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In The Shadows 'Phantom Doctrine' Review In The Shadows 'Phantom Doctrine' Review

Game Reviews

In The Shadows: ‘Phantom Doctrine’ Review

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Despite taking place not that long ago, there’s still a lot we don’t know about The Cold War, shadows mixed into enigmas shrouded by a cloud of black ink and redacted files. It’s this secrecy and the rivalry between the West and the East that makes the setting a prime spot for spy thrillers. For games, that’s mostly meant action titles like No One Lives Forever or Metal Gear Solid 3. Now CreativeForge, previously of Hard West acclaim, are looking to add some tactical depth to the genre with Phantom Doctrine. Is this a letter worth opening, or should you let this one self-destruct?

Phantom Doctrine starts off with you creating your character, as well as selecting either a CIA or KGB background. This mostly just affects the first few hours, specifically the first few missions and where your base is located. From there you’ll be put in charge of a spy network known as The Cabal, recruiting agents from organizations like the FBI, IDF, and even unlikely backgrounds like the IRA or independent mercenaries.

The actual plot doesn’t really do a great job of explaining itself. It can often be hard to follow what’s going on or why, and the game does a really bad job of separating major story events from normal missions. There are handy plot summaries during loading screens, but it can be easy to lose sight of the story as a whole, and there’s very little in the way of characters to act as anchors. All you’ll ever really know is that you need to keep your organization afloat while battling enemy spy rings, and while that’s sometimes enough to go on it can become really confusing after a while.

The gameplay does a much better job of keeping your interest. The comparison to Xcom is immediate, and for good reason. Like Firaxis’ alien murder sim, your time will be split between managing your base, resources, and personnel, and taking on enemy forces in turn-based combat. Both sides are reminiscent of the Xcom games, although there is just enough here to keep Phantom Doctrine original.

You’ll need to sift through evidence to uncover the truth by reading declassified documents, which the game claims is based on actual evidence.

First is the base management. You’ll need to assign your agents various tasks, be that going around the globe to uncover leads, assaulting enemy positions, or staying at the base to earn cash or interrogate enemy agents. You’ll slowly unlock new facilities like a body shop for injecting experimental drugs into your agent or the MK Ultra facility for brainwashing and interrogation, as well as crafting facilities for useful field kit items. Sending agents out is the most important task as you’ll need to hunt down enemy agents while also looking for secret documents, which can be pieced together to unlock new missions, agents, and equipment contracts.

The other half of the game is the combat, and this will be the make or break for anyone that decides to get Phantom Doctrine. Unlike most games, there’s no weapon accuracy modifier, every shot is an almost guaranteed hit. No more missing with a 95%, if you fire a weapon your target will feel it. This makes cover all the more important since that’s what determines the incoming damage. Half cover might reduce a hit by up to half while hiding behind something solid can really help keep your agents alive. On top of that there’s also the Alert Meter, which is used by agents to execute special abilities, and if full can even be used to totally dodge an incoming attack.

That works both ways, and while it’s great to be able to blast away enemy guards with a single shot without worrying about missing, your agents will also take a lot of punishment if you’re not careful. By far the biggest determent to this is the line-of-sight, which is downright wonky at times. While it has been patched a lot since release, there are still times where enemy units will be able to deal a tonne of damage from an angle you could never predict. Further to that, enemy AI will be downright ruthless at times, and if there’s any weakness they can exploit they will in an instant.

While combat is downright lethal, the stealth is a sort of saving grace. In a lot of ways, it’s sort of broken, with enemy units showing no reaction to characters walking through glass or flinging themselves through windows. But this actually works in the game’s favor, and a lot of the stealth simply wouldn’t be possible if the enemy AI were more aware. For the most part, stealth is based on the line of sight, be it enemy units, civilians, or cameras and trip wires. If your units are seen in places they shouldn’t be or wearing heavy armor the alarm goes off and combat kicks off. However, with proper reconnaissance, you can send in disguised agents that can disable cameras or knock out guards with a quick melee attack. Knocking out too many guards will throw enemy agents into an alert mode where they start wandering randomly, so you’ll need to hide bodies and move carefully as you progress.

Where stealth fails, a shotgun always succeeds.

Stealth really is almost required much of the time. The game actively punishes you for being caught, with enemy reinforcements and airstrikes attacking until you leave the mission area. You are given the option to escape without accomplishing your objectives, but this will often have repressions, like agents being lost or captured or the enemy finding where your base is and launching a counter-raid. Worse is sometimes these enemy reinforcements can prolong a mission unnecessarily, like missions where you need to eliminate a certain amount of units. It sort of makes sense, since the game can’t really let you have an active gunfight in an embassy, but it would’ve been nice to have some way of slowing down enemy reinforcements or providing a bit more cover for your agents in the field.

Levels, unlike Xcom, aren’t procedurally generated, which is both good and bad. On the positive, they’re generally really well laid out, with lots of avenues for approach and hiding places for equipment stashes to unlock. Enemy placement makes sense and there’s a great sense of scale with some levels going up three or four stories. Unfortunately, there is a limited supply of them, and after a while you’ll really start to see maps reused over and over again, with only minor changes. Perhaps in the future, the modding community will add more maps to the rotation, but for now, once you’ve seen them all it can be annoying to break into the same hotel for the third or fourth time.

Graphically Phantom Doctrine simply fails to impress. While it does a great job of nailing the atmosphere with moody lighting and weather effects, it falls apart completely on closer inspection. Character models are noticeably terrible, even with little details like smoking cigars or different sets of armor. Animations are similarly bad, and bizarrely the game zooms in for an unskippable cut-scene on a lot of them. Performance has been better since launch with a series of patches and it runs fairly well now on a mid-range system, but overall it lacks much of the visual flair of something like Xcom or even Hard West.

Support units like recon, snipers, or mortar strikes can be called in on missions

Similarly, the audio is nothing great and dips into the downright laughable at times. Some of the voice acting is so bad it honestly makes you question what the direction was. The first time you hear the foul-mouthed Canadian male voice dropping expletives when you click him is sure to induce an unintentional giggle. The Russian dialogue is so poorly acted as to make you question whether it would’ve been better to just run the dialogue through Google Translate and use the text-to-speech option. Sound effects barely pull everything back to the positive side though, with some impressive gunfire audio and decent mixing for environment effects, like added weight when a character is in combat armor.

Overall Phantom Doctrine is a bit of hard game to recommend. While it does offer a lot of content, with each campaign reportedly taking upwards of 40 hours with a new, secret campaign unlocked after, it’s content that can occasionally be a grind to get through. It often feels like a collection of better ideas than an actual game, something that’s only a single major patch or overhaul-mod away from greatness. It does offer an interesting alternative to Xcom and it really is trying to shake up the somewhat saturated TBS market by forcing change, but it just always seems to stumble at the last minute. If your looking for a meaty strategy title to sink time into, and if the first or second combat mission doesn’t scare you away, then this might be the game for you. Otherwise, maybe just let this one sit in the darkness for a while.

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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