“The oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” Horror writer H.P. Lovecraft penned that phrase over 80 years ago and it’s just as relevant today when applied to the horror genre. The unknown is one of the key techniques used in horror to build tension which can lead to suspense, terror and shock. The problem with horror is that the uncertainty is gone the second time round. The audience can predict the danger and the scares lose their impact. That is what Phantasmal: City of Darkness aims to change.
Phantasmal: City of Darkness is an upcoming survival horror game developed by New Zealand studio Eyemobi. What makes Phantasmal unique is that the game features procedurally generated environments, resulting in no two play through ever being the same. Every room you enter including walls, roofs, floors and props will differ each time the game loads. The player will never be prepared for what comes next and this has the potential to elicit feelings of uncertainty every time.
Phantasmal takes place in the walled city of Kowloon, days before its destruction in the early 1990s. Ungoverned and overcrowded, the walled city fell into disrepute and the triads took control enforcing the drug use, gambling and prostitution. Families lived in squalor and feared for their safety from the violent criminals squatting in the hallways. You play as a private detective tasked with locating a missing woman and investigating a mysterious cult within the evacuated city before it is demolished.
The game’s supernatural elements come in to play when you realise the city is not as vacant as it should be. The enemies include large grey humanoid creatures with open chest cavities and floating skulls that were reminiscent of the Octobrains from Duke Nukem 3D. Neither were highly original designs for a horror game, but still effective at generating scares. One unique feature was that the grey humanoids appear drawn to the characters’ flashlight making its use a calculated risk. Phantasmal’s cinematic trailer also featured a cloaked figure with tentacles for arms who revealed that it had no face. Instead, there was a hole that led to the void of space. It was by far the best creature design.
Project leader Joe Chang cites inspiration from several sources including classic games such as Silent Hill, Dead Space and the procedural landscapes were inspired by indie gem The Binding of Isaac. Lovecraft was a huge influence on the game which Chang has even incorporated into the story. Throughout the game you can discover scattered pages torn from The Call of Cthulhu which is one of Lovecraft’s most popular works.
Since its successful crowdfunding campaign in 2014, Phantasmal has undergone some significant changes. Originally titled Phantasmal: The Shunned Ones, you played as a Vietnam veteran tasked with surviving the otherworldly atrocities found within a local university during a storm. The changes appear to be for the best. Kowloon’s sheer size greatly increases the scope of the game, while allowing more diversity with level design. Neon lights are used to illuminate the corridors outside storefronts, simple effects that would not have been found in a derelict university. The use of a real world location also adds an eerie sense of loss and highlights a dark moment in human history.
There is currently little information available that reveals how the procedurally generated environments and rogue like elements will affect story progress. It will be interesting to see if these elements and the gameplay come together to form a memorable experience that warrants the multiple play throughs that Eyemobi aims for. Phantasmal: City of Darkness is scheduled for release March 1st 2016 and is currently available on Steam Early Access where it has received many positive reviews. An Xbox One edition of the game is also in the works.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer who enjoys listening to the Hotline Miami soundtrack on repeat.