It’s a tough call to make when a game that focuses so heavily on gameplay doesn’t quite live up to its own self expectation.
Cue Phantom Trigger, a self-described “hardcore neon slasher with RPG elements.” Developer Bread Team starts the player character, Stan, at home with his wife discussing dinner plans, when suddenly Stan passes out. Immediately, the player (presumably Stan) is transported to some dystopian, other-worldly dimension with a whip at his disposal and no sense of direction. Under normal circumstances, I’d be okay without any hand-holding—Breath of the Wild is a masterpiece in its own right and gives the player total freedom and little sense of direction. The problem with Phantom Trigger is that this world is just there for show. Particularly in the starting area, there are tons of boxes I would have expected to be able to break open and gain some kind of currency or items—nope, can’t interact with the boxes. In fact, aside from a few questionably localized NPCs, you can’t interact with this world at all apart from combat.
Given that there is no worldly interaction, I found myself talking to whichever NPCs I could find. Some told me to come back later, others simply made one-off, nonsensical comments. Once I’d talked to just about everyone in the area, I found myself with my three weapons—the whip I started with, what I presume to be an ice sword or dagger, and a large fire fist, and these weapons serve as light, medium, and heavy attacks, respectively. While it was cool to experiment with these attacks early on, having my full arsenal of attack types essentially from the beginning absolutely killed my sense of purpose and progression through the game—a sentiment I’ll be revisiting often.
Once I got my attacks down, I was thrown feet-first into mobs of enemies. While it was fun to discover each enemy’s different quirks and movement styles, it did start to get repetitive after a while. Plus, some enemies were just downright a pain to try and defeat—which I don’t fault the game for, but adding frustration to something I already have no motivation to do in the first place wasn’t exactly keeping me sucked into the game. Couple this with the fact the game is automatically set to Hard mode, and you have a game that feels randomly punishing at times when it shouldn’t feel so. It’s one thing to become overwhelmed by a swarm of enemies, but it’s entirely another to fall victim to a bouncing slime ball with a self area-of-effect attack that you can only defeat by getting up close.
Phantom Trigger isn’t all bad, however. The pixel art style, music, and sound effects are all delightful, and the story arc is rather interesting. As you progress through the game, the game will sort of phase (flash back? forward? sideways?) back into the “real” world, with Stan undergoing various medical issues which appear to be causing his alternate reality experience. The game leans toward the existential discussion of is this all in Stan’s head, is this all real to him—and, by extension, what defines “reality”? Stan’s story arc certainly is intriguing, but to me it didn’t provide enough of a motivation to see the game through to the end.
Another aspect of Phantom Trigger I enjoyed was the combo system, despite that it didn’t feel particularly robust. Using your light, medium, or heavy attacks levels each attack type respectively, and you can perform more attack combinations the more you level each one. For example, two fire (heavy) attacks followed by a dash would leave a trail of fire in the player’s wake, damaging any enemies in its path. Two whip (light) attacks followed by an ice (medium) attack resulted in temporarily freezing an enemy in a block of ice. Discovering these new combos on the fly was a joy (as was the musical audio presentation when attacking), but the combos you do unlock are few and far between, leaving even that aspect of the game rather bland. Though the combat is the highlight of Phantom Trigger, it wasn’t quite enough to mitigate the other issues I had with the game.
Along with the lack of motivation I felt while playing Phantom Trigger, as I did progress through the game, a lot of the items found at key points within the level seemingly had nothing to do with anything I was accomplishing—though, to be fair, I’m not entirely sure what I was accomplishing in the first place. Certain items made no sense regarding the story or what the player was meant to be doing. Perhaps that becomes clear later in the game, but I just couldn’t make it past a couple hours in.
In terms of how the game plays on Nintendo Switch, it’s a relatively decent experience. The game runs just as fine docked as it does in handheld, but I found myself far preferring to play in handheld mode, despite the game not taking full advantage of the Switch hardware (this game would have been a perfect opportunity to show off HD Rumble). Control-wise, one thing that irked me was that the B button is the main button used to interact with menus, NPCs, and to progress text when NPCs were speaking. I’m not entirely sure if this was by design or simply an oversight when porting the game from Steam/PC, but either way it made me accidentally restart from a checkpoint from the pause menu more than once. In a landscape where I already have difficulty keeping my A/X and B/O buttons straight between Nintendo, Microsoft, and Sony consoles, messing with the main button used to interact with everything just muddled the playing field even further.
I wouldn’t say that Phantom Trigger suffers from an identity crisis—I just feel that it doesn’t live up to what it sets out to accomplish. With no sense of direction or any clear purpose in mind for the player, Phantom Trigger‘s appeal rests solely upon its gameplay, which is hit or miss, depending upon your preferences. Being given all your tools early on is disconcerting, as I was hoping for a more Metdroidvania approach to unlocking new abilities, and the repetitive combat and waves of enemies only add to that bland presentation. Though appealing in both visuals and audio, it doesn’t make up for all of Phantom Trigger‘s other faults.
Disclaimer: A review code for Phantom Trigger was provided by the game’s publisher.