Phantom Galaxies is in Early Access, but it’s too early even for that.
Early Access launches on Steam can be a bit of a gamble for both developer and player. Devs would love to get that early buzz, financial injection, and feedback from the community, but they risk giving people a weak product until it’s in a better state. Gamers on the other hand get to try something out early, at a potentially reduced price, and may even get to help guide the development, but then again they could get a buggy mess that ends up abandoned. Ideally, an Early Access game should be in a good enough state to engage players and leave them wanting more, which is provided over time until the full release. The impressive development of World of Horror, and the massive success of Baldur’s Gate 3 are prime examples of how to get this right. Phantom Galaxies doesn’t meet those standards.
You play a newly recruited member of Epsilon, an elite unit of starfighter pilots who protect the sector and keep the peace. Your character seems to be intent on taking on one of the alien races in the region for personal reasons. This is explained in the intro cinematic, but the voiceover and subtitles are pretty different to each other, so it wasn’t clear which set of information was most important. All that matters is that you’re a pilot, and it’s time to take your transforming starfighter into open space to blow up some pirates.
After a very limited character creation process, which is mostly randomising characters until you roll one you like, you get to wander around the space station hub and speak to a few NPCs before finding one who will give you the gameplay tutorial. Here, you learn the basics about the surprisingly solid space combat. It takes a little getting used to, as you can aim with the mouse within a defined region before you actually turn the ship. This allows a little more freedom of aiming which I quite liked. Your ship also transforms into a mech that flies slower but controls a little more like a third-person shooter and also packs a powerful melee swing as well as an ultimate ability. Switching between modes for manoeuvrability and power is a bit of a feature of combat, and it’s a good idea to get the hang of it.
Whenever you head off on a mission, you can choose which mech you want to take. They fill the usual array of strong but slow, long-range but frail and so forth archetypes, but they don’t really feel all that different in game. Really, playing a bit more at range tends to be the smarter option as you won’t get as bombarded by enemy fire and you might actually be able to see where foes are. There’s no scanner in Phantom Galaxies, you see. Finding your opponents is either you swinging the camera around to spot a faded red diamond, or waiting until you’re being fired on so there’s a threat indicator. It’s a real pain when you’re trying to find targets, and the lack of a radar or a traditional lock-on system is a real annoyance.
What’s much more of an annoyance is the array of bugs you’ll put up with at this stage. I know this is Early Access, but there were some glaringly obvious ones and some that just broke the game. If you’re going into Early Access, you need to make at least a decent impression, and Phantom Galaxies isn’t. Minor issues like texture pop-in or player characters — this is one of those multiplayer games with a shared hub but single or multiplayer missions — merging into each other are irritating, but not a big problem. Enemies glitching around as though they’re at a different frame rate to the rest of the game are more of an issue, and your guns sometimes firing three shots, sometimes one, sometimes not at all are far bigger problems. In fact, during one of the ground-based missions where you stomp around as a mech my main gun didn’t even fire at all. I got by on melee and special attacks until a boss smashed me, at which point I’d had enough.
During the few hours I played before getting to that point, I found the space combat to be solid enough, but fairly tiresome after a few missions. There wasn’t a huge amount of variety in them, but they were serviceable enough. I completed a few main and side missions and acquired a wingman. I also levelled up, but didn’t gain access to anything new, and I realised that buying new weapons for my mech would cost me an awful lot of credits, meaning I’d need to do a lot of mining for resources to sell. That’s when you notice the alternative currencies and realise that you can buy, upgrade, and unlock new and better equipment using real money. I know that Phantom Galaxies is a free-to-play game, and will apparently remain that way once it’s done with Early Access, but there’s a certain element of pay-to-win here, especially considering there’s a PvP component in the game. Better get the old grinding module fired up.
On the plus side, this is a pretty-looking game. It reminds me of Everspace 2 in terms of how nice something like an asteroid field can look when there’s some nice lighting and plenty of interesting environmental details. The ground-based missions are less impressive to look at, but they’re reasonable enough. Each of the mechs and ships looks great too, but the character models are a bit weak and feel very basic by comparison. Music and sound effects are decent, although there are some sound mixing issues with the music being too loud in places, drowning out characters. Speaking of characters, some of the voice acting is nicely done, but some of it is clearly text-to-speech, that even reads out the spelling errors in the dialogue. Some of this is so egregious that one of the characters switches between a computer voice and a real person. I’m sure this will get fixed by re-recording lines with the voice actor in future, but it brings me back to that issue of Early Access being a great chance to give a good impression. Things like this don’t help.
Phantom Galaxies certainly has some potential, but it feels quite a long way off yet. There’s a year of Early Access before the full release, so Blowfish Studios have some time to deal with some of these issues. It’s hard to recommend in its current state though, and if this cost money then I’d suggest people steer clear until there are some significant improvements. As a free-to-play offering though, you could probably sink a couple of hours into it and get a feel for it. There aren’t many mech/space shooters out there, so this might scratch an itch for you.
Phantom Galaxies is available in Steam Early Access now.