In the words of its two-man Russian development team, Phantom Trigger is a "neon slasher". If that doesn't sound like a game genre to you, that's because it's a combination of the game's art style, and its play style. Neon in the sense that the game leans heavily on the retro-futurist art style, which makes use of eye-popping colour amidst a mostly dark background. And slasher is a shortening of hack and slash, which you're probably already familiar with.
The development team in question is called Bread Team, and consists of Victor Solodilov, and Denis Novikov. You can be forgiven for not having heard of them before, as their only claim to fame was the 2015 math puzzler Divide By Sheep, which was a charming and beautifully-drawn mobile title for people of all ages. In it, you were tasked with saving a certain number of sheep in every level, while letting some of them die to ensure you hit that number. That dark comedy only made it more fun.
Phantom Trigger is a wild departure in almost every respect. The premise justifies the hack-and-slash action as part of a man's brain disease, which is why the variety of monsters you fight – in what is essentially an environment straight out of a dungeon crawler – tend to have heads made out of tumours. You start off with two weapons at your disposal: an ice pick to slash at your enemies, and a whip that can pull them closer. As you progress, you gain access to a fire punch among others, with an important task being levelling up your weapons to keep up with enemy numbers. Your player levels up as well as you fight, giving you a health boost.
Role-playing elements are engaging by themselves, because they lock you into a progression wheel, where you constantly look to improve to sustain the next onslaught. But the combat – at least early on, from the hours we played – lacks variety and becomes highly repetitive much too soon. Put that in combination with the game's rogue-lite aspect – you only regain life once you cross a checkpoint – and we were frequently left playing the same section over and over, which further contributes to the repetitiveness.
Some sub-levels contain puzzles that follow an internal logic, or mini-games that might grant you certain items. Both tend to be indiscernible in their own way, and in the case of the latter, are presented in an as unclear fashion as possible. You'll likely want to avoid them whenever you can, which is made possible sometimes by allowing you to pick one of two paths.
Phantom Trigger has five "distinct" worlds to explore, with a parallel change in monster variety and behaviour. The trouble is that none of them have an appealing art style in the first place. Last year's Hyper Light Drifter was a standout example of how to make use of today's technological capabilities to breathe new life into an old, pixelated format. But Phantom Trigger, with its lacklustre visual style, doesn't make good use of the Unity engine.
The game also allows for two-player local co-op mode, which brings in a different-coloured copy of your character to help you fight your way through, giving you double the firepower. But unlike other two-player co-op games – such as Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris – both players share the same life meter, which means both die at the same time. It makes for a more symbiotic relationship, so make sure you're on the same page.
As for difficulty, you can choose from either 'Normal' or 'Hard', and the latter's setting as default suggests the devs understand that Phantom Trigger will appeal to a niche, hard-core player base. It's a shame then that the game's PC version – which we tested – doesn't offer any key remapping. Though for what it's worth, you'll have quicker aim with a controller anyway (which Bread Team recommends, as well).
Ultimately, Phantom Trigger lacks any new ideas out of its own, and fails to be more than a passing imitation of the classics that spawned this genre, or be visually appealing like its contemporaries. It does have a free demo, so give that a go if your interest is piqued.
Rating (out of 10): 5