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In The Shadows: ‘Phantom Doctrine’ Review

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In The Shadows 'Phantom Doctrine' Review

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

‘AVICII Invector Encore Edition’ Review: Rhythm and Melancholy

‘AVICII Invector: Encore Edition’ is a music and rhythm game perfect for newcomers and fans of the genre.

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AVICII Invector Encore Edition Review

Developer: Hello There Games | Publisher: Wired Productions | Genre:  Rhythm | Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Steam | Reviewed on: Nintendo Switch


In terms of a pure adrenaline rush, nothing tops a well-designed rhythm game. Good rhythm games let players feel a euphoric sense of flow and even excitement. But the best the genre has to offer taps into the heart of music itself. AVICII Invector Encore Edition is a rhythm game perfect for newcomers to the genre but also works as a moving tribute.

I can’t tell where the journey will end
But I know where to start

Whether it’s tapping buttons in time with the beat, smashing feet on a dance pad, or moving an entire body in front of an IR camera, rhythm and music games have always been popular. AVICII Invector Encore Edition takes inspiration from music games that came before it but stands firmly on its own. It’s wonderfully accessible, truly a music game for anyone. From diehard fans of the rhythm game genre to people who are simply AVICII fans who also have a console, Invector checks a lot of boxes.

Levels across AVICII Invector play largely the same. The player picks a track and a difficulty level, and is off to the races. They control a slick spaceship moving forward along a track, and must tap or hold buttons as the ship passes over them. This “falling jewel” style has been popular from the Guitar Hero franchise and beyond, but Invector finds ways to make it feel unique. The art direction is breathtakingly stellar, taking players on far-out trips through cyberpunk-esque cities and crumbling pathways. There are even portions of each level where the player can steer their spaceship Star Fox-style through rings and around pillars to keep their point multiplier up.

Invector feels like it’s trying to affect as many sensory inputs as it can. Though Encore Edition is fully playable on handheld mode on Switch, Invector shines brightest on a big screen with a thumping sound system. The neighbors might get annoyed, but who would hear them complaining?

Tracks are divided up by worlds, with four to five tracks each. Worlds must be cleared sequentially, by scoring at least seventy-five percent on each level in that world. While this may sound initially restrictive, Encore Edition gives players access to two extra worlds with five tracks each right out of the gate, so players have plenty to play with at the start.

There are three difficulties available, and each mode offers a different experience. For players who just want to experience AVICII’s music in a low-stress way while enjoying amazing visuals and ambiance, Easy mode is the way to play. Anything above that amps the difficulty up significantly, with Hard mode escalating the required precision to an unbelievable degree. Building up a competitive high score can only be achieved by hitting multipliers and keeping a streak going. At higher difficulties, Invector feels challenging but exhilarating. Scoring above ninety percent on any difficulty mode above Easy feels extremely good, and the online leaderboards are the perfect place to boast about that achievement. During high level play, earning a high score feels transcendent.

Worlds and levels are strung together with brief, lightly-animated cutscenes. It’s a slim justification for a rhythm game, but they’re better than nothing and provide just enough context to keep things interesting. AVICII Invector is both visually and aurally pleasing, but even if the player isn’t a diehard fan of EDM or House music, there is plenty to love.

This world can seem cold and grey
But you and I are here today
And we won’t fade into darkness

AVICII Invector is a truly fantastic rhythm game. But it’s also more than that. It is impossible to play Invector and not feel a twinge of melancholy. The game is a tribute to a hard-working perfectionist, but the man behind the music had his demons. Though the visuals are enticing and the gameplay electric, it is difficult not to feel sad from the opening credits. It is to Invector‘s credit that all throughout, the game feels like a joyful celebration of Tim Bergling’s music. It is a worthy tribute to a man who revitalized and reinvigorated the EDM and House music scene.

At the end of the day, almost every aspect of AVICII Invector reflects a desire to connect. For players connected to the internet, global leaderboards are a great opportunity to share high scores. Invector is much more forgiving than Thumper or Rez or even anything in the Hatsune Miku catalog. Players can cruise through this game on Easy mode if they want, and they won’t be punished. The Encore Edition even includes a split-screen multiplayer, which is fantastically fun.

