Phantom Trigger

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Bread Team for PC and Switch, originally released in 2017.
Phantom Trigger begins with a fellow named Stan speaking to his wife about breakfast before heading off to work, but during the conversation he drops to his knees and slumps over on the kitchen floor. Then, the game cuts to a neon world where a man is sitting on handmade sailboat that is floating across the sea. The boat comes to a stop at a dock, and the man disembarks, wandering into a small village filled with unusual creatures, including an anthropomorphic toad named Toad, a speaking tree, and a redheaded woman with antennae, named Ant.

Throughout the game, the narrative switches back and forth between Stan’s normal life – where he is in a hospital being treated for some serious but unknown issue – and the neon world, where it seems he is an adventurer who calls himself The Outsider. Much of the dialogue in both worlds is purposely vague and mysterious, refusing to delve too deeply into what is real or what is really happening with Stan… although he is clearly having some issues separating these possible realities. For instance, Stan seems to be confusing his wife with Ant from the neon world, but it turns out that his wife is an entomologist, so perhaps Ant is his mind’s construct in a fabricated reality.

There are often dialogue choices for the player to make, which lead to one of several different endings, but the vagaries of the language make it difficult to tell that choices are leading to any sort of consequence, or that any one selection has value over another. In the end, the game’s core focus is the gameplay in the neon world, with occasional intermissions featuring the mundanity of reality and Stan’s potentially grave situation.

The game is a top-down dungeon crawler that takes place across several stylized environments, with the presence of bright neon colors – particularly pink – and fast-paced combat inviting comparisons to Hyper Light Drifter. The Outsider has a long-range dash maneuver that allows him to pass through enemies and dart quickly around the environment. In addition, he has three weapons available to him in the form of a whip, a sword, and pair of giant pink fists.

The whip does no damage on its own, but it has a very long range and can be used to pull enemies in closer, or drag them into fire traps to cause light but continuous damage. The whip can also be used to activate traps in the environment, allowing you to fling arrows or rocks at enemies, and it’s also used in some simple block pushing puzzles and Simon Says-style challenges.

The sword is the most versatile of The Outsider’s weapons, as it allows him to inflict medium damage at a rapid pace, and this speed allows him to break off in the middle of a combo and dash away to avoid retaliatory strikes. The fists operate similarly, doing somewhat more damage but with a slower combo speed, making them more suitable to slower-moving enemies or those that take a long time to strike back. Hitting enemies with the final strike of a combo knocks them down and stuns them temporarily.

All melee attacks have a 3-hit combo, with a short pause between the first and second strike, and a longer pause between the second and third. Understanding enemy attack speeds is paramount to performing successful combos, as these longer pauses leave the player open to taking damage, and there is no way to interrupt a combo during a strike.

The player takes damage quickly and is only invincible during his damage animation, making it possible to take multiple hits in succession. Checkpoints are spread apart by a fair distance, so sloppy combat generally results in a great deal of repeated gameplay. Enemies do occasionally drop health restoratives when killed, but this is rare, and they only restore a sliver of health. As such, it is imperative that the player employ smart combat tactics in order to survive.

The game offers very little enemy variety, so once the player learns a successful tactic, he can continue to employ it against the same enemy types, with minor strategy changes when encountering elemental variants of the same enemies. This unfortunately makes gameplay quite repetitive, especially as dungeons are very large and players must engage the same set of enemies again and again in near-identical encounters before reaching the boss in each area.

Bosses cannot be defeated using brute force or by using any of the techniques learned earlier in the levels. Instead, each has a trick that must be used to defeat them, and they remain invincible to your standard attacks until you figure it out. Since these tricks are unique to each encounter and are not otherwise established in the design, players are left to fumble about until they discover how to cause damage, at which point they must repeat the technique until the boss is defeated.

Some enemies may be bypassed by dashing past them, but many areas lock the player into a given space until all enemies are defeated. Sometimes, these enemies are fought normally, but there are also challenges where enemies are enhanced with blue or red energy. With blue highlights, enemies take extra damage when being attacked by the blue sword, but they are invulnerable to other attacks.

With pink highlights, enemies must be attacked with the pink fists. Enemies may also be highlighted in white, during which time they are invincible, and there are some challenges where enemies remain invincible until the player takes down one or more emitters in the area.

Gameplay generally involves moving from room to room and facing a handful of enemies in each, before moving onto another room with the same enemies. There is no map, but most areas are linear (one area allows the player to take three different paths in any order), offering only small side paths, usually populated by a small number of the same enemy types. Going off the beaten path does reward the player with added “XP” for each weapon, as does using these weapons in combat, allowing them to be levelled up to unlock spells.

Spells add a bit of variety to the combat as they allow the player to alternate between attacks and dashes to unleash secondary effects. One of the first spells unlocked allows the player to deliver two strikes with the sword and then dash away, causing all enemies caught within the dash to slow down temporarily. This allows for some crowd control, and also allows the player to attack enemies with less chance of retaliation. Many spells are based on elements, with elemental enemies being more or less susceptible, such as ice-based foes being immune to freezing attacks but susceptible to a ring of fire that you can surround yourself with. Spells and their required button combinations are viewable in the pause menu.

Phantom Trigger was developed by Bread Team, a studio founded by programmer and designer Victor Solodilov and artist and designer Denis Novikov. The duo previously developed Divide By Sheep, a math-based puzzler that involves slicing up sheep and sticking them back together. Sound design is credited to Alexander Ahura, and music for the game was composed by Alex Starovoyt from Disco Fish Games.

The game was published by tinyBuild, which was the developer behind No Time to Explain, and was also the publisher of numerous indie games, including Divide By Sheep, Party Hard, Punch Club, SpeedRunners, and Clustertruck, among others.