Get past the start, it’ll make sense.
When I discovered Phantom Abyss on Steam Early Access it was like I found a game tailored to my exact sensibilities. Platforming is a personal favorite, with first person ones being few and far between. I’m also a sucker for pulpy adventure settings of any kind and the endlessly shifting underground temple certainly fits the bill. Fun music stingers, pseudo-Mayan aesthetic but not quite, magical and physical dangers well beyond what’s immediately apparent? Perfect. The only weakness I could find in PA‘s presentation is the title, which doesn’t quite describe what you’re in for. “Spelunky’s Edge” maybe?
First person platforming is a black sheep of the video game world, often being decried as clunky, awkward, out of place. I’m a bit of a FPP apologist because the handful that do it well tend to create a more immersive experience. Phantom Abyss isn’t just a functional first person platformer, it’s made better for being in first person. You will never be more sure of your footing as you can just glance and see. Your whip aim will be impeccable, mouse twitching from ledge to ledge. Your reflexes and dodges will be flawless. You will become a platforming freak of nature, turning and tumbling like a circus performer with no safety net.
Because of this the intensity is incredible. There will be streamers who make this game look easy, but I assure you that will have been earned. Finishing a section, seeing the Olmec-esque statue and the stairs, is a massive relief albeit only a momentary one. And grabbing a relic knowing that it’s yours, no one else’s? Priceless. This would only be improved by adding Twitch integration ala Immortal Redneck, letting the audience select hazards, upgrades, what have you.
Each individual hazard is in and of itself simple to understand and avoid. A pit, a crusher, a spike, a holographic deity that spews gas bombs: normal temple things. But it’s how the game combines these hazards and communicates them to the player that impresses me. Visuals are a given – clear color and pattern coding for different dangers abound – but the true standout is the sound. PA‘s sound design is impeccable. Crushers crash with an explosive thud, achieving borderline deep fried meme audio if you’re an inch away. Different sharp things that come at you from different directions sound distinct. You can avoid something without ever having seen it and know exactly what you skipped past. Playing this with anything other than headphones seems foolish; you need every advantage you can get on this adventure, and PA is willing to give one to you if you’re willing to listen.
The levels are procedurally generated and there are definitely recognizable rooms, layouts, trap combos, etc., but they’re remixed well enough to keep you on your toes despite familiarity. It helps that every once in a while the game just goes nuts. I once found a secret inside a secret inside a secret inside a hole in the ceiling that was only accessible because I had a long whip blessing. It felt like I won an ancient Mayan lottery.
The whips! Oh the whips. There are so many, and they are so cool. With the exception of the default whip every other one comes with a paired bonus and penalty. Want 50% more treasure from each chest? Sure thing, as long as you’re fine with player phantoms being able to steal money if they get to those chests first. Want a blessing discount? Sure thing, just hand over a heart. Make it to a relic using a whip and you can have those pesky downsides chopped off. Take care though, if you slip up in the field you’ll lose access to said whip until someone beats it.
Part of me does wish that temples were re-runnable by providing the seed. Not to claim the prize – that’d be fundamentally at odds with the game’s structure – but just to prove to myself that I can overcome particularly interesting challenges that bamboozled me the first time around. But when the worst mechanical gripe I have is that I want to replay something in a procedurally generated game I’d say we’re looking at something excellent.
Now, see all of those words above? That’s what I wrote after about 1/3 of my current playtime. And this is a perfect example of why I don’t publish first impressions as a review. The weird thing is that I don’t think I was wrong, not really, otherwise I would have just started the review here. But after the honeymoon sheen wore off and I started to see a little bit more of what else PA had going on under the hood, I realized it isn’t quite as clean as it initially seemed. For every positive quality there’s a proviso, a problem, a “but”.
Let’s get what’s likely the largest issue out of the way first: there is precious little content in PA currently. This is somewhat obfuscated by the procedural generation, but not very well. There’s a handful of hazards introduced in each area and a small range of preset rooms. Sure you’ll see them in different orders, but the quantity of rooms is so low that runs will meld together in your memory. Early on clearing rooms felt like a triumph. With more plays and strong familiarity it feels like busywork, muscle memory taking over, jumping and whipping the exact same way every time to effortlessly scoot past hazards you’ve seen before. There are games in which this can be thrilling but PA intends to surprise, and it fails. And that Russian nesting doll of secrets I mentioned above? I’ve run into that like 10 times now, and it’s been exactly the same every time. Suffice it to say I’m not exactly thrilled by it anymore.
Things aren’t helped by how penalizing PA becomes as you make it to the red area, and even moreso in the final gold one. The various whips ease this, sure, but even their initial variety is proven to be thinner than they initially appear. Each tier of whip contains straight upgrades to whips below them fully supplanting the ones you previously unlocked. Of course each upgrade is still going to require a run to cleanse the debuff, and if you end up failing it gets locked up, so you’re required to either wait or pay a resource premium to give it another shot. It feels like a mobile payment model grafted onto an otherwise normal game, but it doesn’t want your wallet, only your time. It’s a catch 22; you need the good whips to make deep runs, but deep runs make every mistake count for more because of how lengthy they are, so you’re likely to die and lose your whip, which demands currency that you didn’t get because you failed your run and don’t get to keep your collectables until if/when someone completes that exact temple. And PA doesn’t exactly have enough players running its halls to make this process smooth. I’ve lost a run, decided to hop back on 24 hours later, and still not received my whip back. It’s punishment without purpose.
Most roguelites give you a consolation prize on losses that helps you push through the difficulty curve. Experience, skills to work on, stat improvements, something. PA penalizes you instead, taking the tools you need most away. It’s a fundamental disconnect with how the genre’s best games approach the framework. Losses in PA feel worse than just about any other roguelite. You gain nothing for failure and if you want to give it another go right away you actually lose resources. I went from gleefully attempting back to back runs, to making a couple attempts per session, to never making more than one go of it per sit-down because the further you get the more the game wastes your time.
I don’t want to play Phantom Abyss anymore. Its bones are strong, I can’t deny that, but there’s so little meat on them and the skeleton they form is misshapen, crooked, malformed. There are elements of this that are truly excellent, in particular its improvements on first person controls, but even when more content gets added in the future (room types, hazards, enemies, etc.) I have trouble believing that its flaws won’t permeate it. Will I give it a fair shake when it hits 1.0? Probably, I do own the thing and I want to believe in this game’s potential. But I won’t be counting the days until that happens.
A Steam code was independently purchased for review.