Phantasmal: City of Darkness is a very atmospheric, very mediocre rinse-repeat horror title.
This H.P. Lovecraft-inspired, first-person roguelike horror from Auckland-based developer Eyemobi has a plethora of jump scares, and plenty of moments that will make you want to crawl into a ball and cry – at least for your first few deaths.
Now don’t get me wrong – for fans of these genres, there are some really cool ideas going on in this game. Increasingly creepy, procedurally-generated environments; loss of sanity (shrinking or distorted vision and auditory hallucinations) the more you stay in the dark; lots of poop-your-pants moments that will have you sprinting for the end of the level, only to get trapped and swarmed by the different inhabitants of the Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City… It really starts off as an incredibly freaky game.
Seriously. The first time I loaded it up, as I made my way through the stages, my chest was in knots, my face screwed up in fear, and I was spinning around the environment, shining my torch into every corner any time I heard an unexpected noise. I was a mess. By the time I reached the second randomized level and came across my first swarm of massive spiders, my nerves were a wreck. Too soon after dispatching them, I was set upon by a pair of the incredibly disturbing Starvers, with their hands covering their face and monstrously long tongues wagging to-and-fro, making them look like gauntly, armless, Cthulhu-faced creatures… Well, all I can say is my remaining pistol ammo, and well-worn wooden plank were no match for them. I was soon respawning at the start of the game, and the lights in my room quickly turned on.
After catching my breath, realizing death doesn’t mean much more than having to start again, and diving back in, I soon began to grow bored of the enemies. The first 10-20 minutes of each adventure suddenly became a chore just to get to the new and interesting challenges. What was at first a terrifying experience around every corner quickly became expected, and thus no longer scary, or even interesting really – especially after leveling my character up a bit.
You see, being more of a rogue-lite, death doesn’t mean you lose all your progress – just anything you were carrying, except coins. These are used to upgrade skills, or buy items from Egg Chin, a merchant around the corner from where you wake up. The downside to this is that you need a lot of coins to upgrade – 50, then 150, then 400 for most of the seven skills. Each playthrough (well, play-until-I-was-killed-through) garnered me between 30 and 60 coins, so levelling up required many, many, many jaunts through at least the first few levels.
Now you may be wondering: if levelling up makes it less scary, then why do it? Well, the deeper you go, the more you’ll need the ability to sprint further should (when) your attempts to stealth fail. So sure, traversing further and further into the bowels of the city brought with it new scares, but after dispatching them with the horded weapons I managed to find, I soon found that running was most often the fastest way to get to the end of the level. This is also the quickest way to alert everything to your presence, thus waking up the slumbering mass of shadowy tentacles that murder you in seconds. Ironically, this is another reason to level up your sprint skill, but also a neat use of risk-reward gameplay.
So, why is this guy going through all this? What is the story? Honestly, there isn’t much of one. Player character John Hope has followed a lead to find his missing aunt, and that has brought him to the Walled City of Kowloon in Hong Kong – at which point he falls through the floor of the building he suspects her to be in, and that’s where his Lovecraftian Groundhog Day-esque adventure begins.
The cutscenes feel like placeholder storyboards; the narrative notes are scattered and very easy to miss, and any voice acting other than the John’s exhausted and / or fearful breathing is pretty rough. This isn’t a game you play for the tale - to me, Phantasmal: City of Darkness is all about the atmosphere, and trying to scare the willies out of you.
Exploring the city can at times be rewarding, with regard to the items and weapons you’ll stumble across, but also unnecessarily clumsy with how difficult it is to move between rooms cluttered with tables, chairs, and random boxes. Actually getting to the coins, sanity pills, weapons, or narrative notes can be a real mission in itself, and when you manage to get near them, the hit box for actually picking them up is a tad too small, especially for tiny objects like coins, so you have to be incredibly precise. This is not so much fun when trying to quickly rummage through a room you’ve seen a dozen times in a third the number of restarts – or when being hunted by the foul creatures lurking the halls.
Graphically speaking, the game is mediocre at best. The user interface feels like it was made in paint, the fonts are an eyesore (especially those at the bottom of the journal between levels), but then again, on the plus side, I like the artwork in the folder, and a few of the creature designs are pretty neat.
Much of the game is set in completely blacked out rooms, with a few fires, optional lights, or your torch being the only major sources of light, so the need for stunning environmental textures isn’t entirely needed, but truthfully, it’s actually the models and animations for the few creatures you come across that really makes the game feel like it’s a title from 2003. None of the creatures have nice, smooth, or even interesting animations, they just kind of move (or rush, at times) about the environment in as dumbed-down a manner as possible. Meanwhile, the models are quite basic, even blocky in parts.
Spiders scuttle up, down, and around the rooms quickly, but it’s still easy to see that the way they move is simple, and that they aren’t the greatest when it comes to working their way through the cluttered environments either. Players are just as likely as the spiders and other foes to get trapped on a piece of geometry, frustratingly unable to duck, jump, or move out of the way of incoming attacks.
A major part of the draw to the game is its procedurally-generated levels. While they certainly are different each time, the types of rooms that are used for each level don’t really change; it’s more how they are stitched together, where the inhabitants are located, and how much there is to loot that makes it unique each time. Spend more than a few lives and you’ll quickly learn the layouts of each type of room, and what the fastest way to loot them is.
Some levels can be a breeze – you may stumble your way down to the 4th stage without a scratch and in record time – while others may see you swarmed upon opening the first door. The randomness of the levels does make it more difficult, but each playthrough kind of feels the same after a while.
The audio for the game certainly sets the mood just as much as the lack of light sources, as do freaky shadows cast between bouts of lightning, but it wasn’t nearly as directional as I wanted. Wandering semi-blind through the different environments, I kept listening for audio cues as to where not to go, but everything just kind of sounded generally quiet or loud, so navigating by sound didn’t work so well for me.
On the plus side, depending on the room, you may come across deafening music, odd sloshing sounds, squeals from swarms of enormous jumping arachnids, or the foreign mumblings of wandering junkies. So, at the very least, there are plenty of noises to keep you on your toes.
There are things to like about this game, and for the price, there are reasons to spend dozens, or even hundreds of hours in there. Collecting coins, upgrading skills, and seeing how fast you can make it through the many levels of the progressively warped environments will certainly be fun for some people - but I would caution that it is an acquired taste.
For fans of horror and roguelike genres, should you pick Phantasmal: City of Darkness up, I highly suggest shutting off the lights, putting on a good pair of headphones, then settling in for an atmospherically intense journey through Eyemobi’s many procedurally generated levels of Lovecraftian nightmare fuel. Just be prepared to die often, progress slowly, and likely put the game down in frustration (or boredom) well before ever reaching the end.