The human mind is a beautiful, powerful, fragile thing. For all we know, it’s all we know. Your reality, your meaning, everything that is, exists purely in how your mind perceives it, and the slightest change or distortion can mean a totally different life, a different world. How do you know what things will look and feel like the next time you open your eyes? Most importantly, what makes how your mind interprets the world any more or less “real” then someone else’s perception? If this feels like it’s trying too hard to wax philosophical, I’m only trying to put you in the correct headspace to judge how things unfold in Phantom Trigger, the newest release from Bread Team (previously responsible for Divide by Sheep) via TinyBuild. We’re gonna get just a bit thinky for this one, so strap in and don’t worry: there’s plenty of beatings and neon art to distract from the college credits.
Phantom Trigger’s story is confusing and convoluted, but totally intentional in its mixed up storytelling. You play a character known as Outsider, who appears to be a resident inside the mind of a man known only as Stan. Outsider has been tasked to destroy the four monsters who inhabit the world he has landed in, and it’s not as simple as walking up and dealing with them one at a time. Each monster is king of a different realm, and Outsider must fight his way through to find and defeat their leaders. Pretty straightforward, in theory. But there’s a lot more than meets the eye. For one, the different entities at the camp where Outsider appears each seem to have their own agenda, and want to bend Outsider to follow their desires. Additionally, Outsider himself is trying to figure out what his purpose is, and how he came to be inside Stan.
But don’t think Stan is just slouching on this either. Without divulging too much of what the story reveals, Stan is having some kind of medical issue and is staying in the hospital, which may or may not be the reason why Outsider is here in the first place. The story of Phantom Trigger is told in bits and pieces, as the gameplay will abruptly and violently cease to cut to what Stan is doing or what he’s experiencing at any given time. It’s jarring and does a great job of completely throwing off the player time and time again, with only a slight forewarning before you end up tossed into a different reality. I often found myself about to enter a brawl before Stan’s reality(?) took over, and, when I returned to the “game,” the monsters were ready to beat me extra hard for daring to have a cutscene before their big moment.
The ambitions and influence of the other members that you encounter and talk to will ultimately help shape the ending of the game, and there are four to be found, each one profoundly different. If you end up as fascinated as I was with Stan’s story and what the hell is going on, you’ll want to try different combinations of choices to ultimately reach all four conclusions and get a full idea of what is and what could be. Phantom Trigger is not a terrifically long game, and you can get through your first play in probably about six hours, with each subsequent one going much faster. If you’re in it for the long haul, go ahead and try out all the stories.
A lot of people will have the knee-jerk reaction to compare Phantom Trigger to another neon slasher, HyperLight Drifter, but I’m going to go ahead and put a stop to that immediately. In my opinion, the two games are worlds apart. For one, HyperLight Drifter is much more driven by a totally different atmosphere and story, with a broader sense of a world and a lot more RPG elements, not to mention different approaches to weapons, monsters and mechanics. Phantom Trigger is both a lighter and heavier game, with a lot that helps it stand alone.
Before the end of the first world, you will end up with the three weapons that carry you to the end of the game: the whip, the sword and the fist. Each is essential to finishing the game, and not one of them has to be used more than absolutely necessary if you aren’t really a combat person. Outsider is able to move through most areas without needing to engage in combat, with a couple of randomly chosen squares that lock you in for life-or-death fights. When this occurs, Outsider can really develop some great combos of strikes, stuns and dodging. Phantom Trigger’s dash mechanic is a little more in the speed of Mr. Shifty, another TinyBuild title, but the neon trail left behind can be part of a weapons combo if done correctly. The sword is faster but weaker, the fist is strong yet slow, and the whip does nearly no damage BUT draws enemies closer and can trigger thrown items that are strewn about on the ground.
There’s a leveling system to the weapons, but it doesn’t increase damage, which kind of threw me off. Leveling the weapons is important to unlocking further combos that you can perform, but I didn’t feel the need to use any of the combinations I achieved after about level five (levels top out at 7). I found the most success with the classic “strike and run away” approach, since I was most at danger from enemies when I was standing still. From what I can tell, leveled up weapons did allow for a higher chance at elemental damage (the sword is ice and the fist is fire), but it wasn’t enough to really drive me to level up all my weapons to the max once I did it the first time for curiosity and the Steam achievement. Most people are going to focus on the weapon they like best and use it to beat as often as possible, as quickly as possible.
The bosses are what really make Phantom Trigger shine, as none of them is a traditional “hit it till it falls” kind of monster. If you’ve played Titan Souls, it has that same kind of mystery in which you need to discover what it is that makes this boss tick and what will be it’s undoing. I personally got stuck for a couple days on the 3rd boss despite the answer being carefully clued in throughout the entire world, and I was borderline embarrassed when I realized the simple solution. Each boss brings a different approach to how you need to proceed, and the variety does keep you on your toes.
You can play with the keyboard and mouse if you want to but WHY? Everything about Phantom Trigger feels so fluid and natural with the grip of a controller, and a WASD and mouse approach seemed like something you’d do to a frat pledge during Hell Week. I felt like I was all over the place, it was QWOP with weapons (which sounds like an amazing idea). I support and understand that some people will default to keyboard and mouse because that’s what you do with a computer, but I highly, highly recommend plugging in a controller to make the most out of it. And I do mean plugging in, because Phantom Trigger wouldn’t recognize my XB360 unless I plugged it in after the game began. Having it already connected meant ignoring it. I have no idea if it’s a game thing or a Windows 10 thing, but it was a bit annoying and threw off the otherwise smooth experience.
