Roguelike horror is a neat idea. Things are bound to get pretty tense when the monster’s snuffling around your hiding spot and you only have a single life to lose to its jaws. Adding procedural elements to that mix sounds like it would make it even better, as now you have randomness keeping you from looking up a walkthrough or using repetition to learn the exact routes and placements of your enemies. It’s just you and your fear, and failure means trying to survive a whole new batch of threats and a different layout. It should be scary, and it should be tense, but the results in the preview of Phantasmal mean it’s far more important for the player to be lucky than to be skilled. It has some interesting ideas that could still come together, but it does require some work before I could say it was worth picking up.
Phantasmal dumps you in an undisclosed section of the Kowloon Walled City in China. This location provides an endless number of procedurally-generated rooms, stairs, and hallways that twist all around each other, creating a large maze for you to run around inside. It’s a little random right now, with rooms filled with weird equipment mixing with what looked like a bar thanks to the game cobbling areas together, though, making it hard to tell what I’m supposed to be moving through. It doesn’t matter a whole lot that each room looks kind of the same since most of your time will be spent just searching for the level exit, anyway. Backtracking wasn’t called for often unless I went the wrong way, so I never actually needed a room to stand out so I could remember it. It still makes for some visually boring walks, though.
So, how do you find the exit in the maze of rooms? The game has an arrow that indicates the direction you need to walk to find the exit, although it doesn’t factor in floors and walls. It gives you a sense of the way to go, and it’s up to you to find the right path to the exit. The exit also gives off a strange little beep when you get near it, and is often surrounded with lit lanterns, so the game does go out of its way to make it clear how to get out. It’s a little over-the-top considering the spooky atmosphere the dev is shooting for with the game, but it does beat having a hard time finding the door.
While the locations didn’t do much for me, there were lots of odd creatures that got in the way of my escape. Groups of fleshy, armless creatures wander the halls of the first area you’re in, and these give way to other, equally weird, disfigured humanoid monsters as you progress through the levels. Later level enemies can hurl ranged blobs at you , and I’m not even sure what those weird, shadowy figures were doing to me to hurt me. A new enemy gets added on every time you manage to creep into a new area, which is a nice treat for surviving for longer periods of time. Then again, you’re not supposed to be running into these guys, so it’s better to just avoid them and never learn what they can do to you. As is, the promise of some new way of harming you does add a nice sense of discovery to each new stage.
They all patrol the levels in the same way, though. Most of the monsters just walk around with no set path in mind, some of them going so far as to walk into walls for seconds on end if that’s where the game takes them. They just wander, which actually makes it quite a bit harder than dodging a specific patrol. You have to really pay attention to them as they walk, and every moment spent creeping along behind them can be quite tense since the monster could turn around at any moment for no reason. The game also tends to throw several creatures at you at once, so creeping around them can be quite challenging. That you’re all the way back to the start of the game if you get stomped doesn’t help.
It’s not actually that hard to avoid those monsters in this build, though. Ducking down puts you in a stealth mode, and this makes you very difficult for the monsters to detect. It’s so hard that they usually couldn’t see me unless they bumped into me or I stumbled into them. This will change, as the developer has noted that lighting will affect visibility in more ways as the game continues to come together. As is, it would almost feel too easy if the enemies didn’t have this nasty habit of turning around for no reason and tripping over you. It works as is, but it can be frustrating to sneak most of the way through the stage just to have something turn on you at the last moment.
If you get sucked into combat, you can defend yourself with weapons you find in the environment. The game starts you off with a handgun and a few bullets, but they’re more trouble than they’re worth (more on this in a bit). Instead, you should pick up melee weapons like a pipe or plank. These break after many cranial applications, but there was a lot of them lying around so I never felt it was a problem. They don’t do as much damage as the gun, but they do have a stunning effect that makes it easier to kill enemies one-on-one. Mind you, your constant wheezing and huffing while you swing those weapons tends to bring a lot more unwanted attention.
This is part of the problem of using that gun you brought. It drops enemies fast, but all of that loud noise brings the other monsters running. Sound is a big part of this game, and whether you’re panting from a jog or firing off a gun, you’re drawing attention. Even if there’s no monsters around, making too much noise will draw the attention of something called ‘The Sleeper’. This is indicated by some tentacles creeping in from the upper right of the screen. Should these tentacles turn bright green, you’ll be dogged by the Sleeper until it kills you or you find the exit. You can’t hurt the Sleeper at all, and it can move right through walls and floors to get you, so this is about the worst thing that could happen to you. In this build, running until you were exhausted made you almost wheeze loud enough to get its attention, as did firing the handgun a few times in a row or a single shot from the hunting rifle. This made me really think before I acted, and it’s honestly my favorite idea that’s at work in the game.
That being said, the combat and pacing is just really weird, and it made it hard for me to want to do more than screw around with the game since luck seems to be your most important asset. The random routes the enemies take, while making stealth challenging, also make it really easy to screw up and get caught since they can turn and catch you just because the game up and chose to make them turn around. Since you can’t use your most powerful weapons without drawing really bad attention, you also have to hope you don’t get caught by many monsters at once, or else it’s back to the start. Since death has such a high cost and the game can turn on you at any moment for no reason, it just feels like luck factors much more highly in the game than skill. Luck even factors into the level layouts, as I’ve started levels a few turns from the exit, but also spawned right in a room filled with monsters that just killed me instantly. If you aren’t consistently lucky while playing this build of the game, there’s usually not a whole lot you can do to survive.
I might accept luck’s level of importance in Phantasmal if the rest of the game were more interesting. The enemy designs don’t look too bad, but having to trade blows with wiggling creatures isn’t much fun. If the stealth worked better it might be more practical to avoid combat (as the game suggests), but as is, I often just found myself trading hits with monsters that tripped over me, praying they died first. Wandering the halls isn’t much fun either since many of them look alike and the rest don’t make any sense together. There is a bit of a story told through notes if you’re really curious, but otherwise your only motivation to get through the luck-based gameplay will come from yourself and your desire to beat it.
It wasn’t long before I didn’t have much desire to move forward, although this is an Early Access title so I can see areas where it can be improved. With lighting being given more importance to being noticed, the stealth could be improved, as could enemy patrol routes. I’m not sure to what degree these are affected by the procedurally generated levels, but hopefully something can be done here. If hiding relied less on luck, then the game could be a little more fun to play. As is, a single misjudged movement or bad turn can bring your whole game to an end, and that reliance on luck makes it hard to get invested in the atmosphere. It’s hard to be scared when you’re mad at the game for screwing you over, so while I like some of the ideas at work here, Phantasmal still has a ways to go before I’d really enjoy playing it.
Phantasmal is available on Steam Early Access for $14.99. For more information on the game and Eyemobi Ltd, you can head to the game’s site, the developer’s site, or follow them on Facebook and Twitter.