I completely agree with TCB and am on the verge of shelving this game for good too.
When it comes to tactical turn-based strategy games, I like to think I’m pretty good at them. I have dozens of legend Ironman campaigns in XCom 2 behind me, and I usually have a lot of fun playing these kinds of games on their highest difficulty setting.
From my perspective, one of the core problems in Phoenix Point are the enemies. They aren’t balanced. Instead of presenting the player with a challenge, they are, to quote the Tritons in the game, a giant “fuck you” to the player. Enemies don’t have weaknesses that players can exploit. The player isn’t given any (or many) tactical tools to deal with them either.
For example, there is the Siren, an absolute tank of an enemy with thick layers of armour everywhere, a devastating melee attack, a huge pool of hit points, and mind control. But wait there is more! Some variants have frenzy and can boost it’s speed from fast to ridiculously fast and cross half the map in one turn, which means it can often slither into mind control range, contol a player’s soldier, then slither away into a safe hiding spot.
Sure, you can bust your mind controlled soldier free by taking out the Siren’s head, but you need to get soldiers into position to shoot at its head, then you have to chew through all the armour on its head, and then you have to put in enough damage into it to take out its head. In terms of game play mechanics and the Action Point economy, the Siren’s mind control robs the player of one soldier then requires about 10 AP of shooting and hitting the Siren’s head plus whatever AP is needed to move and get line of sight to that Siren. All in all, that one move by the Siren effectively neutralizes about five or six soldiers on the players squad just to deal with one mind control—leaving the player with few—if any—soldiers to deal with other threats that turn. Which means that the player is going to take damage, perhaps even a lot of damage, from other enemies on the battlefield.
In XCom 2, the Sectoid has the same mind control abilities, but after the first mission, the player has the ability to build and equip Flashbang Grenades, which will disorient the Sectoid and break mind control. Furthermore, the Sectoid has a weakness, a vulnerability to melee attack, which the Ranger class of soldiers can unleash even after sprinting. The player has multiple options to counter a Sectoid—with the Flashbang being optimal, and the Ranger attack being the next best, and then focused fire from the rest of the squad also being a choice that the player can consider. In terms if the action points economy, dealing with a Sectoid’s mind control means that the player temporarily loses one soldier to the mind control and then needs to use all the actions from a second soldier to move and toss a Flashbang. That also leaves the player with four squad members (67% of a squad of six) to address other threats on the battlefield.
In XCom 2, the Sectoid mind control puts a player into a tough situation, which the player then has to figure out what the best way to get out of it is. And one of the reasons XCom 2 is so beloved and critically acclaimed (one of the best games made in the last decade) is that the player always has multiple options to consider.
In Phoenix Point, a Siren mind control messes with the player in a huge “fuck you” way. One Siren mind control essential hands the AI a free turn to mess up the player. And the player has only two options: grind through the Siren armour and hit points or bend over and take it.
And it’s not just the Siren that is like that. Almost every Pandoran enemy—except worms and Mindfraggers—requires so many action points to effectively counter and eliminate that every mid and late game mission turns into a tedious slog.
The new enemy type, some purple bullshit zombie Arthon is another example of an action point sinkhole that requires the player to—and this is the radical change-up in game mechanics—move five or six soldier near the gestating umbral Arthon and overwatch. The player needs to put anywhere from two thirds to all their soldiers on umbral overwatch duty to deal with it—effectively handing the AI yet another free turn.
Pheonix Point has stealth Tritons with sniper rifles and huge pools of hit points that are difficult to spot and need to be hunted down then shot four or five time before they are taken out. Does the player get a battle scanner they could toss like a grenade to reveal or partially reveal the Triton? Nope. All a player can do is play hide and seek—with some Tritons being so well camouflaged that you have to be right next to them to reveal then even if they are out in the open. The player has few counters besides running around playing Marco Polo with a triton while, simultaneously, taking massive amounts of damage from incoming sniper rifle shots. Good times!
And then there is the most hated enemy in the game, the explosive bomb Chiron that can hit and one-shot kill a max level, max health soldier anywhere on the map. But they aren’t hated in the same way that Stun Lancers are in XCom 2. No, the Chiron is hated because it is essentially an RNG check on your squad. Fail the dice roll, and a soldier dies—just like that: do not pass go, do not collect $200. Oops, wrong game.
The menagerie of enemy types Phoenix Point presents the player with are essential more of the same, only distinguishable by their 3D models and maybe a minor mechanic or perk. Other than that they are all big bullet sponges that require the players to move and focus fire on each one. And it doesn’t matter what the enemy looks like, whether it has a shield of no shield, fighting one enemy is just like fighting every other enemy, which makes every battle feel like every other battle, every mission feel like every other mission—until the entire Pheonix Point experience blurs into a monotonous battle against a never ending onslaught of bullshit enemies.
Oh, and some missions have infinitely spawning enemies. So just in case you aren’t tired of more of the same indistinguishable enemies, you can have even more of the more of the same, indistinguishable enemies.
As the enemies gain more hit points and armour, the missions become more of a grind. The Pandoran evolution doesn’t make the enemies tougher or more challenging. It makes the game boring. Then it evolves into really boring.
And here is the thing about Phoenix Point, it has the potential to be fun. The first dozen or so mission in the game are fun. But as soon as the Pandorans start to evolve, the game become less and less fun. Huh? What a strange coincidence.
One major reason why the enemies in Phoenix Point are so one dimensional isn’t just that they all evolve the exact same way to gain more hit points and armour. It’s that they do not have any weaknesses. And some of the new “Prime” Arthons even flaunt that fact in the debug-console-with-pictures “intelligence reports.” These prime enemies do not even have a weak spot to target for maximum damage using the game’s free aim shooting mechanic. Just a thick layer of armour everywhere.
That design decision—to make perfect enemies with no weaknesses and no counters for the player to exploit—is where Phoenix Point goes off the rails.
By way of comparison, XCom 2’s enemies have weaknesses or tools a player can use to counter things. For example, to counter melee enemies, a player could use dragon rounds or incendiary grenades to set them on fire, effectively neutralizing their melee attacks for a time—until either the fire goes out on its own or the enemy hunkers down to put it out. Poison rounds and grenades provided significant aim and movement penalties to enemies hit by those weapons, but not every enemy can be poisoned. The much-hated Stun Lancer that often disorients and sometimes knocks out soldiers can be countered with fire, poison, Flashbangs as well as regular weapons. And the Specialist class can get the Revive perk to wake up an unconscious soldier. With robotic enemies (which are immune to fire and poison), players can unlock blue screen rounds that do more damage against those types of enemies. The Lost enemies are especially weak against fire, and since one of the their strengths is numbers, Firaxis also introduced a new headshot mechanic to counter that. Some enemies have a high dodge stat, but the player can opt for holotargeting as a perk on some soldiers to laser-paint a hard to hit target and improve the rest of the squad’s accuracy. In other words, whatever challenges and difficult enemy types XCom 2 presents to the player, there are corresponding items or perks to counter it.
As you can see, there is a lot of rock-paper-scissors type of balancing in XCom 2. And there is so little of that kind of balance evident in Phoenix Point.