There’s also a co-op mode, local only, for those who want to throw down with a friend or loved one. The co-op mode does scale accordingly and has more enemies and nonsense happening on the screen than if you were solo. I can’t totally recommend the co-op mode, if only because I don’t feel that it really adds anything to the game overall. If you’re an achievement hunter then you’ll be doing it no matter what, but people who prefer to game alone aren’t going to miss out on not having a friend there to explore and enjoy this dissection of a man’s psyche.
Phantom Trigger has a beautiful, dark tone that carries throughout with brief stabs of light that really illuminate some moments of hope. Since the entire game seems to (mostly) take place inside the mind of a disturbed man, the way that things are perceived and appear can shift and seem to move themselves around (though I’m fairly certain this is not the case). It’s got a good, pixel block feeling that focuses more on the action and identity of the game rather than trying to overwhelm you with design and flashy creations. That being said, the way the game is crafted works perfectly for how Phantom Trigger is broken down.
For example, the entire second world appears to be a frozen, desolate landscape, complete with the kind of painful snow that would whip across your face on the walk to school on a dark February morning. In this world, Outsider needs to rely on fire to keep many of the enemies at bay, though chunks of blue and green remind him that there is still a purpose to his other weapons. Also, on a deeper level for Stan, this area represents a bit of himself that’s been hurt and scarred, and he tries to keep it on ice in order to repress the memories contained within. So, when you find the boss at the end who’s primary attack is flaming streaks, and it seems that, ironically, cold is the only way to win, is Outsider really the hero? Is he preventing something in Stan from being faced head on and dealt with, or is he saving him from relieving a horror that the game leaves to the player to imagine the full magnitude of? It’s major elements in design that allows for minor story moments to be conveyed on an even stronger level.
The biggest perk to the graphics has got to be the steaks left behind by the dash mechanics. I don’t know if neon slashers will continue to be popular in the near future, but I adore the way that our protagonist zips around the stage and seems to vanish in the flash of an eye. Best of all, leveling up your weapons also allows for combos to lead to different types of dashes which create beautiful blue or red trails, respectively, and do different effects as a result. You can get into a very smooth rhythm of moving and fighting, and Phantom Trigger allows you to keep track of Outsider the whole time with very little issue, the one exception being when the camera pans out for larger bosses. At that moment, when things get chaotic, you may have a tough time tracking yourself, which is when those colorful streaks become all the more important.
There could be a bit more variety in the monsters, however. By the time you finish the second world, you’ve mostly seen everything. There are occasionally some new additions that shamble into your way, but they’re all kind of pallet and skill swaps from the same pool. Limbless mass that hops and slides. Humanoid mess that chases you and punches you. The monitor-headed beasts that shoot lasers at you were some of the first I encountered, and I hoped very much to find additional baddies who also had subtle implications about the controlling forces of Stan’s life inflicting pain on him on a subconscious level. No such luck. But, again, everything is put together in such a cohesive way that I can forgive the lack of variations. After all, who amongst us are tortured by a plethora of problems, or, really, just the same issues wearing different hats? That’s a bit more spot on to the psychological play inside the game.
As you might expect, Phantom Trigger uses a very subtle and ominous soundtrack to build tension and atmosphere throughout all the worlds that Outsider explores. Rather than try and pull focus with a driving score, the music you here is “eerie ambiance” throughout. True to his title, Outsider isn’t supposed to be inside Stan, and Stan doesn’t want Outsider there. Why has he been manifested at this stage of his life, and why inside Stan? The game’s composer wants you to keep that question in the back of your mind, feeling the strangeness of the journey on multiple levels.
The sound effects, however, are a different story entirely. There’s an electric hum to the sword and fist, a crackling snap to the whip and an almost inaudible “bamf” to dashing. Monsters squish, scream and explode with tenacity, and there’s even a brief whine when the monitor heads are about to zap you, which gives you just enough of a cue to get the hell out of the way. The primal screech of the 3rd boss when he explodes into the arena is perfectly matched to his appearance. It’s a soundscape of pain and madness that you’re trying to decipher through steel and suffering and it’s wonderful.
Additionally, things do shift quite a bit when you phase into Stan’s reality. The entire design of both the graphics and sound change dramatically, as everything takes on a distinctly soap opera, medical drama feel. Stan and the other people he sees aren’t voiced, so the written dialogue is entirely shaped and carried by the anesthetized sensation of a disassociated world, supported by a simple, almost childish tone in the background. It’s the little things that make the deeper feeling pop, and the audio of Phantom Trigger (which recommends headphones from the beginning) is an army of tiny moments, converging as a massive meaning.
Phantom Trigger creates a difficult situation for me, because being critical and subjective of a game you just flat out LIKE is a tough spot. I strive to identify some of the short comings (relatively short play time for just one ending, lack of variety with enemies) but there is so much that’s done well that I feel like I’m being petty. The gameplay is tight and the controls, once you get a controller up and running, are butter. Everything from Outsider to the aloof Tree to the final boss are so properly sculpted to show you what kind of noise is happening in Stan’s mind that you feel yourself get drawn in even deeper when the smallest sounds suddenly jump out at you. And I was obsessed with figuring out what the true ending of Phantom Trigger might be, and where everything was leading. It was a journey that I would absolutely take again, and my only serious critique is the damn controller identification, which I’m sure will be fixed in a patch before/shortly after launch.
If you played and loved Hyperlight Drifter, there’s so much here that will compel you to love this too. If you want to find a dark and mysterious slasher that really exercises your decisions and moral barometer, this could be amazing. If you simply want to be a bad ass and combo the shit out of some enemies before encasing them in ice and setting them on fire, you will get PLENTY of that on each level. If you want a knitting simulator, I guess Phantom Trigger isn’t for you. But who knows what mods could bring in the future? Phantom Trigger needs to be played, and I implore you to take up the cause.