attack them in melee, which guarantees a knockout at the cost of 50 Awareness. It makes for situations where a tense gunfight stand-off is resolved by someone running ahead with a flying haymaker. Also, for reasons I probably don’t care to complain about, the pathing algorithm is very keen on sending people through windows. The shortest path from A to B almost always involves shattered glass. Doesn’t matter if they have to drop three stories; doesn’t matter if there’s an open door right there. My friend warned me about this before playing, and I was still surprised by how much stunt action these agents get into.

“The door is guarded by security cameras, who would see me carry this unconscious Beholder agent to our escape vehicle? Not a problem.”

It’s a little silly sometimes, but overall, Phantom Doctrine‘s combat is good exciting fun. If you actually get into it.

Remember how I started this page by saying Phantom Doctrine‘s two aspects cause some internal friction? Tactical combat is the clearest example of this. Phantom Doctrine doesn’t actually want you to get into shootouts: You’re undercover agents on a mission of intrigue. So (almost) all missions start in allowed zones, and things won’t go loud unless you get spotted doing something you shouldn’t — or by someone you shouldn’t be spotted by, like a Beholder agent. Melee takedowns are quick, silent, and foolproof, and unless you play on the hardest difficulty, agents can fairly easily dispose of bodies, almost magically so. Once you get access to silenced weapons, it becomes even easier to take enemies down without raising a fuss, thanks to another very clever Awareness-related decision: All enemies that aren’t Beholder agents start the mission with zero Awareness, and won’t start generating any until you reveal your presence — they’re very literally not expecting you. It’s not until alarms go off that they start becoming dangerous, and even then it takes them time to fully get ready. Beholder agents, of course, are always ready for anything.

And then there’s the final important thing: Once alarms do get raised, enemy reinforcements and airstrikes start streaming in regularly. And they’ll keep doing so forever, until either you leave or you die.

Yeah, I said airstrikes.

Put two and two together and a clear picture emerges: You’re supposed to want to avoid detection. Which makes sense, again, with the whole espionage angle. And the game gives you tools to do so, especially if you engage in Tactical Recon before a mission: Spotters, silenced snipers, and a disguised agent on-site who can go almost anywhere without arousing suspicion. If you play carefully, and maybe save-scum a little bit, it’s entirely possible to go through missions without getting spotted.

It’s just that that’s boring! And the combat is fun! While I never liked getting spotted for ‘bad’ reasons, I won’t lie: Missions that feel like dull melee-takedown-after-melee-takedown sleepwalks become exciting survival run-and-gun fights if I do trip an alarm. It’s an unsolvable conflict: Phantom Doctrine wants you to play stealthily, but it gives you dozens of guns and toys and skills for fun and exciting combat where every move matters and time is always against you.

I will immediately give it this: The game never holds it *against* you if you go loud. You can still win missions perfectly in a hail of gunfire.

And especially if you play Ironman mode, or just roll with the punches, loud combat is also where mechanics and theme really align. I’ve lost count of the number of times where we went loud due to a dumb mistake of mine, and now suddenly one agent was in a really bad spot and needed extraction. On several occasions I’ve had to make the judgement call: Do I try to extract this downed ally, exposing another ally to unnecessary damage, or do I cut my losses and bail — and leave them to die, or worse? It’s easy enough to creep through a level and collect all the secrets and loot, but when enemies and helicopters start streaming in, you better believe things turn into a race to the finish. Do we have the absolutely minimum of completed mission objectives? Yes? Then let’s bail.

My absolute favorite story is this: Later in the game you can start bringing distant snipers to missions. The goal of this mission was to capture or kill agent Hyde. Now, agents are usually pretty good at not standing in front of windows, meaning snipers don’t have line of sight. But this mission went loud due to a poor knockout attempt. We fired on Hyde, he ran into cover to regen Awareness and prepare to return fire… And then I noticed the window to his side.

I have a handful of stories like this, stories of close shaves and great opportunities and desperate rescues. All of them generated in circumstances that Phantom Doctrine would rather I never get in in the first place — but all of them stories that it enables and supports so well. If I keep playing this game after this review, and I’m thinking about it, it will be because of things like this.

Final thoughts

Six thousand words in and I still don’t feel like I’ve addressed everything that makes Phantom Doctrine Phantom Doctrine. Like how forging new identities involves generating a whole new character model for your agent, including new name and passport photo. Or how agents can be ambushed, or go MIA, or run into little adventures that determine if they stay loyal to you or defect to Beholder. Or how spotters and snipers are directional, meaning you actually have to study the layout of the map to determine good staging grounds. Or that your agents become functionally superhuman over time. Or the aforementioned casual war crimes. Or how much there didn’t need to be six different types of bonus ammo in a game where one or two shots are usually lethal. Or the fact that there’s a whole Breaching mechanic, actually explained in the tutorial, which I’ve only used for real like three times, because punching is almost always the better option. Or how agent location matters so much for operations, but when you start an Assault everyone just teleports over to the battlefield, Skyranger-style. Or that wounded agents can and will get back into the field, meaning you can heal them up with battlefield medicine and that’ll count for their infirmary time (I think). Or just how much people want to jump out of windows.

I’m still not over this.

If I have to summarize Phantom Doctrine, I’ll do it like this: Phantom Doctrine is a unique, wildly ambitious game that’s absolutely dedicated to representing its thematic source material as broadly as it can muster. Its strategic gameplay does a good job of making you feel like the orchestrator of a shadow intelligence war, though it comes packed with systems and sub-systems and sub-sub-systems that increasingly detract from its sleek design in favor of hitting a certain theme or inspiration note. The tactical combat is fast-paced and lethal and exciting, as much as Phantom Doctrine seems to think you’ll want to avoid getting into it. When the two halves conflict, the game gains slow pacing and a sense of ludonarrative dissonance. When they align, it generates exciting tactical choices, great water cooler stories, and a tantalizing glimpse of the game Phantom Doctrine could have been, or could eventually become — I believe that with a little bit more mechanical tweaking, particularly in the systems overload and skills department, this game could end up as a modern cult classic.

For now, I’ll recommend if it you really want your spy fix, or if shooting aliens in tactical battles has lost its luster. The forty dollar price tag feels right for the amount of work and assets on display, but I won’t blame anyone for waiting for that to drop.

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Jarenth is worried this game might be activating him for some dark purpose. If he goes off the grid, try looking for him on Twitter or Steam. And if you dig Indie Wonderland and Ninja Blues in general, why not consider supporting our Patreon campaign?

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