Phantasmal: Only you can find your Auntie Jackie. She is, hopefully, somewhere amongst the labyrinthine halls of Kowloon Walled City. This dank and cramped metropolis will be gone soon, flattened by an eager government. You need to find Jackie before that happens. But what lurks within the dark walled confines of the city? And what will it do if it catches you?
Phantasmal is a single player first person horror game which puts players in the role of a seasoned private detective, out to find his auntie within Kowloon Walled City in China. The task will test both his physical capabilities as well as his mental faculties, as he fights or evades the terrors which stalk the city.
At its core Phantasmal is a spin on the roguelike genre. Players dive into the depths of the city, eventually succumbing to the dangers it holds, only to miraculously find themselves back in the starting area. They can upgrade, reequip, and then start again. It is a game play loop which has a proven track record, when done right.
Along the way the player will find a variety of weapons and items, as well as coins. Upon death they lose whatever they have found, apart from the coins. These the player retains upon revival, and can be used to purchase character upgrades or a small selection of items.
Opposing the player are a host of human junkies and otherworldly horrors, who lurk in the darkness waiting to strike. Each encounter with these horrific beings chips away at the detective’s sanity, slowly turning him into a twitching and gibbering mess.
As this happens the screen sways and bulges, all while the detective mutters away to himself. Sanity can be regained by finding ‘Sanity Pills’, or huddling in whatever lighting you can find. The more sanity the player loses, the more frequently monsters spawn.
Monsters are mostly drawn to noise and light. Some come up close to attack you, while some assault you from afar. In some cases they can be avoided, or driven away with clever use of items like firecrackers. Or, in a pinch, there are always guns and melee weapons.
The main draw of Phantasmal is the randomly generated levels. Each play through is unique, as the levels are randomly constructed from prefabricated rooms and hallways. Even though you will invariably stumble across the same rooms during different sessions, it adds to the sense of bewilderment and uncertainty.
A play through comprises of nine levels. Should you make it through all nine, you complete that story thread and unlock the next. This puts you back at the starting area, where you can activate any threads you have completed and play through its nine levels. Each thread is more challenging than the last. Completing the last thread earns you the complete story ending.
The atmosphere of Phantasmal is really well crafted. The levels are dark, with scattered light sources from objects like windows and exposed wiring. Dust and particles clog the air, making each level feel stale and dirty. There is no background music, leaving players to listen to the creaks and groans of the environment, as well as the low moaning of the abominations in the dark.
Phantasmal has some great ideas that are implemented nicely. Unfortunately, these are countered by just as many poorly executed ones.
Character progression is included, with the option to upgrade your sneak or run abilities, health, sanity and item capacity. However, the advancement curve is far too steep, especially since you have to collect coins to pay for them. I played for eight hours and didn’t manage to clear the first tier of all upgrades. It took 150 coins to pay for each slot of the first tier, and I might find 30 coins in a level, if I was lucky.
Movement is sluggish and awkward, more of a chore than it should be. Walking feels like moving through mud. It is frustrating and ponderous, but apparently not so ponderous that the monsters can’t hear you coming!
Levels are littered with objects; garbage bags, tables, chairs, mattresses, which the player constantly catches on. There wasn’t a play through I had where I was not encumbered or trapped by an odd assortment of tables and chairs. There is even a dining area where, when two cupboard doors which are facing each other are opened, a little fence is created that is infuriating to negotiate. The worst thing is, once you open a door or cupboard, you can’t close it.
This is compounded by your enemy’s ability to pass through objects. Some monsters just come straight through the door without opening it. Or if you’re lucky, the wall or ceiling. So even when you are trapped in a tangle of furniture or doors, those monsters can just shamble straight through and eat your face off without a second thought.
The randomised levels are a great idea, but the execution is very inelegant. After wandering the corridors and rooms for a while you can see the structure behind it. It is almost like a television show or movie; you can peer between the joins to see through the facade, to the framework underneath. Not just figuratively, either. Some rooms don’t join, but sit next to each other, allowing players to look between them to the empty warehouse that this mock-building has been constructed inside.
Most frustrating of all was the collision detection. Some doorways proved challenging to walk through, even though they were open and clear, like I was covered in couch cushions while trying to wedge my way in. Melee weapons also don’t look like they connect with enemies, or that they reach the distance they do. And don’t get me started with the spiders. One hit kills them, but they fly across the environments with such epileptic abandon that they are impossible to predict. Not to mention, they come in large numbers and eat away at your sanity; both in game and in reality.
SUMMARY: All this is a little disappointing, because Phantasmal offers some great concepts. It is just a shame they are spoiled by awkward game play and infuriating bugs. This game is worth a look though, especially if you are a horror fan. Just don’t expect to advance too far into the threads, or upgrade your character very much. The commitment required to progress all the way to the end is not reasonable for the experience provided. Having said that, as an approach for how horror games can be reformed to deliver truly terrifying content, it is an excellent proof-of-concept for what will hopefully inspire advancements in the genre.
Phantasmal was developed by New Zealand based Eyemobi, and is available now on Steam.
Reviewed On: PC
Review System: nVidiaN9600C, G1 Sniper M7 S1151, 16GB RAM
Playtime: 8 hours