Step right into this ancient undergound tomb, young explorer. I’m sure that there’s nothing too terrible to be found here. Just the usual medley of unknowable gods, a curse that will see you trapped here for all eternity, and an ever-shifting maze of paths for you to wander down dying time, and time again. Oh, and the ghosts of myriad other explorers to keep you company.
Phantom Abyss caught my eye as soon as it was announced. With the crack of an Indiana Jones-style whip, I was excited by the prospect of a game that procedurally generates deadly temples and then has you try to race to the end and grab an ancient relic before anyone else. It’s such a simple idea, but how it’s all put together is just fascinating.
Mechanically it shares many of its sensibilities with a good old Roguelike: everything is procedurally generated, and when you die, you head all the way back to start the deadly gauntlet all over again. It differs in a few notable ways though, giving you regular outs at the end of each area, so you can opt to continue on to the next realm or claim a relic and take it back to the deity you’re trapped down here with. There’s also all the spectres of the other temple adventurers.
You see, Phantom Abyss lifts one other popular idea from Roguelikes and spins it into one of the core features of the game. Each procedurally generated temple can be played by other players, right up until the point that someone manages to make it through and claim the relic at the end. You see something similar to this in Roguelikes that have daily challenges, but Phantom Abyss builds the game around the idea.
It’s kind of exhilarating to see the ghosts of half a dozen other players start a section with you, the thrill of the chase and the race to the end. Except you know that they don’t make it to the end – they wouldn’t be ghosts if they had, would they? – and so this is your chance to follow in their footsteps, to learn from their mistakes and how they went through the level, to get that bit further than they did. The thrill, instead, is that you think you can be the one to beat them.
That’s easier said than done.
There’s certainly a Temple Run vibe to the game’s thematic style, but the challenge that it presents you is quite different, and the temples feel darker and more ominous, while still being quite cartoony. There’s great big spike pits, rolling carpets, spinning blades, deadly darts that are shot at you. There’s also guardian spirits to deal with that will spawn in rooms and try to stop your progress, whether it’s by shooting eye lasers at you or dropping poisonous gas balls that bounce around. They ramp up the intensity, and they are relentless, only becoming more frequent and dangerous as you get to successive levels.
Thankfully it’s not one and done. Though death will lock you out of a particular temple for all time, you can take a few hits before succumbing. You have three hearts, with damage from traps stealing them away one at a time, and even failing to roll when falling from a height nipping off a half. You can augment it by purchasing a blessing at altars that you find at the end of each stage, potentially just restoring a heart, or giving you augments like double jump, glide jump and more.
It’s a compelling cocktail of ideas that comes together really nicely, even at the Early Access stage that the game is in now. There’s more whips to earn, relics to find, the ever-present risk-reward. Yet Team WIBY clearly still has some work to do.
While some rooms you step into feel like a natural combination, others are just completely random hodge-podges of building blocks that feel so out of place. Then again, familiarity can breed contempt, and the game will have players running through the first area time and time again.
They’re also hard at work getting the game’s asynchronous play to really gel together. Typically I’ll step into a temple where I’m the first, or there have been fewer than five attempts. That could be player count, it could be other factors, like people just being too darned good at the game already. Either way, it’s a shame not to have the rush of excitement that having a dozen phantoms racing ahead of you gets.
One thing is clear: Phantom Abyss is a whip-smart combination of different game ideas that’s well worth keeping an eye on.