Last year, the world of gaming shook on its base with a streak of titles that not only remain relevant throughout 2017 but don’t show signs of fading away anytime soon. Although not as impactful in the long run, the critically acclaimed Hyper Light Drifter was of major importance due to its visual aspect, polished gameplay, and approach to storytelling. It’s a unique game that helps solidify the argument that games are a form of art, and undoubtedly it was bound to influence other developers in one way or another. Fast forward to August 2017, and the first game clearly inspired by Heart Machine’s debut is released. Developed by the two-man studio Bread Team and published by tinyBuild, Hyper Light Drifter‘s influence over Phantom Trigger is undeniably clear, from its design ideas to the story, and –most importantly – the gameplay.
In Phantom Trigger, players take control of Stan, a regular man who one day collapses in his kitchen. From there the perspective changes to that of a blue-skinned man on a ferry to a decaying outpost. It’s clear that the world this mysterious man inhabits is far from “normal” or friendly. The inhabitants of the settlement are quick to identify him as the messiah to their cause, and while he explores the desolate environments, flashes of Stan show that not only is he seriously sick, but he’s also deeply connected to this otherworldly person. On the surface, it sounds like an interesting story. The protagonist knows who he is at first , then gradually loses touch with reality, becoming almost amnesiac. His relation to another dimension (or whatever that place is) makes everything more intriguing, yet it all fails to come together. To understand why, it’s necessary to have a look at Hyper Light Drifter, and identify where Phantom Trigger falls short.
“Stop comparing the two.” The reader suggests whilst frowning. “Phantom Trigger looks great. I bet it’s great on its own. So stop making these ridiculous comparisons.”
Unfortunately, it’s impossible not to compare the two when they are so similar. According to lead developer Alx Preston, HLD tells the story of a sick person looking for a cure. Phantom Trigger tells the story of a sick man who is undergoing treatment. Both take place in wrecked worlds that seem to have been through thick and thin, and they play almost exactly the same, with the exception that Hyper Light only provides one melee weapon and Phantom Trigger has three. Aesthetically, they are similar to the point where the first thing I thought when I spotted Phantom Trigger‘s HP bar in an old trailer was “could this be Hyper Light Drifter 2, or something related?” If Bread Team wasn’t inspired by Heart Machine’s award-winning title, they have terrible timing for debuting a year too late, when comparisons are impossible to avoid.
First Fault: Of Storytelling
“Oh, for fuck’s sake.” The reader rolls their eyes and scoffs. “What the hell is it with pompous section titles? This is a review, not a damn novel.”
One of Hyper Light Drifter‘s most intriguing aspects is its storytelling. Instead of laying out its story loud and clear, the game counts with a trippy introduction, speechless NPCs, and environments that convey a sense of lore previously observed in the Souls franchise. Although the developers had something specific in mind, it’s possible to play through the title and take something else out of it thanks to how abstract it is. Despite this freedom of interpretation, Hyper Light Drifter succeeds in telling its story because it knows what it is. Everything about it is fleshed out to the point where the soundtrack itself (composed by Diasterpeace, also known for Phil Fish’s FEZ and the film It Follows) becomes part of the narrative.
Phantom Trigger, on the other hand, struggles with pace and atmosphere. The characters are not only poorly presented, but they never develop, and the odd back-and-forth between the “real world” and the strange reality most of the game takes place in is confusing. Surprisingly, the presence of full lines of dialogue doesn’t help the game’s case, since nothing much happens. Unlike its predecessor, Phantom Trigger‘s soundtrack lacks substance (a trait that can easily describe the whole experience, but I have a word quota), even though it attempts to mimic the uniqueness Disasterpeace is known for. On top of it all, the world is bland with little to offer in any way. It doesn’t reward exploration with more than experience points, and it looks like a kid was put on the desk for distraction’s sake and went to town with Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. There’s no history to be learned from locales, and the NPCs are of little help in giving out names and exposing next to nothing.
Second Fault: Of Self-consciousness
“Oh my God.” The reader murmurs. “He’s not letting go of this. Hey, you—this looks stupid. Stop it. Now.”
