Phantasmal: The Shunned Ones is a rogue-like, FPS Survival Horror from Eyemobi, boasting procedurally generated levels and an array of ambitious ideas yet to be implemented. Recently, Joe Chang from the studio asked if I would like to play an early build of the game. “Like” probably isn’t the word I’d use, necessarily, as I am a big girly man and horror games don’t for a calm Paddy make. I am a big fan of rogue-like games, however, so I had to see how that would work with survival horror and what kind of beast would result from that concoction. Now, I don’t know what to do with myself; I want to keep playing a game that I can’t stop fear-quitting every five minutes. (Fear-quitting, it’s like rage quitting, but when you alt-f4 out of fear reflex. That’s a thing now.)
Yeah, I don’t see how this could be bad, let’s walk right on in.
What little story there is available in this build is conveyed through a classic horror-game trope: Exposition notes from unknown characters, addressed to no one in particular, and left in conspicuous places. The notes are from a one Prof. Dyer, apparent scholar of the occult and prolific dropper of journal pages. From the insight provided by the journal pages, he’s gone missing through a portal while investigating some odd happenings in this… “house?” You’re a.. guy who must be looking for the professor, since the goal is to find the portal in each level and progress further into this.. “house.” (Though, really, it just generates a new level with no real progression – it is still a pre-alpha, after all.)
The game is, understandably, short on details right now, though the premise is interesting enough. In Eyemobi’s Kickstarter video Joe Chang does refer to a communal love for Lovecraft in the studio, with particular reference to the idea of creeping dread. Phantasmal definitely provides a feeling of dread, since the only detection of enemies is to simply stumble onto them. There’s also a thing called The Sleeper who responds to the “ruckus meter” represented by a monster head in the top right of the screen. If you make too much noise, even to defend yourself, he will swoop down unseen from the shadows and murder you instantly. The game is already on the way towards a Lovecraftian vibe with the current build, so I can’t wait to see what future updates hold for the story.
“Guys, I am freaking out right now… and that’s why I’ve stopped to write about it. Love, the prof. <3"
The dilapidated building in which the game takes place is the epitome of creepy, it’s putrid and decaying walls emanating gloom during brief lightning flashes. At least, I think they’re decaying. It’s difficult to tell at times since the player perspective appears as though it’s being shot by handy-cam with a coffee filter lens. Shot in old-school 3D. Your vision becomes even worse as you begin to lose your sanity, which can make it downright impossible to see. I feel as though the game would benefit from toning down the messed up visuals while your sanity is more or less intact, if only to make it more impactful as you slowly go insane.
The honey-comb rooms and labyrinth-like hallways that you explore are, as previously mentioned, procedurally generated. These ain’t your daddy’s procedurally generated levels, though, there’re no set pieces juggled together into “random” levels. Every floor, wall and ceiling is randomly generated so that, theoretically, no two rooms you enter will be exactly the same. At the moment, the rooms all look pretty similar to one another and I’m assuming that’s because they only had time to include just one set of textures in the alpha. There could still be a lot that I haven’t seen, but the game seemed to have a lot of problems for me when it came to lighting physics. Specifically, random objects and sometimes entire rooms would regularly be lit up like Christmas.
It’s like JJ Abrams was given free reign over the lighting effects and was told to “go nuts.”
An atmosphere of fear and trepidation is pointless without something to be afraid of and the monsters in Phantasmal definitely deliver in that regard. I’m not sure if it was because this is a pre-alpha build or if it’s intentional design, but it wouldn’t be uncommon to spawn in a room already full of enemies. I actually liked this as the enemies are designed to be avoided instead of directly confronted, so being dropped into the middle of a large group of them isn’t an immediate death sentence. It meant that I didn’t feel like I was being handed an insurmountable challenge right off the bat, but I was still being challenged instead of handheld.
The most common enemies are called “The Starved Ones”: Hunched, twisted and wretched man-like husks which stalk the darkened corridors. Shining your light on them enrages them and causes you to go slowly insane and blurring your vision.. making it.. blurrier, I guess. They’re incredibly aggressive, packing quite a hit, and because they, usually, roam around in groups they’re also the most dangerous enemy in the game. Making them angry is a pretty fast way to the respawn screen and the easiest way to do that is by accidentally shining your torch on them. You know the torch? The most commonly used item in a darkened house you’ve never walked through before? A standard of any horror game to have ever existed and these things basically feed on them.
They look different from a distance… when your vision isn’t awash with blood, you’re not reeling from concussive blows, and your bowels aren’t fear-quitting.
They’re not the only enemies in this game, however. Let’s not forget about the one-legged, blood-spitting mannequin demons who absorb all light and emit nothing but darkness. Or the floating, non-spitting, torso-only versions of those things, who can absolutely see you in any light and scream as they charge at you. Or the spiders that only hang out in groups of fifty and open doors invitingly in the corner of your vision. Yeah, that’s right, they’ll open the door for you, and then as soon as you walk up to it you’re covered in dozens of my worst fears. They click and chitter as well, scurrying up walls, across ceilings and sometimes launching themselves through the air, straight into my nightmares. I actually can’t adequately convey just how freaked out the spiders made me. I really don’t like spiders and these little bastards will surround you before moving in for the kill.
It’s okay, I’ll stay by the light, if I stay by the light then OH GOD I CAN HEAR THEM RIGHT OUTSIDE.
Overall, when I’m not cowering beneath my desk or swatting at virtual spiders with my broom (because it’s bizarrely more effective than the gun), I enjoyed my time with Phantasmal. It’s very far from being finished but what’s available has so much potential, especially when you consider that there’s a whole list of features yet to be implemented. It should be noted that the build that was played for the purposes of this article was a pre-alpha build, anything mentioned is subject to change. If you like the sound of Phantasmal: The Shunned Ones, you can have a look at their Steam Greenlight page here or their Kickstarter page here. If you’re at PAX-Aus later this month, they’ll have an exhibit there for you to play the demo and wet your pants in public!