Merriam-Webster defines a Phantasm as “something that exists only in the mind”, a “product of fantasy” or “a mental representation of a real object.” Much like my sense of self-respect, it doesn’t actually exist in the real world – it’s a thing of delusions, a nightmare made real if you will. I’ve always enjoyed horror and especially the more cerebral/existential terror of a good Lovecraftian story so Phantasmal, the latest game by Eyemobi Ltd., seemed designed to catch my attention. Set in the walled city of Kowloon, it promises that you will “Experience Terror that is Never the Same Twice” due to its procedurally generated levels. It promises that each play through will be “completely different” from the last and I dare to dream that perhaps the horror genre has finally managed to crack the issues that plagued earlier attempts at greatness. With spare underwear at the ready and a steady drink to calm my nerves, I said my goodbyes to my loved ones and prepared myself for the worst.
My first run started well. Waking up in a dilapidated hotel room, the tutorial is basic but comprehensive and I get my hands on the games first weapons – a pistol with several bullets and a plank with a nail in it. I spent several minutes trying to find my bearings due to the games almost comically overdone motion blur which leaves you wondering if your character is just suffering the worst hangover in human history. Seriously, go check it out. The blur is almost unbearable. After rapidly turning that nonsense off in the menu, I left my room to do whatever it is I’m supposed to do. You don’t get any hints as to why you’re here or why you’d even consider leaving the apparently secure room you’re currently in to go gallivanting off into the grimy horror that awaits but I’ll play along. No one really wants to play a realistic horror game since that would just involve a lot of crying in a dark room and pissing yourself but anyway, I digress.
On leaving the room and entering the elevator with its obligatory cult-like markings on the floor (Question: Why do so many horror games have those? Why doesn’t my elevator at work have one of those?) I entered Kowloon proper. If you haven’t heard of Kowloon then just imagine if Blade Runner was real but crammed into a hellish square in Hong Kong and you’d be on your way. It was a fascinating place that was sadly/rightly pulled down in the mid-90’s, but in its heyday it was infamous for being ungovernable, wild and downright scary. Unfortunately, Phantasmal seems to have taken one look at Kowloon and thought “creepy hospital!” because you bet your bottom dollar that’s what this is. Strip lights that blink and stutter, health notices, cracked tiles and yeah, it’s just a creepy hospital. It has the odd neon sign on occasion which just makes it look like a creepy hospital with an 80’s vibe, but hey.
Try watching me explain this photo to a court of law.
On slowly working my way down the corridor, I stumble into the first of many encounters with the games flagship monsters. I’m lead to believe from the Kickstarter page that the shambling abomination that confronts me is apparently called a “Starved Walker’ but I beg to differ. I prefer the term “Harmless Bollock Kitten.” Let me explain. First of all, the monster clearly has a pair of testicles around its neck and that is just a fact. I’m sure they’re meant to be eyeballs but come on, look at them. This shambling, dim-witted idiot is covering his eyes because his non-Euclidian abomination of a mother made him wear his bollock-necklace to the monster party. Not only is the monster a shambling embarrassment to the horror genre as a whole, he likes to congregate in hallways with his loser friends and just…bump into each other.
Time and time again, I’d turn a corner to discover 3 or 4 HBK’s just slowly bumping into each other like desperately awkward teens at a house party. I didn’t fear them as much as pity them. Once they did eventually notice me leering at them from behind an up-turned chair or strategically positioned pot plant, they had a tendency to shamble towards me en-masse while continuing to bump against each other, obviously desperate for the tender touch of a none-ridiculous creature. Years ago, my cat had kittens – 11 bundles of mewling, stumbling flesh that shuffled around and filled me with pity. Granted, they didn’t have neck-based genitalia, but they did fill me with the same mix of mild-contempt and pity as these “monsters.” So well done Eyemobi, you went for Stephen King and got Sleepy Kittens. Kudos.
Behold the shuffling terror that is HBK.
The game has spiders at some point. They’re giant spiders, but still, no point for originality. Phantasmal also features an attempt at a monster with a more Lovecraft-like vibe. Frankly, it’s a bit of a disaster. After being told constantly to “not wake the sleeper!” and watching tentacles slowly engulf your HUD the more noise/disturbance you create, you eventually have to run away from a thing that can’t be killed with a swift plank to the face. Imagine someone reading “Mountains of Madness” or “The Dunwich Horror” and coming away with the impression that Lovecraftian means “squid” and you can guess the sleeper isn’t exactly Pyramid Head. It’s not exactly HBK levels of sadness but it is less scary then the giant spiders so again, well done.
Look, you may think I’m being facetious here and I mainly am (that is kind of my thing) but I have a serious point. The idea of a procedurally generated horror game sounds great and at a glance, Phantasmal looks like a game I want to play. I love seeing indie studios charge out to make new games and honestly want them to succeed but that doesn’t mean you can’t be honest. Phantasmal could be a great game, as it’s certainly been made with care and attention, but it lets itself down in key places. Take the lack of a story that I mentioned earlier. It actually turns out that there is a pretty comprehensive back-story involving your character, John, being a Vietnam veteran struggling with PTSD who has taken a job as a janitor in a university. That’s what you’ll find buried on the Kickstarter page at least and although the game has your typical notes/letters that you can find in cupboards and stapled to walls, you don’t see any of this actual back-story in the game. Hell, it doesn’t even seem to be set in the same place as the original Kickstarter but that doesn’t seem to be mentioned anywhere either.
The lack of a ‘The teddy bear is the REAL horror!’ sub-plot was just the nail in the coffin.
It’s like someone at Eyemobi noticed that games like Amnesia didn’t hold your hand and explain everything without realizing they do still give you something to go on and that leads to you being invested in the game. I really didn’t care about John and neither did the developer, it seems. I get that this is an Early Access game and that it’s not the finished model but lets be frank – if I’m paying for a product, you can’t expect me to not complain when it’s only half baked. Given a few more months of testing and quality refinement, Phantasmal may have been something good. As it is, the wonky AI, boring set design and generally over-the-top levels of “spooky” leave this a disappointing game with so much wasted potential.