Phantom Abyss is a massive asynchronous multiplayer game that casts players into procedurally-generated temples and tasks them with retrieving the sacred relics hidden within deadly chambers.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Reviewed on: PC (Ryzen 5 2600, RTX 2070 Super, 32GB DDR4)
Also available for: N/A
Developer: Team WIBY
Design: Ben Marrinan, Jed Dawson, Alex Butterfield
Art: Motze Asher, Alex Murdoch
Programming: Josh Sanderson
I love a game that makes me addictively throw myself into pain over and over again, and that’s precisely what Phantom Abyss has me doing. At times I’m feeling like a bad-ass young Indiana Jones whipping myself over spike traps, while other times, I’ve fallen to my death moments after loading into a temple. Good and frustrating times are ahead based on what I’ve played of Phantom Abyss so far in its first week as an Early Access game.
The gameplay loop of this hybrid rogue-lite is straightforward enough. You enter a randomly generated temple with a treasure waiting to be claimed if you can survive the test. Bringing only a whip that allows you to fling yourself across treacherous gaps, you need to dodge and weave your way around all of the traps temples thrown at you, including a terrifying guardian. It’s not quite as fast-paced as something like a Ghostrunner or Mirror’s Edge, and not quite as rogueish as Spelunky — while also being somewhere between those games. You’ll die a lot; you’ll try again, over and over again.
You can jump, slide, and crouch, but other than your trusty whip, that’s the extent of the mechanics in Phantom Abyss, and it’s all about mastering those. Learning how to use your whip and flinging yourself effortlessly around a level without falling to your death is easier said than done. The only thing to be on the lookout for in any run are chests that contain coins you can spend at totems to buy ‘blessings’ that can do anything from give you an extra heart, make you whip faster, or allow you to buy double jump.
One guardian will spawn in a temple around the halfway point and will begin chasing you. They’re relatively slow and only speed up when you hit the second temple area, ‘The Caverns.’ Each has a different ability, like laser eyes or throwing toxic gas, so they’re not to be ignored at all, but they’re not on your heels as much as you may think at first.
What makes Phantom Abyss stand out is its use of asynchronous multiplayer. As you enter a temple, you’ll be made aware of how many others have tried this run before you. Those players appear as ghosts in your game, performing their actions up to their deaths and being both humorous, helpful or unknowingly devious. I’ve followed a spirit to a secret chest, while I’ve also followed one directly into a hole in the ground, assuming they knew where they were going. Spotting a spirits dead body only moments into a level makes me want to “ha-ha” like I’m Nelson from The Simpsons, but I refrain as I too have died in a humiliating way to a simple spike-trap just seconds into a temple.
No matter how many spirits appear before you in a temple, you know none of them has completed it as once a temple’s treasure is claimed, that temple is closed forever. However, you also only get one attempt at a temple. There’s no learning the locations of each trap and coming back later; once you die, you’re out for good and have to attempt another randomly generated area. There are two exciting things about this concept. Firstly, you can enter a temple with ten or so spirits, and if you conquer it, there’s a sensation of doing what those before you could not. On the other hand, entering a temple alone where no one else has attempted it feels oddly lonely and has a different sensation awaiting one skilled enough to claim the treasure.
Claiming a treasure does reward you with more than just bragging right as you unlock new whips, which you can purchase with keys you find inside chests within the temples. Each of these whips has a negative and a positive effect and can be better suited for some playstyles. The first one I unlocked gave me an extra heart for my run but made me take damage when I stand in water. Another lets you regain health when standing near other spirits, but you lose health when buying new blessings.