Fair warning: This review contains spoilers for the game’s ending.
Phoenotopia is a difficult game to review. On the one hand, it's wildly ambitious for a flash game, and for the most part it's a success. Beautiful music and a minimalistic not-quite-8-bit art style contribute to an overall tone of wonder and adventure, where the plot takes a back seat to the simple joy of venturing further across the map.
And that map is absolutely packed full of content to discover. The main quest took me a full nine hours to complete, but even beyond that, the game is chock full of everything from short “bring X to Y” sidequests to huge hidden areas. I tried to search every nook and cranny while I was going, but still ended up with a 44% completion rate. I strongly suspect my nine-hour time is a bare minimum, and completionists will likely have another ten hours of gameplay at the very least.
There is a running plot focusing on the mysterious fate of your village, but for the majority of the game it’s really just a mechanism to move you between areas. There’s a stronger focus on tone and setting. The care that went into crafting the world is plainly apparent; every locale is bursting with character and life, and your interactions with them feel surprisingly meaningful, in part thanks to the sheer amount of high-quality writing for the game’s hundreds of NPCs.
In short, Phoenotopia’s scope is impressive and its vision is fully realized. But these successes make the game’s subtler failures that much more damning. The controls are stiff and often clunky, while some enemies follow attack patterns that only serve to frustrate - it's particularly infuriating to fight in vertical spaces, where a difficult-to-control jump, delay on your attacks, and very small attack hitbox all need to be overcome. I learned to deal with these inadequacies, but with a game already this difficult, struggling with the controls quickly grows tiresome. I was never fully comfortable or satisfied with the way my character moved – in fact, the problem gets worse towards the end of the game, as the items you acquire and enemies you face both seem to present more and more aggravating situations.
Just as problematic is a third act that jumps the shark enthusiastically. A tone of mystery, fantasy and adventure gradually gives way to the tone of a sci-fi thriller, while the plot begins to fall apart just as it’s becoming the focus of the game. By the time the credits roll, every foreboding mystery has been answered, and each answer is more underwhelming than the last. It’s downright frustrating when the ancient, forgotten weapon you’ve been seeking – the weapon powerful enough to save the world from an annihilation fleet – turns out to be an army of Dragonball Z rejects, and outright silly when your character briefly, spontaneously turns Super Saiyan to match.
And the final spit in the eye, of course, comes when the game ends on an absolutely shameless cliffhangar to drum up interest for the sequel.
I liked Phoenotopia. If I didn’t like it, I wouldn’t have stuck around. But for all its achievements, it’s bogged down by poor controls and an awful third act. It feels rushed – a tragedy, because more time spent on polish and rewrites would’ve elevated the game to a classic worthy of being counted among the NES and SNES-era games it so lovingly emulates.