Set in the year 1983 during the midst of the Cold War, Phantom Doctrine is not your average tactical turn-based strategy RPG. As an agent of the Cabal, you must wage a shadow war against a mysterious organization on a global scale while trying uncovering a nefarious conspiracy. Don’t expect a straight-up strategy RPG, though. Phantom Doctrine has a heavy management-sim vibe to it, much like the popular X-COM series. Before you can start the game, you have a few options to look through, though some need to be unlocked by beating the game first. Initially, you can choose between the CIA and KGB background, which directly affects the narrative of the main story missions. Then you’re able to customize your agent to your liking with a decent customization menu. If you are feeling bold, there is an Ironman mode option which deletes your file when you die. Considering the game is touted as being 40+ hours, I wouldn’t recommend trying that setting out. There are multiple difficulty options for the gameplay and one for making the narrative more complex, but you can only choose the simple narrative to start. Once you are done tweaking your options and creating your main agent, you’re ready to begin.
First we’ll take a look at the base. There is a lot going on here, but most importantly, this is where you find your investigation board. The board is where you work on solving your case files. Once you collect evidence by finding important documents during tactical battles and by assigning agents to work the board in Analytics, you will be able to add them to the board. These papers and photos have keywords attached to them. Each board has a central keyword (a person or place of interest, usually) that you must connect the relevant keywords and evidence to in order to complete the board. While most of the intel has the keywords already filled in, sometimes you will need to manually sift through a body of text to find them yourself. Some case files must be completed to move the story forward, while others unlock shiny new things like new gear.
There are also a number of other facilities to take advantage of. The infirmary offers respite to your agents wounded in the field so they can recover health. The Forger room allows you to assign agents to generate extra income every hour. The Workshop allows agents to build items and work on upgrading the various facilities, improving their capabilities and sometimes adding new functions. There are a few other rooms, but my personal favorite is the MK Ultra facility. Any time you come across an enemy agent in the field, you have the option of taking them out with non-lethal means and taking him back to base by extracting him at the evac. What normally happens is that the enemy agent is interrogated for information and then executed. Once you build the MK Ultra facility, they are held there instead and you have much more fun options available to mess around with. Some of the more inventive options are to implant them with a locator beacon so they lead you to an enemy cell or you can implant a control phrase in them and set them loose. If you ever run into them during a mission, using the control phrase allows you to control them like they were your own unit. Now that’s some real dirty cloak and dagger-type stuff right there. It’s cool things like this that prove that Phantom Doctrine has earned the right to refer to itself as an espionage thriller.
Crew Quarters lets you manage your agents. You can manage their loadouts (each agent can carry two weapons that can also be modified, two tactical items, and body armor) and assign their bonus perks and training whenever they level up enough. When an extra training slot is unlocked you can then decide to train them in an extra set of skills. For example, training them in Covert Operations level 2 makes them proficient with using the Cobra and Wembley guns, plus gives them a new ability that reduces the awareness of nearby enemies whenever they score a kill. While training takes some time to complete, perks are gained as soon as they’re selected. Perks give an agent passive boons and are usually quite useful for a variety of purposes, from improving health points to allowing them to solve secret files faster. However, the spy game is a treacherous business and everyone has secrets. Agents may have secret perks that may be hidden talents or something more sinister, like brainwashing. During a playthrough you will most likely have a few situations where an agent runs off and defects, becoming an enemy that you’ll run into in the field. Such is life in the spy game. Hiring new agents is risky: each time you do it, you put your base at risk by increasing the danger bar. The enemy is always trying to find your base of operations and their operations increase the bar. Once the bar is full, you are open to enemy raids that can see all your money stolen and agents abducted. The only way to lower your danger level is to pay for the costly base moving procedure.
Once you’re done tinkering, you head over to the world map for deployment. This is where you manage your spy network and send your available agents to cities around the world to investigate the blips of interest that show up. There is one important caveat, however. Time flows constantly unless you press pause. All actions require time to complete and while you are working to expose the enemy, they are also doing their best to expose you. Enemy operations can be very dangerous if successful: they can raise the danger level of your base and expose the identity of your agents nearby, making it easier for them to get ambushed while traveling. Nothing is tenser than having to escape a seedy motel surround by armed goons and enemy agents by yourself. Plus when agents die, they’re gone for good. Luckily you can always pay to change the identity of exposed agents, altering their real name, code name, and looks! If you happen upon an enemy operation in progress, your options are determined by how much time they have left to complete the op. If you have at least 16 hours to go, you can assign two agents to an interrupt op that will cancel out the enemy’s without resorting to combat. If you don’t have enough time for that, tactical recon allows you to spend a few hours planning for the assault so you don’t go in blind. This allows you to assign disguises to a few of your agents, allowing them almost unfettered access to the tactical area. Finally, your last resort is to launch an assault and personally stop the enemy agents.
No matter where your agents are on the map, you can deploy them into assault battles as long as they’re not in the midst of an activity. You don’t just start off the fight guns blazing, though. You can move around the map incognito as long as you don’t do anything suspicious, such as shooting unsilenced weapons; getting caught by people and cameras doing something suspicious like trespassing or looting items and documents, and getting seen by enemy agents. The map is often populated by many types of characters. Civilians, foreign police/military, and Beholder forces will all hamper you in one way or another, but enemy agents are the most dangerous out there. They can see through your disguise, they’re extra alert and notice when you stealthily take out guards, and they’ll destroy evidence when alerted. You don’t always run into them but when you do, watch out. The best thing to do is to complete your objective quietly, call for evac and then make it out before anyone notices. The controls have a moderate learning curve to them and it may take you a little while to get used to them, as they feel a bit counter-intuitive. On the other hand, if you make a misstep, the game contains a generous autosave system that saves at the start of each turn.
Once the enemy is alerted, the guns come out and a countdown to reinforcements begins. There is one main thing that makes the gunplay unique. Instead of having hit percentages, your weapons have two stats, minimum and maximum damage. Unless you shoot a person at point blank range, they use Awareness to dodge and take minimum damage. Wearing armor and taking cover behind obstacles also reduce damage taken. Once a person’s Awareness is drained, they take max damage. It is very important to manage your Awareness, as you need it to use certain abilities as well. It regenerates each turn but you can also use abilities to recover it. In order to exit a level, you must call in your evac. This takes 3 turns before it gets to the playing field and you can leave. If the alarm has been raised, your evac can become compromised if not reached within a certain amount of turns, raising your hideout’s danger level.
As the game progresses and the world map fills out more frequently, the whole process begins to drag and feel very grind-heavy. Spending hours doing busybody work while waiting for the next lead to pan out can feel exasperating 15 hours into the game. Problem is, a lot of the side stuff can’t be ignored or else you’ll be putting your agents at risk, making the main missions more difficult. Maybe it isn’t so bad when you have a lot of free time, but as a reviewer who needs to get the review out in a timely fashion or a gamer with little free playtime, it can feel frustrating. If you want to get into Phantom Doctrine and you have a lot of free time and don’t really mind the emphasis on management, then I highly recommend this game. It has a lot of awesome spy stuff going on for it, plus a cool 80’s vibe and low-key jazzy soundtrack: just get ready to be in it for the long haul.
*Note: a copy of this game was provided for the purposes of the review.
Final Score: 8.5/10
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