Date: June 22, 2021
First-person platformers always seemed weird to me. If your goal is to jump safely from one ledge to another, not being able to see where your feet are seemed like an unfun way of making the game harder than it needed to be. But after playing Phantom Abyss, I get it now. Sliding under a rotating blade of death in 3rd person just doesn’t have the same impact as when that blade flashes by only inches from your face. Plummeting to your death is likewise much more interesting when you can really see the ground rushing up to meet you.
Phantom Abyss is one more in a long line of cool indie games with weird concepts from publisher Devolver Digital. This temple-runner is the first game from Australia based Team Wiby, and features 1st person platforming in which you dodge traps, cross chasms with a whip, and avoid the angry guardians of the temple. Oh, and there’s also the ghosts of players who died in the temple running around too.
The plot is pretty sparse, at least at this point in development, but it’s still more than enough motivation to plunge into temple after temple in search of relics. Altec, god of the Abyss (whatever that is), needs you to capture relics in order to free himself (and you) from the Abyss. Seems like a bad idea — isn’t he here for a reason? Either way, your character doesn’t seem to have much choice in the matter, so relic-hunting you go.
Each temple you enter is procedurally generated, but it isn’t unique to your game; when you enter a temple, it will tell you how many players have already died within. Sometimes, you’ll be the first or second explorer of a temple. Other times, the way forward will be crowded with the ghosts of others who have died. If you fail to capture a relic, your phantom will join the others, your loot and whip will be captured, and you’ll have to wait until another player grabs a relic from the temple. That destroys the temple forever, and releases all the loot and whips captured there.
There isn’t just one relic to find, however. In each layer of the temple (there are 3 currently, with a total of 5 planned), you can choose to attempt to capture the relic of that layer, or delve deeper into the temple. The further in you go, the more deadly the temple becomes, but you also can capture more powerful relics, which presumably will allow you to unlock more powerful whips (I wouldn’t know, having been sliced or smashed in all my deeper dives).
The most important thing in a game like Phantom Abyss is how it feels to run, jump, and whip your way around its deadly obstacles, and I’m happy to report that it feels great. I’m pretty terrible at platformers, and so found myself impaled on spikes more often than I’d care to admit. But it never felt bad, and — most importantly — it always felt like my fault. Never did a death seem cheap or unfair; there was always something I could have done to keep myself alive, had I whipped just a little whippier. Overall, the controls feel responsive and tight, there’s just the right amount of air control, and the way the whip functions feels intuitive and satisfying.
There’s some clear roguelite influence here beyond the procedurally generated levels and the one-and-done life system. The temples are dotted with shrines where you can spend the coins you find to get blessings, which are also randomly generated (you pick between two each time), and can do everything from heal you to giving you a double-jump. The whips you earn from capturing relics also appear to be random, as is the loot you get for completing a temple.
Because the levels are procedurally generated, some rooms are too easy to navigate, with a clear path around or through the traps. This is mitigated by the presence of the guardians, big spooky floating heads/eyes/etc that follow you around the temple, forcing you to keep moving or face their wrath. They feel fairly well balanced, creating pressure on the player, but never making it impossible to proceed, and more than make up for the sometimes boring trap layouts.
It all comes together to create a “one-more-run” experience, and the difficulty ramps up in such a way that I found myself getting just a little further each time (unless I did something silly). The environment changes enough between temple layers that it makes you want to see what lies ahead, and encourages you to push on to the next layer rather than taking the easier relics on the first layer.
While not a multiplayer game in the traditional sense, you can send the codes of temples you died in to your friends, challenging them to succeed where you failed (and freeing your phantom in the process), which is a neat feature. There are also at least one blessing that lets you heal when standing near phantoms, which leads to some funny moments as you attempt to chase another player’s phantom around the temple without dying.
Phantom Abyss is set to be in early access for a year, with the developers planning to add new rooms, traps, and whips, in addition to the 2 new layers mentioned earlier. There will also be “additional gameplay features”, though there’s been no mention as to what those might be. The early access version of the game releases tomorrow, 6/22, for $19.99, a 20% discount off its $24.99 price tag. This discount will last until July 8th, and the developers have said they are undecided on if the price will eventually go up during early access. If you’re into swinging your way over traps, I’d say it’s a good deal at 20 bucks.