Phantasmal: City of Darkness is a rogue-like horror survival which is procedurally generated. The randomness and non-predictable gameplay has high replay potential where every new start leads to a unique experience. The game is set in Kowloon Walled City, an ungoverned settlement in Hong Kong which was demolished in early 90s. You take on the role of John Hope, an investigator who sets out to this dangerous place to look for his aunt Jackie who runs a drug clinic in the area and went missing two weeks ago.
The gameplay offers quite an amount of variety. The objective of each level is to find a way to an elevator which lies at the exit of the map. There are enemies which can prevent you from doing so as well as the aspect of environment influencing John’s sanity, gradually driving him crazy. The primary focus is on stealth with some options to fight. There are not many weapons in the game so it is essential to use them wisely and always have in mind that fighting might attract more enemies. With balancing stealth and self-defence, you have to find an ideal way for John to stay alive and not lose his marbles.
One of the features which add to the gaming experience a lot is the main character. You don’t play as a hero, but an ordinary human being which is very frail, both mentally and physically. All the weird, scary things he has to face can drive him insane and the more he flips out, the harder it is to tell what’s real and what’s not. What we liked about the design is the concept of the health bar and inventory since all of it is in one place at the right corner of the screen. Physical health is displayed in a circle and this encloses the star of mental health which gradually changes colour depending on the characters current state.
The environment is exquisitely creepy. Since the locations are randomly generated, every play through is unique and equally scary. It is the anxiety and fear of the unknown which works here – you can never know what is hiding beyond the next door which you have to open. Speaking as a horror addict who enjoys revelling in her own fears and isn’t scared easily, this game made me feel highly uncomfortable. But I still enjoyed it. The sound effects are a huge part of the atmosphere. Whether it’s the sound of vague murmuring from a distance, crashing of a bottle you accidentally tipped over or the characters own quickened breath, all sounds will give you the creeps.
Your actions don’t only affect John but the behaviour of his enemies as well. For example turning on lights helps you maintain sanity but can also attract enemies. It is up to you whether you decide to improve your mental state at the risk of being seen. Same goes for making noise. You pick up a gun at the beginning and while shotguns are quite hard to come across in Phantasmal, they might be effective but not the best weapon in this game. Shotguns make quite a lot of noise and any loud sounds can attract enemies too. All of these factors require the player to make careful decisions about every action. Step carefully, avoid accidentally kicking the empty bottles scattered all over this dark place and sneak quietly past your potential enemies. Phantasmal will push you to consider every small decision but also requires fast, on the spot thinking which adds to how realistic the experience seems.
The variety of enemies includes hostile drug addicts, swarms of giant spiders dropping on your head from the ceiling and zombie-like disfigured creatures which may not be part of reality. Either way, you will have to find a way how to deal with them or get out of their sight. When they come one by one, it is easy to take enemies out but getting surrounded by a larger mob is often the end. Therefore it is essential to scavenge each location for anything that might be used as a weapon or distraction – wooden planks, flares, firecrackers, everything counts.
Death is permanent in Phantasmal. Yep, pretty tough but on the other hand, you keep the collected money and at the start of each new go there is an option to buy upgrades for your character, keys, or some minor tools like flares. Apart from dying, you can also go completely insane which leads to a restart as well. These endings can give you some really trippy experiences. When the character starts hallucinating, the screen goes all flashy accompanied by creepy sounds and since the game draws you in so much, it is scary.
Since the game evolves with every replay, you cannot really count on what you learned, and what seemed as a good decision in one run can get you killed in another. The factor of randomness and option to improve your character add big replay potential as well as moments of surprise for each play through. Phantasmal is a highly atmospheric scary survival game and once you get used to its mechanics, you will not want to stop playing it.
You can watch our liveplay of Phantasmal if you’re brave enough!