A few years ago, there was a Dustin Hoffman vehicle called Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium. It wasn't that great of a movie, but it dealt with impending death unlike any family flick had done in the past. Seeing his shop revolt against the notion of his time coming to pass was heartbreaking, with the toys and fellow workers trying their best to keep him from leaving this world of theirs.

For some reason, this film came to mind when I started playing Phantom Trigger. TinyBuild's latest game isn't your average run-of-the-mill hack-and-slash. While a first glance may make you think it's just about killing your foes, a much-thorough look reveals something far deeper. What is revealed as you play is a tragic story of an imaginative man and a fight to keep his concoctions from disappearing.

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Crafted by Bread Team's two-man army (Victor Solodilov & Denis Novikov) Phantom Trigger puts the weight of the world on the shoulders of Stan. After collapsing at home, Stan finds out that he needs to have surgery in order to survive. However within his stream of consciousness is an unnamed entity that takes control of his body.

That entity originates from the phantom realm, where Stan's creations both good and evil roam about. As the unnamed slasher it is up to you to rid the realm of the demons that cause chaos in its surroundings. You are also tasked to face off against four bosses, all of whom represent something revolving around Stan's state of mind. The deeper you go, the more maddening the situations become.

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As you play Phantom Trigger you are given three tools to deal with enemies: a whip, a blade, and a gauntlet. The more you level up your weaponry, the more combo attacks you'll be able to unleash upon your foes. In some areas you'll find yourself having to use these weapons to open doorways via a Simon-like colored pattern. Every time you get it wrong, you'll be forced to face off against some more powerful monsters.

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While progressing through the levels, the true story interrupts the action on hand. Stan's having problems with deciding on if he should have surgery, which leads to some tension with his wife. Each time he falls asleep, the phantom hero overtakes his body, leading to his own sort of confusion and existential crisis. Seeing these imaginary characters do what they can to save themselves by keeping Stan alive is something I've never come across in a video game, showcasing a tragic aspect of human thought and creativity that -- outside of the film I mentioned earlier -- has rarely been touched in any medium.

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Phantom Trigger's gameplay is rather simple to figure out, especially when it comes to the three-buttoned combos. With that being said, the enemies you face off against spike in difficulty almost immediately. Perhaps it's a metaphor for how aggressive this illness Stan is suffering from, but at the same time I can imagine certain gamers rage-quitting early on without having experience the full tale that's being told. (My suggestion is to sometimes take a breather, as there are a good amount of checkpoints that'll keep you from losing your cool.)

Even when the creatures are at its most frightening, the pixelated surroundings are quite beautiful to look at. At times the enemy creatures have a Satoshi Kon feel to their existence, whereas the heroes and allies of the story reflect a similar aesthetic to the works of Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Hosoda. (The tree woman easily makes me think of the forest creatures of Princess Mononoke.) Also on-par is its soundtrack, which switches between a techno-filled massacre and a somber melody for the dark times that are ahead.

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Its seven-hour playtime will give you plenty to experience the world of Phantom Trigger. The game also has four alternate endings, giving players reason to dive back into this action-packed tragedy. Couch co-op mode is also available for those wanting to experience this tale with friend/lover in tow, bringing a new level of fun to the monster-slashing.

PROS:

  • Deep, thought provoking story
  • Strong combat mechanics
  • Ghibli-like pixelated world, characters

CONS:

  • Difficulty spikes quickly

FINAL THOUGHTS:

Phantom Trigger is a memorable nod to SNES/Genesis-era slashers, thanks to the heartbreaking tale it brings to focus. The sadder aspects don't take away from the fun gameplay and imaginative creatures, finding a good balance between high-octane action and humanistic drama. Deserving to be experienced by gamers everywhere, Phantom Trigger easily is one of the best indie titles of 2017.

FINAL GRADE:

Promotional consideration provided by Alex Nichiporchik of TinyBuild Games. Reviewed on the Nintendo Switch.

Background Noise: Gargoyle by Mark Lanegan Band - Like the realm of Phantom Trigger, the words and music of the former Screaming Trees frontman are both beautiful and frightening. Whether sipping on honey in "Beehive," taking no prisoners in "Drunk On Destruction," and bringing a holy mentality in both "Sister" and "Blue Blue Sea," the king of brood manages to find the light in a world cloaked in darkness. As "Old Swan" washes away the evils of your surroundings, you'll feel a warmth you thought was nonexistent in the one-time Gutter Twin's repertoire.

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