In his music, Bergling worked across genres to expand what pop music could look like. With Invector, music lovers and players of nearly any skill level can have a pleasing experience. In video games, that’s rare, and it should be celebrated.

According to publisher Wired Productions’ website, all music royalties from AVICII Invector Encore Edition will support suicide awareness through the Tim Bergling Foundation.

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Game Reviews

‘Tamarin’ Review: Monkey Trouble

Like Yooka-Laylee before it, Tamarin flounders in its attempts to recreate its source material for a more modern audience.

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Tamarin Game Review

Developer: Chameleon Games | Publisher: Chameleon Games | Genre: 3rd Person Shooter/Platformer| Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

You have to be of a certain age to recall a game like Jet Force Gemini. One of Rare’s one-off titles of the N64 era, like Blast Corps, Jet Force Gemini never earned itself a sequel but was a fun sci-fi adventure for its time. It’s this same energy that Tamarin, from Chameleon Games, attempts to channel.

Made up of former Rare staff, the folks at Chameleon Games are almost certainly the best team to make an attempt at rekindling such a long dead franchise with their spiritual successor. However, as can be the case with retro throwbacks, sometimes it’s better to ask whether you should bring back an older style of gaming, rather than if you could.

As we’ve seen with games like Yooka Laylee and Mighty No. 9, it often seems that the idea of an older game or franchise being resurrected for modern audiences is better to imagine than to actually play. While the occasional Bloodstained does come along to buck the trend, more often than not we get a game which is too faithful to its sources to make a mark or too different to rekindle that old love and nostalgia.

All of which is to say that Tamarin, while very faithful to its inspirations, never quite hits the mark that brings it to the next level. Part of this is the natural aging process, particularly of the first era of 3D platformers and adventure games which spawned on the PlayStation and Nintendo 64. While many of the games of that generation packed in endless hours of fun, so too have many of their mechanics aged terribly.

Tamarin Game Review

This accounts for Tamarin‘s weakest point, which is undoubtedly its combat. The shooting sections of the game, while channeling another Rare franchise that balanced cuteness with cartoonish violence, are just so mechanically terse that they drag the game down egregiously each time they crop up.

Like with Jet Force Gemini, players will spend much of Tamarin battling troubling insectoid enemies that threaten the peace of all of civilization. Also like the game which was such a clear inspiration for Chameleon, Tamarin brings back the clunky 3D aiming reticle. Not only is the shooting janky here, it feels downright unwieldy when you first get your hands on a firearm.

Though players can get the hang of it with a little effort and some reworking of how they see shooters, there seems to be little point in doing so. Tamarin‘s braindead AI and sparse few enemy types make combat feel like much of an afterthought to the experience, despite how central it is to progressing through the game.

To be fair, Tamarin does also bring some of the good from its spiritual forebear. The gradually growing arsenal of laser guns and rocket launchers does feel fun to play with, and the game is peppered with plenty of upgrades for the guns along the way. Sadly, then another of the Space Invaders style mini-games will pop up and derail things all over again.

Yes, there is a strange reference to yet another long gone gaming franchise here. Unlocking certain doors requires players to start from the center and aim the analog stick around firing at hovering, shifting rows of bugs. Again, it feels very unwieldy, and by the end most players will simply settle for spinning the analog stick wildly while firing with the machine gun for maximum ease.

Fortunately, more successful are the platforming sections. Making up the other side of Tamarin‘s coin, is a game more inspired by Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong Country 64 than anything else. As players travel through the outside world, gathering collectibles and gaining new abilities as they go, Tamarin shows much more variety than its combat sections.

With clear cues marked on the terrain to denote which areas require upgrades or new abilities to traverse, Tamarin is generally able to point you in the right direction across its world, though a map or minimap would help matters considerably. Though the game is split into many separate areas, they often look so similar that it can make the game hard to navigate and harder to remember where previous markers were for exploration. Even a rudimentary map feature would make this far less of an issue.

Alas, the exploration flounders on occasion as well. Jumping sometimes feels a bit too flighty and can even break the game at times, allowing players to jump off of surfaces they shouldn’t be able to normally. Further, the need to hold down a button and press another to grab certain collectibles is totally unintuitive and is another feature that seems to be more or less pointless.

