Almost exactly a year ago, developer Heart Machine released Hyper Light Drifter, and it was one of my favorite games of last year. At first glance, Phantom Trigger shares more than enough examples with that title to have peaked my interest as it is yet another pixel aesthetic hack and slash title, one that the developer likes to call a “hardcore neon slasher”. While Phantom Trigger, which shouldn’t be confused with the anime visual novel game GRISAIA: Phantom Trigger, does have several enjoyable moments through its 5-6 hours of play, it simply becomes far too repetitive to remain entirely enjoyable through the whole experience.
You play as the Outsider, a warrior that has come to a strange land to find out that he is living inside the mind of Stan, a man in the real world who is currently in the hospital and is quite sick. There is some back and forth to each reality to bridge the two worlds, and there are choices you’ll make within each reality to then shape one of four endings the game can leave you with. You’ll interact with a small group of characters that each want something from the Outsider and most of them will fill you in on a few details about the world and the threats that lay in wait for you.
Phantom Trigger is published by tinyBuild and developed by Bread Team, a development team of just two people; coder Victor Solodilov and artist Denis Novikov. While the title isn’t revolutionary by any means, the fact that just two people made it is nothing short of impressive.
As I mentioned earlier, the title can easily be seen as something of a Hyper Light Drifter copycat, but after playing through Phantom Trigger, that isn’t what is going on here at all. Both titles do share in some visual elements, but the core mechanics, combat, and story are vastly different and each game brings something very different to the table.
The combat in Phantom Trigger is more close range than long range. You have a whip, sword, and a mystical fist that are colored, green, blue, and red, respectively. These colors are also used for some lite-puzzle solving that looks to break up the combat, if only for a few brief moments. Each weapon has its own exp bar that fills up upon using that weapon, and the level of each weapon will also then unlock combo moves like shooting out a lane of ice to freeze enemies, or summoning three mystical blades that fire out and then retract back to you.
The combat can be fun early on when the levels are not incredibly busy, but once you start interacting with vast hordes of enemies, the combat starts to not be as responsive or as fun. Some enemy types are a blast to contend with, but when you start dealing with those that shift your playstyle from offense to defense, it can break the flow of combat, especially when it starts to mix and match several on screen. The difficulty and this style of combat can easily entertain those looking for a tense challenge, and I can totally see the appeal of it, but I just found that while the game had some interesting weapons and combat ideas, that it failed to create situations where I found each weapon to be uniquely effective.
With the weapons at your disposal being color based, this mechanic is used in and out of combat. There are a few moments here where enemies will constantly change color and each color is then only weak to that respective color of weapon. These moments only happen a few times and is sadly underused. The main purpose of these color weapons is via the lite-puzzle solving, and “lite” may be too strong of a word. The puzzles mostly consist of a ‘Simon-Says’ color matching mini-game to unlock a variety of doors and switches. There is also the use of your whip to move large green blocks around to have them pass by or land on switches to then again, open doors.
Each new world that you enter will sprinkle in a few new enemy types, but they sadly usually just consist of the same designs with having different elemental attacks. There are a few times where we do get entirely new enemies, but overall there are maybe 6-7 unique types featured in the game. There are those who just lumber around or ones that fire off death lasers from a tv set that is permanently attached to their shoulders, or ones that require you to wait until they hit the ground, which can also unleash an area effect attack you’ll need to watch out for. There are also a few new types that make an appearance in the final section, just minutes away from completing the game that share in some attacks we’ve seen before, but it’s quite frustrating to see something new revealed just before you complete the game.
The game also ends each section with a boss battle and these, for the most part, are very enjoyable. There was one boss, however; that didn’t play by the rules of the others and introduced new mechanics during that battle. Bosses, for myself, are more enjoyable when they are beaten by mastering techniques and attacks that the level or game have been teaching us leading up until that encounter. I’ll also point out that there is one boss battle where you fight two pillars that I still have no idea how I actually beat it, or even how I was dealing damage to it at all.
