Exclusives aren’t always a good thing. I feel like I could just write “Red Dead Redemption” and my point would be proven, but let’s play nice and expand just a bit further. Video games, no matter what some people feel, are not a rich person’s hobby exclusively. The PC gaming realm has shown that you can have high and low end gaming and have both sides be equally enjoyable and, to a lesser extent, enjoy the same games in different ways. My pitiful rig can run Skyrim, but I know someone with a two thousand dollar setup sees the game in cinematic qualities I can’t even articulate. So when a game is locked to a console, and you’re basically telling someone “buy this console or screw off,” it hurts, and it bothers the would-be fans who are gatekept by lack of burnable money.
Phantom Trigger is a PC and Switch release that, at the current time, is available ONLY on the two aforementioned platforms. TinyBuild, the publisher, has said that Phantom Trigger is their way of testing the waters in order to see what titles may or may not see a Switch port in the future. The only reason I bring up the hesitation in exclusivity in because Phantom Trigger is a genuinely great experience, and it feels completely at home with the controller in hand. It makes sense, therefore, that this game would also be well received on the other consoles, and I just want to express my concern that this will only be locked to the PC and the Switch. C’mon, throw my Xbox brethren some love.
Phantom Trigger is what’s called a neon slasher, which means you get to zip around with streaks of light while raging holy murder on enemies of all shapes and sizes. The story of the game is confusing, but I think it all takes place inside the mind of a guy named Stan who is in the middle of a brain tumor or something thereabouts. Stan’s imaginary friends and manifestations of his mental states (his rage, his curiosity, his…tree?) have all gathered to figure out what’s going on, and a newcomer, Outsider, is there to act as the protagonist and main vessel of ass kicking. The gang tasks Outsider with defeating four bosses in four different worlds in order to possibly help Stan and regain mental acuity. Your doling of neon justice will occasionally be interrupted by a peek into what Stan is up to in the real world, where he appears, without spoiling anything, to be having a bad time.
The artwork of Phantom Trigger is what people are going to lock in on immediately. With the exceptions of the bright but anesthetized view of Stan’s life in the hospital that pop up, the main game is dark as they come. You land in a dark campsite, your first level is a dark labyrinth of rooms, and the second is a dark, snow-ridden wasteland. Dark is the key word, and the darkness is there to offset all the color that does pop up in the form of enemies, fire and murderous obstacles. Outsider’s attacks are flashes of green, blue and red (whip, sword and fist, respectively) and they stand starkly against the overwhelming darkness of it all. There’s never a moment where I felt like I couldn’t see anything, or the game was shadowy and hiding dangerous secrets, but just everything was shades of black. If you don’t enjoy darkness, then you’re not going to love how unendingly heavy the tone is throughout.
Combatwise, Phantom Trigger is pretty spot on with setting up strong combos to help you destroy everything you encounter. Fist hits the hardest but is slow, whip is lightning fast but does no damage, and sword is inbetween. Sword also does elemental ice damage, and fist is fire, which does become important for dealing with different types of monsters. I really got into some great rhythm when it came to the whip and sword combination, and the neon dashing was pivotal to making some offensive and defensive getaways. If you dash instead of doing the third hit in a combination, there’s a chance to chill the enemy (slow effect) or burn them (mini damage bonus). Either way, Outsider really seemed to be proficient at delivering pain and destruction, so much so that I didn’t realize I had set the game to hard mode until I unpaused it. I toggled to normal, didn’t see a difference, then went back to hard. I’m not saying there isn’t a clear difference between normal and hard, I’m just saying that, once you get into the flow of the game, you are one with Outsider, and the difficulty doesn’t seem to matter.
Bosses are a horse of a different color, and by color I mean approach to winning. None of them can be defeated by straightforward attacks, but instead require some kind of trickery in order to effectively deal damage and win. The very first boss, for example, needs you to do some whip work before you can even consider winning. I do enjoy that the way the bosses are defeated is not explained, but needs to be discovered through trial and error, mostly error, and your death will be one of many before you happen upon a way to defeat the ruler of whatever realm your in. The second boss in the ice world is particularly nefarious, as it takes a lot of observational work on your part to figure out what damages him, and you gotta Sherlock that situation while a neverending wave of minions chase you around with every intent of smashing you to pieces.
Phantom Trigger did feel a little short, once you got through the main storyline, but I suppose that there’s a bit to it in replayability. If you just wanna get the game over and done with, you can brute force your way through with minimal exploration and virtually no combat, save for the bosses. But the imaginary friends back at the campsite each have their own stake in Stan’s survival and recovery, so interacting with them and running errands for them will cause the story to take different angles and perspectives. One character even asks you to murder another member of the camp, and, much later, you may find out that killing a part of a man’s psychological makeup might be detrimental for his full recovery. Still, live and learn. And influencing an aspect of morality and consequence into what could otherwise be a simple beat-em-up is a really nice touch. I’m always happy to see games take a risk and try another dimension to their play style, and Phantom Trigger wove in this element of decision making pretty seamlessly.
As of right now, the Switch version of the game is the better choice between the two (PC or Switch) due, in part, to the Switch’s mobility and natural controller setup. It takes a moment to load, but don’t freak out, that happens every single time, and you don’t see that same loading time between levels and stages. There’s so much to see and explore here, and Phantom Trigger is captivating with both a great idea, strong execution and a level of complexity that doesn’t need to be explored but is quite rewarding should you do so. As I said before, I do hope that we can see Bread Team decide to port this to other consoles, but at least its appearance on Steam means that most people are included into an otherwise exclusive setup. If you are looking for an action adventure RPG that’s story driven and a bit roguelite with enemy staggering, then you can’t do better than Phantom Trigger.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Nintendo Switch code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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