As mentioned, Phantom Trigger doesn’t know what it wants to be. Whereas Hyper Light Drifter knew exactly what it wanted to convey and where it wanted to go, Bread Team’s sophomore title struggles with the ghost of a story, a ghostly world, and the ghost of the mechanics established by its predecessor. Oh, wait. Now I wonder if the title is a warning about all those “ghosts.” That would be more interesting than its overall presentation.
There’s no denying that Bread Team nailed the gameplay aspects that made their source material so engaging. Combat is fast and unlike countless other games which offer a multitude of weapons, the blue-skinned man makes full use of his arsenal – sometimes because it’s convenient, sometimes because the game entails it. For instance, there are moments where players find themselves trapped behind walls of flame (which, by the way, are more prominent than they should be). Waves of enemies spawn one after the other, and in some such cases they will be surrounded by a blue, red, or white glow, which determines which weapon can damage them. It’s also possible to spot debris spread throughout the levels, most of which can be used to damage enemies by launching them with the whip. Moreover, the whip can also be used to quickly deal with weaklings such as bats, or to drag bigger enemies closer, dealing a small amount of damage in the process. Perhaps the most interesting part of the combat, however, is that each weapon has its own experience bar, which fills along usage. Expanding on that is a selection of combos that make use of the arsenal by delivering slices with one tool and conjuring an additional effect with another.
Despite its success with the implementation of mechanics, Bread Team fails to make the best use of them. Adding to the boring levels is a difficulty that scales based on the number of enemies surrounding the player (never a good approach), and counter-intuitive boss battles. Going back to Hyper Light Drifter, it is true that in many occasions Heart Machine would flood players with aggressive foes, yet the encounters weren’t difficult because of the numbers. Crossing swords with one or two of the big dog-like plants is just as difficult as dodging a number of shurikens whilst making sure those throwing them receive their rightful punishment. Even in the most absurd of situations (waves of dog-like plants and biped NPCs shooting left and right), HLD manages to remain fair. The boss battles, while fairly difficult, don’t involve some convoluted mechanic never spoken of – they relied solely on the player’s skill and understanding of the character’s abilities.
Considering how the story and the game world lack any substance, it’s as if the developers knew they would have an extremely boring game if it wasn’t difficult. The solution to that, of course, is making it artificially harder with numbers and unnecessary ways to deal with bosses. At first, Phantom Trigger was supposed to be a rogue-like with randomly generated levels, but then Bread Team realized they would have a better product by catering to linearity. It then seems that they decided to give it their best by providing engaging combat, intriguing story, and puzzling boss battles, but all they ended up with was an underdeveloped product that doesn’t exceed in any aspect.
Third Fault: Of Knowing Thy Subjects
“Ouch.” The reader frowns once again. “Don’t you think you’re being a little too harsh? I mean, this was developed by only two people, right?”
Not at all. I’m just doing my job, which is dissecting games and telling you, the reader, where they succeed and where they fail. If we’re being honest, the number of people working on a project should be no excuse for its quality or lack thereof. FEZ was also developed by only two people (Phil Fish had some help), and it turned out to be one of 2012’s most memorable releases. Stardew Valley and Undertale were both primarily developed by only one person, and they both managed to become critical and commercial successes. It’s clear that Denis Novikov and Victor Solodilov can code and design; however, Phantom Trigger‘s shortcomings show that they lack vision, which is just as important as every other skill set.
It’s imperative to highlight that the game offers little to no optimization options. Despite running on Unity (and yes, we all know of its rep, but let’s focus on the game for a while), no launcher pops up when I hit “play” in my Steam library, as most Unity games do. The in-game menu only has a handful of options, of which resolution, v-sync, and windowed/fullscreen modes are nowhere to be found. Players are only able to select the game’s difficulty (which is set on hard by default), language, and two audio volumes. In 2017, developers are often criticized for not offering support to resolutions higher than 1080p and uncapped FPS, so everyone in the industry should know by now that not providing the most basic options highly increases the chances of backlash.
That’s not to say it is a fundamentally bad game. It’s just… boring. Coming after a successful title is a big risk and unfortunately, Phantom Trigger doesn’t live up to any expectations set by its connections to the source material. Distancing the title from one of last year’s indie darlings could’ve saved it, but alas it is what it is. There’s no doubt that some people will enjoy it for what it has to offer, but to anyone looking for a worthy successor of Hyper Light Drifter, it’s best to wait a while longer or start another playthrough.