The Outsider has a blink teleport that will help you not only get around the map but dodge enemy attacks as well. This dash can definitely come in handy, but it can be hard to figure out exactly where you’ll come out of it when the screen is filled with various enemies that leave traps and poison puddles on the ground. You’ll be required to at least get the hang of it as several lasers or traps require that you blink through them as to prevent damage to your very limited health bar, and this is made even more stressful in co-op when you share that very health bar with your co-op partner.
The co-op mode itself can be fun should both players be of similar skill level as it can get pretty hectic sharing the same screen with another player who may have a different way to move around and play the game. It’s not impossible, but it made the game actually more hard yet easier at the same time if that makes any sense. There is lastly an Arena mode that pits you against waves of enemies and revisits to the bosses that should keep you busy should you have enjoyed your first trip through the game already.
As I’ve indicated a few times so far, Phantom Trigger is difficult and when you start the game, it is set to hard by default. I’m not a huge fan of difficult games, but I do understand their appeal. Part of the difficulty is based around how much damage certain attacks do towards you and how much health is earned back from the rare health drops that enemies will occasionally present to you. There are checkpoints scattered around the map that do refill your health but several of them are placed far enough back that should you die during or after a very intense battle with dozens of foes, you’ll have to redo not only that battle but anything leading up to it and this is where the repetitive nature of the game makes for a very poor experience as a whole.
My last bit of frustration with the game is due to the somewhat poor controls on the Switch. I played the game in various ways, as is the appeal of the portable home console. I played with it the Joycons attached to the console, attached to the Joycon grip, and with the Pro controller. I found that the best way to play was with the Joycons attached to the system as the reaction time was a tiny bit better. The Pro controller has a slight delay with its analog sticks that made for a poor experience when the screen was filled with enemies and I needed every split second of timing at my disposal. I also found that no matter the controller configuration I was using that combo’s were not easy to pull off during these intense encounters.
The last bit of controller issue is the swapping of the A and B button’s on the Nintendo Switch controllers in relation to how the rest of the industry works. This lead to many times where I would go to back out of something and it would select it instead. With the Switch, you normally have to relearn what the bottom face button and the right face button (A and B) do and since this game uses the reverse to what Nintendo has done here, it can be a bit confusing, but not game breaking.
Visually, Phantom Trigger is quite gorgeous, as pixel aesthetic games usually are. The game runs a solid 60 fps in both docked (1080p) and undocked (720p) and it fully playable in both configurations. The game has some nice uses of color and each pixelated character has some really nice designs to them. I also was rather impressed with the variety within the levels themselves and considering again that one person did all the artwork, is even more impressive. There are a few moments where foreground graphical elements block some of the action below, but it’s fairly rare and usually adds some nice depth the environments. The melancholic ambiance and intensity of the music is pretty good as well, but nothing is terribly catchy or that memorable.
I had a few glitches during my time with Phantom Trigger that I’ll address, but they didn’t really bother me too much. I had several enemies get stuck in the level that allowed me to just walk up and kill them with no resistance and this happened at least a few dozen times. I also had teleporting enemies just blink in and out and become invincible, and this would have been a major issue had they also been able to attack, but they just became visually oddities than anything physically harmful. I also had a floating mine cart in one of the later levels that flew off the tracks and through a wall, and I’ve read that I wasn’t alone in that bug. Other than that, I had a fairly smooth experience with the game.
It’s safe to say that I had an alright time with Phantom Trigger despite how frustrating the checkpoint system can be and how repetitive that certain sections of the game can get. It wasn’t the Hyper Light Drifter experience I was hoping for after watching various trailers and gameplay sessions, but it did the job of keeping me mostly entertained through the 5-6 hours I put into it. It has its flaws, sure, and they are more apparent than they should be, but for those that are willing to look past them, and for those that want a very challenging game, then you can have a lot of fun with tinyBuild’s Phantom Trigger.
Phantom Trigger was reviewed on the Nintendo Switch with a review copy provided by the publisher.
All screenshots were taken on the Nintendo Switch and formatted for this review.