Phantom Trigger is, in the words of its development team, a “neon slasher,” and it’s slated to arrive on the Nintendo Switch later this year. But don’t let pink and teal pixel art fool you, it’s more than just Hyper Light Drifter-lite.
Revealed two months ago, the PC action adventure game with roguelike elements looked a lot like the latest in a slew of similar games trying to combine twitchy arcade elements with a retro-futurist art style. At this point the words “neon,” “cyberpunk,” and especially “indie roguelike” are more than a little played out. While the aesthetics and mechanics implied by those phrases are admirable in their own right, the aspirations toward them and the eventual reality don’t always add up.
For all its visual similarities, however, Phantom Trigger nails the look and feel of a techno-dungeon crawler enough to make it feel distinct; less a younger sibling to Hyper Light Drifter than a second cousin. I spent a few hours with the Alpha that was released yesterday (free to download here) and was pleasantly surprised by the polished feel of the combat and the narrative structure that scrambles together 80s fantasia with the story of a white collar hipster couple dealing with the brain disease one of them has recently been diagnosed with.
The game’s particular idiosyncrasies are understated but effective. The colorful scanlines that scramble the visuals and segue between combat and story beats fit the rest of the game’s vibe perfectly and I loved the enemies wandering around with CRT TV heads. Even the brief conversations with incomprehensible NPCs are memorable, finding just the right balance between weird, random nonsense and classic video game motifs.
The combat is flashy but straightforward. You can dash around with one button while unleashing different elemental attacks with the others. A green whip pulls enemies in close while a blue sword unleashes ice damage or a pair of red knuckles deliver quick melee combos. Some of the enemies you fight have nearby area attacks while others might fire beams from across the screen, encouraging a good mix of dashing, whipping, and slashing during fights.
The levels themselves have generous check-pointing and different traps littered throughout that you can activate to help cut through some of the more deadly monsters. When my timing was good and things started syncing up correctly—dash in there, pull and enemy over here, delivery a flurry of blows before evading the next attack—the game felt like a redux of Supergiant Games’ Transistor. It was less complex, but also ran a bit smoother, at least during the limited levels currently available to try.
The work of Victor Solodilov and Denis Novikov, Phantom Trigger is a striking departure from the duo’s previous game, Divide By Sheep, a colorful and lighthearted puzzle game about, well, dividing sheep. The two intend this new project have a branching story with multiple endings and a combat system that revolves around unlocking combos and upgrading weapons when all is said and done.