Phantom Trigger is a self-described “neon slasher” featuring RPG and roguelike elements developed by two-man squad, Bread Team. Combining some rather tough gameplay with an intriguing storyline, it sees you make your way through various monster-ridden, dungeon-like worlds, whilst also attempting to make sense of what is happening simultaneously in the real world. It can be confusing at times, being thrown back and forth between these two parallel realities, but this actually turns out to be one of Phantom Trigger’s biggest selling points.
The game opens with a conversation between Stan (the story’s main character) and his wife, which is cut abruptly short when Stan collapses to the floor. Immediately you are whisked off to what is clearly a whole other universe, where you take control of a new character called the Outsider. Here, you meet Toad (not that one) who briefly explains your existence before telling you to go and talk to a tree. Whilst all of this probably seems a little crazy at first, you’ll soon discover that is the whole point. This anthropomorphic tree bestows upon you a sword with which to defend yourself, enabling you to go through a portal to new and dangerous worlds. Whilst travelling through these unfamiliar realms you’ll have flashbacks of sorts, waking up once again as Stan in the real world and realising that maybe all of this “Outsider” stuff is just in your head. It’s an interesting concept and one that we’ll come back to later on.
For now, though, let’s look at the gameplay itself. Toad, the tree, and several more characters live in a place that acts as a small hub, allowing some respite between your adventures through the portal. You’ll soon discover that the Outsider’s goal is to enter this portal several times to defeat bosses from different worlds. It is within these worlds that the real action takes place; hacking and slashing your way past numerous enemies, you will make your way through areas, hitting checkpoints as you go, and trying to find everything you need to make it to the boss, survive the ensuing fight, and get back to the main hub.
To fight the enemies scattered around you are equipped with some skills and weapons. Hitting ‘B’ acts as a dash to get you out of trouble or move around at a much quicker pace, ‘Y’ uses the sword you obtained at the start, ‘A’ will eventually become a stronger punch attack and ‘X’ is a whip that can be used for a whole variety of things. The trick to being successful at combat is getting used to the different enemy types and their patterns of attack. From there, you can dodge their attacks and hit them with your own, possibly using your whip to drag them towards you if necessary. It is easy enough to grasp and feels rather satisfying to carry out; the movement is quick and you always feel very in-control of your actions.
Along with this enjoyable gameplay, there is more on offer than the simple combat controls, with the inclusion of a couple of interesting ideas utilising different physical actions. Firstly, the weapons you possess receive upgrades as you use them in what feels like a very basic RPG system: as you level-up each weapon (simply by using it in battle), you’ll start to unlock new combos that can be used whenever you like. Secondly, there are some puzzle elements to levels as well as just combat: sometimes you’ll be required to move a heavy block around using your whip to activate switches for doors, other times you’ll have to use your weapons against coloured poles in what is effectively a memory test to progress. Unfortunately, however, these are the only real puzzle types that are included and will only take a couple of seconds to complete. Finally, dotted around each world there are areas where the game traps you in a confined space – forcing you to clear a wave of enemies before being allowed to break free. At times this feels frustrating (especially if you just want to explore) but does at least offer something different.
With that said, the biggest flaw of this game is definitely repetition. There really aren’t that many different types of enemy – even when progressing to new worlds the only difference is elemental attacks – meaning that you’ll soon get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again. Every world feels identical in this aspect; what starts as a combat system and overall structure with great promise, soon falls into something that was never fully developed into the masterpiece it could have been. The exception to this rule is the bosses of each world, which offer something wildly different. Each one is unique and offers a real challenge, although even they have a slight drawback – going from one end of the spectrum to the other, the bosses are so different that at first it seems impossible to defeat them because you have no idea what to do. Usually, games tend to teach you things (even subtly) through the main body of a level, allowing you to use all of the knowledge you’ve gained against a boss. Here, however, you have to use techniques that you’ve never come across before which, when faced with a giant enemy, is quite a daunting prospect. Some players may love the challenge, but others will find it slightly too confusing.
Thankfully, Phantom Trigger’s saving grace is its story and atmosphere. Returning to what we touched on earlier, the switching between the two alternate story arcs is brilliantly done. As you are playing through the worlds as the Outsider, the game will sometimes crackle and dissolve into another dialogue sequence between Stan and characters from that world. Slowly but surely you’ll start to form your own ideas of what exactly is going on. Are you dying and experiencing Hell? Is the Outsider a version of you trying to overcome demons in your head? You don’t know for sure and that’s what kept this writer playing, desperately wanting answers. The music adds to this brilliantly too, with one particular tune conveying levels of isolation and creepiness on a par with the Metroidsoundtracks. The game suggests playing with headphones right from the start – and with good reason; whether playing on the TV or in handheld mode you’ll be treated to a very aesthetically pleasing experience, but headphones will certainly add to the atmosphere.
Overall then, Phantom Trigger is a rather mixed bag. There are extra options available in the form of a co-op mode (enabling you and a friend to take on the levels together with a Joy-Con each), and an ‘Arena’ mode which is essentially an endurance test unlocked after completing the game, pitting you against waves of enemies from each world. However, once you’ve played through the story you’ll be unlikely to return too often. These new modes are good ideas and the game even offers four alternate endings, but the repetitive combat will likely put most players off, as another six hours or so doing the same things again and again isn’t massively appealing.
Sometimes brilliant, sometimes flawed, Phantom Trigger is a game that could have been one of the best releases on the Switch eShop to date, but is let down by a lack of new ideas. Whilst being a rather tough game difficulty-wise, many players will find fun in the easy-to-pick-up combat system, beautiful aesthetics and gripping story, but will likely find themselves getting bored after a while thanks to seeing the same enemy hundreds of times. It's a good game overall, once the pros and cons are weighed up, so it is certainly worth considering.