Step aside, Tom Cruise. This is the real deal.
If you know anything about the publisher tinyBuild, you’ll know that they tend to put out unique, colorful, and imaginative games. Given those expectations, Phantom Trigger seems to be only one of those things: colorful. Unfortunately, color can only get you so far, and with heaps of cliches and aimless goals, what’s left of Phantom Trigger is a less impressive Hyper Light Drifter.
Phantom Trigger is a neon-colored hack-n-slash game that mostly takes place in an imaginary world. Your character, Outsider, discovers through various flashbacks that he’s only a fictional adventurer in the mind of a “real” person named Stan. Stan has an illness, and due to the medication and being cooped up, develops characters and plots based on people he knows. I hate to delve right into the things that weren’t all that great about the game, but it’s hard to avoid when it’s something as obvious as the art. Phantom Trigger features the exact type of skinny faceless indie-styled sprites which you’ve seen in games like Party Hard or Crawl, and seeing that style right out of the gate gives the impression that Phantom Trigger is just another dime a dozen bland indie that slips through the cracks.
All that aside, the game requires a lot of battling enemies and running around in maze full of puzzles which lead to a boss in order to progress the story. The gameplay started off bumpy, due to not only having a hard time figuring out what to do, but the struggle that came with learning the controls. There aren’t any initial instructions, so you’re left to fend for yourself as you’re thrown into an ocean of enemies. I had thought that maybe the game would gradually introduce the movements as time went on, or even put a tutorial at the start like most hack-n-slash adventures, but this wasn’t the case. If there was any sort of guide on how to attack, it was at the occasional boulders you came across in each level that you’d obtain new items from, which also showed any unlocked combos. Unfortunately, you can’t access that combo map at any point you please. You can’t even click on the same rock once you close out of the window to view the combos again, which was really infuriating. It took me until about halfway through the game before I finally had any confidence that I knew what I was doing.
This is all starting to sound vaguely familiar, right? Hyper Light Drifter similarly tells the story of an ill character who travels through a corroded neon world fighting enemies and solving puzzles. It all sounds a bit coincidental, but if you put these games side by side, it’s hard to tell which is really HLD and which isn’t. The game also features a lot of the same hacking and slashing through means of a bright weapon. The most substantial difference between the two is that HLD does a better job of offering more to explore rather than just a maze-like arena. These similarities make it difficult to not constantly compare the two, instead of enjoying Phantom Trigger for what it is.
Phantom Trigger is definitely a title intended for those who are already adjusted to hack-n-slash games. I was startled when I went through the options menu at the beginning of the game, and saw that the default difficulty was “hard,” and the only other choice to pick from was “normal”. Choosing the normal difficulty only concludes that normal isn’t much easier after all. As it turns out, the only difference between the two settings is that hard mode makes the enemies deal slightly more damage when attacking. Enemy spawn rate is just as high as ever, so figuring out the correct timing to attack in between being targeted ends up tedious itself.
This game could’ve been beaten in approximately five hours, but with its difficulty, it was hard not to want constant breaks. While it only lasted a total of five levels, the game feels like it could’ve been spread out and had more of an impact over the course of, say, seven or eight levels. We’re introduced to an abrupt realization that Stan is suffering through an illness at the beginning, and his story unfolds through random flashbacks and cutscenes as you play the game. It seemed a tad strange to carry a story that way rather than finding out he had an illness further into the game to create a stronger sense of surprise and conflict. Instead, it felt as though reading a novel from middle to the end, which only leads to a shorter experience and less of a drive to beat the game to find out what happens.
Despite its problems, Phantom Trigger really wasn’t all that bad. I started to enjoy the game toward the third level after all of the initial issues were set aside, and was able to get used to how challenging the exploration and battles were. In fact, the challenge of it all was a fire under the belt. Unlocking new combos encourages you to level up current abilities to try against enemies, and some of the harder challenges that popped up randomly were very entertaining, such as being locked in an area with continuously spawning enemies, and only being able to attack based on the element of the fire surrounding them with your corresponding elemental weapon.
Phantom Trigger also does a good job incorporating psychological and emotional components. Even in a fantasy atmosphere, it was easy to sympathize with Stan during his struggle with his illness. His story creates a feeling that those who are trying to help actually have a darker intent as they try to comprehend his vivid hallucinations and dreams. You come to know Stan as you get to know the characters in his mind, and follow the adventurer he sees himself as. You feel that as you discover his relationships with the other characters, you begin to see him for who he really is.
I would’ve liked to enjoy Phantom Trigger much more than I did. It had a lot of potential, from the colorful atmosphere, to the quirky TV-headed foes, and frankly, the gameplay made it easy to get sucked into. Even if I could forgive all the simple mistakes I faced when I began playing, I wouldn’t be able to forgive its likeness to Hyper Light Drifter, which incorporated similar elements of story and actions. Maybe, just maybe, I’d have the heart to sneak it another star, but I’d take the polished Hyper Light Drifter over Phantom Trigger without second thought.