Hands on with Phantasmal

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We Got Our Hands on Indie Horror Title Phantasmal and We’re So Glad We Did

A couple of weeks ago, we reported that indie developer Eyemobi had turned to Kickstarter to help finance the final touches to their horror title Phantasmal. At the time all our information came from PewDiePie’s playthrough.

Now, however, Eyemobi were nice enough to furnish us with a pre-alpha demo. Like I said when reviewing The Forest, it’s important to realise that this is an alpha demo. It’s going to be rough around the edges so there’s still time for anything to change.

 

phan 4

 

Conceptually, Phantasmal Competes With the Best

 

The inspirations that Eyemobi have drawn from other horror games are evident in Phantasmal. It has first-person gameplay in a procedurally-generated maze. Think Amnesia meets Daylightand it works better than you’d imagine. The player has to navigate a series of locations to find the exit portals. Dying places you back at square one.

One of the greatest success of the game is the inclusion of a sanity system – something seen in Amnesia: The Dark Descent. In Amnesia, the sanity meter is a reflection of the protagonist’s fear of the dark. Its function is to provide a drawback to hiding in the darkness and force players into the light, where they are more vulnerable to attack.

Its effects persist until you solve a puzzle or complete a portion of the game. Phantasmal‘s iteration of sanity is much more successful. If you spend too long around a monster, it causes extreme blurring and, as far as I could tell, intermittent high-pitched screeches. Away from monsters, the distortions dissipate quickly.

Therefore it acts as a disincentive to directly engage the enemies. The effects are severe but temporary and I really enjoy this use of the sanity system.

 

If you want to use the gun, you have to be quick

 Combat

Speaking of combat, its inclusion was a risky gambit from Eyemobi. This is one of the divisive arguments surrounding this genre: some believe the lack of combat cultivates the feeling of helplessness, whereas being able to defend oneself creates a new dynamic in the game and allows for more freedom in designing enemies and their interactions with the player.

Early on you are given a gun and a broom. Phantasmal does a lot of work with just these two weapons. Because of the sanity effects, the gun quickly becomes ineffective; and rationing bullets adds another level of decision-making. I’m usually on the side of not having combat in a horror game but the counterbalance of sanity in Phantasmal is a strong argument for its inclusion.

The choice to allow the player to beat down a monster with a broom means that they need to rethink the monsters’ application. Because the sanity system blurs the monster’s appearance until it’s almost unrecognisable, the peak of fear needs to come before the fight.

Currently, the monsters are too subtle. I didn’t know a monster was charging me from behind but the sanity blur made it impossible to appreciate the anxiety – because it wasn’t there.

Phantasmal needs to emphasise being detected by the standard enemies and allow for the exaggerated scare that comes from it. So much could be achieved simply by adding a ReDead-esque scream and hasty, resonating footfalls.

I know I sang Alien: Isolation‘s praises for the subtlety of the Xenomorph but that works because of the pressure it puts on you during its patrols. Phantasmal is largely reliant on detection, similar to Amnesia: The Dark Descent, to frighten players – even more so because detection is not necessarily death.

 

There’s Always Room for Rooms

 

For as much as Phantasmal does right, there are a few major issues that I would like to see addressed before it releases. The largest of these is general pacing. Naturally how fast one progresses through the game is dependent on how lucky the player is at finding the portals. Though many of the areas aren’t big enough to keep you guessing for too long.

Overall the game feels too condensed. Players aren’t given enough time to truly appreciate the masterful work Eyemobi have put into Phantasmal‘s atmosphere. Nor does it allow the game to fully explore the rationing element of consumables and choke you out of ammunition.

I feel as though either the levels need to be larger or the monsters need to be more aggressive. To prevent making the enemies as common as those in Dead Space, I’m most definitely in favour of the former.

 

phan 3

 

It is apparent that Eyemobi have studied the games that have come before Phantasmal. The world has been finely crafted and it works. It’s a bit rough around the edges but I love what Eyemobi have done. The problem of not having enough time to enjoy it is a pervasive one, however. I feel like I’ve watched a great film that ended all too soon. Once it’s polished up and I can stop walking through cupboards of all sorts, it’ll be a very impressive experience to behold.

Procedurally-generated horror games are often more easy to jump into than story-based campaigns. Mostly because there is no lengthy tutorial. The main action of the game begins when you press start. For this reason, they’re often better to share with friends. Being able to jump in and out makes it much less awkward than someone hating Amnesia because it’s been 30 minutes without anything happening.

Once the graphics have been tidied up and the usual alpha bugs have been tweaked, Phantasmal will be a genuinely great horror game. If Eyemobi manage to solve the problems with the game being too condensed and emphasise their antagonists, I will have found a new game to introduce people to horror.

Phantasmal is currently available for pre-order through Eye Mobi’s official website.

I can safely say that any horror buff in Melbourne for PAX Australia should check out Phantasmal at the indie booth.

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