As an avid fan of horror games, Phantasmal had been on my radar for some time. I decided to skip Early Access and wait for the official launch to test it out, as I wanted the ‘full horror experience’. Phantasmal is incredibly effective at creating a tense and horrifying atmosphere, although several of the gameplay elements feel incomplete and hinder the overall experience.
Before researching Phantasmal, I’d never heard of the walled city of Kowloon, which is where the game takes place. It makes me wish I’d paid attention in class, because Kowloon has a truly interesting history. After the Japanese occupation of China during World War II, Kowloon became extremely congested, as it housed many refugees, who never left after the war. From the 1950s to the 1970s, Kowloon was controlled by the triads and had high rates of prostitution, gambling and drug use. By 1987, the walled city contained a whopping 33,000 residents within its 6 acres. An arduous eviction process began in 1987, and the city was finally demolished in 1994.
There’s something deeply wrong with this place
Phantasmal takes place during the early 1990s, after Kowloon’s citizens had been evicted. Our unnamed protagonist enters Kowloon in search of his Aunt Jackie, who operated a drug clinic within the city walls. While investigating her apartment, the floor collapses and our hero falls below to discover that the city is not as vacant as it should be.
Developer Eyemobi absolutely nailed the tone and atmosphere required for a memorable horror experience. Kowloon’s corridors are claustrophobic, while the flashlight fails to illuminate open plazas, which left me feeling isolated and unaware of which direction the murmuring creatures would attack from. The procedurally generated environments meant that I never became accustomed to the threatening creatures and drug addicts, nor did I know which path was the correct one to lead me to the exit. Each time I played, I would have to search through the dark all over again. I was concerned that the scares wouldn’t carry over between playthroughs. I can safely say that they do.
Unfortunately only a few of the enemies are effective at generating scares. Giant spiders, armless humanoid creatures and a Lovecraftian tentacle monster are some of the more effective enemies I encountered. The tentacle monster works in conjunction with the game’s stealth system. Make too much noise and it materialises to consume you. Remaining quiet can be a challenge, as floors are littered with broken glass and garbage bags. Stepping on these alerts nearby enemies and increases the risk of the tentacled monster showing up. The armless creatures did lose some of their appeal when I saw one of them open a door.
Phantasmal is not without its problems. The other enemies suffer from poor animations, particularly the drug addicts, and all enemy types occasionally clip through walls. While moving around the environment, I would constantly get caught on boxes, chairs and other pieces of furniture. The only way to get off would be to mash the directional pad and jump button until I dislodged whatever object had snagged me. Several times I was unable to break free and was forced to restart. The system that generates the environment is possibly too random, as I encountered the same room with the same pickups three times in a row. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the games design, it simply feels incomplete and needed more time to be polished.
Kowloon is the perfect setting for a horror game. Eyemobi deserves praise for his horrific reimagining of the walled city. I was also impressed by the high quality graphics and sound design for an indie game. The problems I faced tarnished my experience and I hope these issues are fixed over the coming months, because it currently feels as though Phantasmal left Early Access too soon.
Michael Vane is a freelance writer and avid fan of horror fiction. He is looking into reading some Lovecraft, so any suggestions would be greatly appreciated. You can follow him on Twitter at @DrVane