Phantasmal, is a survival horror game that places the emphasis on character development and unwavering grit to plough through the procedurally designed levels. At the core, the title is a stealth horror, think a mix between Metal Gear Solid and Silent Hill, however, that is where the comparison abruptly ends. Phantasmal is poor and does not live up to its own potential, which is a real shame.
Before I delve into the delude of negativity, I’ll apply some frosting to the surface; at least you can enjoy the sweet before biting into the rotten innards. Aesthetically the game is really well done, the atmosphere is close and surreal. As you progress through the halls you feel drawn into the environment, the sound of movement all around you, distant screams for help, the dripping of water onto the tiled floors invite you to indulge your senses, to really be there. The claustrophobic closeness, the darkness and the unknown that awaits your every step, your next turn.
The lighting is splendid, reflecting all around you as you move hesitantly into the shadows, your torch being the only thing to keep your heart from beating out of your chest. If you view the stills of the game, I’ sure you’ll agree that it does look lovely, if not somewhat harrowing in the visuals.
The object of the game is to survive the horrors before you, ghosts, ghouls and the odd drug addict litter your way to the end of the level, where you will descend even further into the twisted maze. Each level, procedurally designed, is an unexplored step into the unknown. I welcome such a mechanic as it will inevitably assist re-playability The hidden advantage of employing a constantly changing world, a great unknown. As a player you can never truly know which is the right direction, what lurks behind the corner; how you will or will not survive. Exciting stuff really.
Unfortunately, this is where my praise must come to an abrupt and rather disappointing end. To play, Phantasmal is certainly not fantastic. The controls feel clumsy and sluggish, there is nothing rapid or responsive when firing a shot from my pathetic 9mm; no feel of recoil. More like firing an air rifle, minus the air. As you progress through the hallways, it’s not uncommon to lose track of where you have or have not been, everything looks the same and the similarity is what destroys the procedural aspect of the level design. Yes, each and every level is different, however with the constant regurgitation of the same textures, well, it just feels, the same.
Enemies are mind numbingly frustrating, I reached the second level of the map. Armed with my 9mm and 1 bullet, I had already withered the durability of my wood plank; my second weapon I must add, to around a quarter. As I turned the corner, a horde of monsters descended upon me. All I could do was run, which didn’t take long considering the abysmal stamina system; which I’ll get in to, was at the lowest point. So, after running around 5 meters, I was exhausted. Not to mention the blind panic taking hold of my character; I’ll get into that too, causing my visuals to go beyond recognition. Needless to say, I died. My reward, I was able to start the whole dreadful experience again, from the start. The very start. You get my point.
Phantasmal has 2 key indicators which affect the player more than others, they are health, obviously, and sanity. If you lose all your health, you die and have to start again from the very beginning, there are no save points. The second is sanity which dictates how your character can perform. If you see something particularly nasty, for example, the embodiment of Lucifer coming towards you with a look of murder in his eyes, then your sanity will begin to deplete. Lose all your sanity and you lose the game, you start again. Luckily enough, there are sanity pills that litter the map, be a good boy and take your sanity pills to restore your mind. Unfortunately, one of the most infuriating aspects of the game is the terrible screen effect associated with the loss of sanity. The blurred effects and lighting do nothing but make the whole experience even more annoying. Not only are we out of breath, dying from internal bleeding and having to deal with the most brutal of splinter injuries to our fingers, but we’re also blind and in a frenzy. We die, there’s relief. Then you get to start from the very beginning, again.
Obviously, this constant pounding would cause any actually sane person to reach for their actual sanity pills. Therefore, the developer has introduced a scaling system whereby you can increase your perks such as stamina. You do this by collecting gold coins and purchasing buffs from the vendor at the start of the map. However, be warned, each increase is extremely expensive and adds little value, it will literally take you hours to fully improve your character. Another irritation, however if you’re brave enough to smash hour after hour into the game, well, you’re braver than I.
The game wants to try it’s hand at stealth, it wants you to adopt the rogue-like mechanic. It does try, but again, fails. There are three modes of movement, sprint, walk and crouch. As you’d expect each with their own associated level of audibility. I may be the most unlucky player in the world, however I thought I would out-smart the game and constantly walk crouched, in the shadows. Unfortunately I was swamped by monsters, out of breath, plasters over my splintered hands; murdered. Then I got to start from the very beginning, again.
I want Phantasmal to be amazing, the idea behind it is wonderful. However, the game simply fails and does not live up to the promise. There are some nice touches such as some of the visuals, the sound is excellent, but this is where it ends. It fails to deliver on the re-playability factor of a procedurally driven level design, it fails to deliver on engaging enemies, and it fails the most, without question, in endearing the player to play more. It is simply too much of a frustration to continue laboring through the boring and melodious levels, only to be greeted with a rinse and repeat mechanic. A real shame as this title could have been fantastic.
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