As such, for all of it’s cute mascot spiritedness and lovingly attributed influences, Tamarin ultimately falls short in bringing back some of the best franchises of yesteryear. Though the effort is a valiant one, Tamarin, hampered by the flaws of the games it attempts to emulate, is just too clunky in its execution.

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Game Reviews

‘Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered’ Review: Some Games Age Like Milk

Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

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Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Developer: Square-Enix | Publisher: Square-Enix | Genre: Action-RPG| Platforms: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Mobile | Reviewed on: PlayStation 4

There’s a bit of a storied history between Nintendo and Square. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is an important part of that history. Or rather, the original version, released in 2003, was.

While it might seem to younger gamers like Square-Enix and Sony have always been close, Square had a different best friend for much of the 80s and 90s: Nintendo. Though a rift developed between them when Square opted to focus on CD-roms rather than cartridges for Final Fantasy VII, that rift only lasted for about 6 years. The game that signalled the end it? Well that was a new release exclusively for the GameCube: Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

Though Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was released to relatively positive reviews 17 years ago, the game has not aged well. The quest of a caravan of crystal bearers to refill their crystal’s power and protect their homes from a deadly miasma, Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered fails due to problems that existed in the original title, as well as flaws in this remastered edition.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

The first, and most considerable, problem with the game is that the quest at the heart of Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is tedious and repetitive. Players ostensibly go from area to area on a world map, exploring uninteresting towns and beating lackluster dungeons. If this wasn’t enough, players are also forced to replay these levels over and over again in order to gain enough upgrades for later levels.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: all RPGs ask players to level up in order to succeed. You’re not wrong, it’s simply the structure of levelling up that makes this experience so trying. The only way to level up in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered is to beat the entire level again. Players are not rewarded experience for killing enemies but instead can choose one stat to upgrade each time they complete a level. What this means is that every tiny upgrade to your character can take 10-15 minutes at a time to get.

This wouldn’t be as trying on your patience if simple, basic flaws in the game weren’t so egregious. Hit detection is incomprehensible at times because, even when your character seems to be standing right next to an enemy or boss, they often fail to connect their attacks. Even worse, rather than mapping different attacks to the face and shoulder buttons, players must cycle through them one at a time, with the attack button standing in for defense, magic, healing or food consumption.

Of course, much of this has to do with the format of the original game. Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles was meant to be played with link cables and Game Boy Advances connected to the GameCube. Each player would have a different bonus displayed on their GBA screens and, as such, players would work together in local multiplayer, aiding each other with their unique screen information as well as their combat skills.

Naturally the GBA had only two face buttons and two shoulder buttons, hence the layout. However, it’s been 17 years, and it’s pretty egregious that Square-Enix didn’t even think of giving players an option to rework the button layout. Doing so would make combat much more dynamic and help to fix the often clunky feeling of battling the game’s monsters.

Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles Remastered

Adding to the tedium are unskippable cutscenes all over the game. Every single time players challenge a boss, they are forced to sit through the same cutscene introducing the boss. Further, there are random events that occur on the world map which are also unskippable, even if they’re repeats of events that the player has already seen. Haplessly tapping the confirm button to skip through dialog that we’ve already heard should not be an issue in a game released in 2020.

These flaws were mostly a part of the original release as well but what’s the point of remastering a game if you haven’t fixed anything? Even the visuals in Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered have failed to receive much polish. The game looks murky and fuzzy rather than sharp and clear. If Square-Enix could clean up Final Fantasy VIII for its gorgeous remaster, what stopped them here?

This is without even mentioning the loading times, which are frankly absurd for a game nearly two decades old. Again, it seems that getting this remaster out the door trumped quality control for Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, which does nothing to help the game’s case.

Though the game is markedly more fun when players join you to take on a level, even the online connectivity has serious issues. To make matters worse, if a player chooses to use the multiplayer, they’ll have to carry a chalice around themselves if no one joins them, picking it up and putting it down all through the level.

Since single player has an AI character who will carry it for you, this option could be easily added to multiplayer, disappearing when (or if) someone actually joins you. This would allow the structure of the game to remain static regardless of whether someone joins your game or not, instead of making the game harder if no one decides to pop in.

While game director Araki Ryoma has promised to address the issues with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles Remastered, the game has aged so poorly that, even without the flaws of the remaster, it’s hard to recommend it to modern audiences. Sad as it is, some games are better left in the past. Such is the case with Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicles.

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