The Indie Horror Adventure has had a Long Road but It’s Finally Here to Spook its Players
Phantasmal is a game that we’ve spoken about quite a bit here on Non-Fiction Gaming. A procedurally-generated survival horror export from New Zealand developer, Eyemobi, it showed its early potential to be a contender in the genre. As the final product shapes up, we get a better look at the direction Eyemobi have taken.
I’ve taken my time trying to make up my mind about what I think about Phantasmal. It was a game that I was so excited to play approaching release and, while it hasn’t met my expectations, it’s a decent game.
Phantasmal has the right ingredients but the monsters aren’t impressive
All in all, the basic ingredients of the game are there. Gruesome monsters, unpredictability, and a trade-off between safety and time. Some of the monsters, particularly those eerie floating black ones, are more effective than the others. At face value, it’s hard to fault these individual elements in Phantasmal.
One area of concern, however, is Phantasmal‘s monsters. They’re plentiful – too plentiful. While they may look impressive, there’s no real pay-off for running into them. There is much to be said for horror games that allow you to sneak around, build tension, and then reward that patience with a bombastic, terrifying jump.
Think Amnesia: The Dark Descent with its screeching noise as the creatures lurch toward you. Think Five Nights at Freddy’s that leaves you alone for a short while before shrieking at you and consuming your screen. Even think Alien: Isolation with the Xenomorph’s war cry as it sprints across the room.
Phantasmal lacks this and it’s a very noticeable oversight. Perhaps not so feasible with so many monsters but there needs to be something to reward players for choosing this horror game.
Even taking damage by enemies isn’t all that impressive. Sure, they smack you silly but there’s no hitstun. There’s nothing more than a small red indicator telling you you’re under attack. All in all, I felt as though the damage interaction was borrow from something like Call of Duty or another First-Person Shooter.
Again, it comes down to that one climactic moment when you encounter or confront an enemy. There needs to be something panic inducing to complement the dread that should be being built throughout the game.
One of my major complaints about Phantasmal is the pacing of the game. In many survival horror games, there is a decision to be made between safety and speed. Though this dichotomy is not emphasised nearly enough in Phantasmal. Complications obviously arise as a result of having procedurally generated landscapes but there are enemies either patrolling or simply hanging out in almost every hallway. Such close quarters with the monsters does not allow for players to fully explore the decision-making process.
There are three options presented to players in the game. Crawl around; it is slow, but safe. Walk around; visible to enemies but quiet. Finally, there is the option to sprint past enemies. This final option leaves you visible to enemies and makes a lot of noise.
Phantasmal has a mechanic to punish those who make excessive noise (deters fighting and running) where something akin to the Kraken comes out of the walls. So you can’t run for extended periods. With monsters everywhere, you cannot walk. So players are left with one option: to slowly crawl around the levels.
Why this is a problem is two-fold. It slows the game down, for one. The same sort of problem we saw in Outlast with its perpetual patrols. You simply can’t move. Avoiding them is encouraged but it becomes mechanically so difficult that the game becomes a pacing nightmare. Secondly, when enemies are presented like this (that is, plentiful and no real jump moment), the game becomes more of an obstacle course.
Narrow hallways are going to be plagued by this sort of choke point dilemma. Which is unfortunate as the majority of Phantasmal‘s level design is hallway after hallway pieced together with few large rooms. This provides minimal options for circumnavigating patrolling enemies.
These two words are often inseparable. Fundamentals of the genre can make it difficult to distinguish one from the other and it has been the subject of much debate. The spectrum of survival horror is a wide one with survival games at one end and pure horror at the other. Games such as The Forest sit towards the survival end of this spectrum whereas Five Nights at Freddy’s shows more horror. Determining where a game sits on this scale is important in understanding why it is the way it is and explore its finer points.
Phantasmal, due to some miscalculations in the presentations of its antagonists, for me, sits more on the survival side of things than horror. This is supplemented by the procedural generation: making trying to survive a more dynamic experience and challenging on subsequent playthroughs. In that regard, the game does reasonably well.
There are a few glitches but this is to be expected with such a young developer and so short into the game’s development. In fact, one of the most terrifying moments of my experience with Phantasmal was when a monster clipped through the wall and landed on my head.
Where Can We Go?
There are some things that could be done or could have been done to launch Phantasmal firmly into the horror genre. A number of alterations would make the gameplay flow much more smoothly and much scarier too.
Firstly, the number of enemies needs to be cut. Dramatically. The smaller number will allow for greater counterplay in the crawl/walk/run interaction. It would also allow for more critical responses when an enemy is encountered. Louder noise, bigger visuals, anything to make the player’s tension warranted. Bang for their buck, so to speak.
The Sleeper himself (read: the Kraken) is also underwhelming. He gets his own theme music but there needs to be more. As he spells a chase and doom, The Sleeper’s music should be more bombastic. The walls should show his presence. Players need to be able to determine how close he is to their heels without turning around and looking. Whether this is an audio or a visual cue makes little difference.
Lastly, I would’ve liked to have seen more open areas. It’s not something that’s easy to make happen with procedural generation, that’s for sure, but would have served Phantasmal well. Limiting interactions with enemies puts more onus on the player to be safe. It forces an interplay between caution and reward by encouraging exploration but bringing with it a risk. Twitching in the shadows or a low groan is all the encouragement players need to soil their underwear when the enemies themselves are more fearsome.
Ultimately, Phantasmal is not as scary as it needs to be. It is, however, a good first innings from a young developer and, with refinement, is not unlikely to make a splash in the horror genre.