by Quinn Levandoski
reviewed on PC
Lost in Space... Again
Awaking with fuzzy eyes, crouched down on a dirty metal floor, Your journey in Phantaruk begins in medias res of some sort of catastrophe aboard a derelict space ship. Itís not clear what exactly is going on, but between the alarms sounding, bloody walls, and broken equipment itís clear that it isnít good. Iíll admit that I had to roll my eyes a bit when I first started the game. Itís not like thereís anything wrong with the setting, but a mysteriously messed up spaceship with grungy grey walls seems to be to indie horror games what WW2 was to first person shooters of the mid 2000s. But hey, if a gameís good I suppose it doesnít really matter- itís just got a longer way to go to make itself memorable.
Phantaruk doesnít waste much time with exposition before throwing you into the thick of it. As you stumble out of what appears to be a stasis or test tube, youíre immediately given instructions to head to another part of the ship. An easy enough task, but youíre also warned by the alarm system to ďAvoid contact with infected subjects.Ē Immediately with this first instruction, and indeed with much of the rest of the game, itís not really clear why youíre doing what you're doing and going where youíre going. Iíd often find myself unsure what the point was of heading somewhere, unlike more focused horror games which create a concrete objective for which the main character is navigating their dangerous terrain. It didnít help that most of the environments in the game stay as relatively boring and cliche as the beginning. Again, itís not that things are particularly ugly or or the artistic direction is bad. Itís just that Iíve played a hundred games that have looked exactly like this, which makes things feel stale- especially when itís the case for most of the entire game.
A Tale of Gods and Monsters
That being said, for as relatively bland as I found the environment, I actually did like the narrative that unfolds over the course of the game. Thereís plenty to discover. Who, or what, exactly are you, and why were you on the ship to start with? What exactly happened to the crew? What is the titular monster, Phantaruk, and why is he reigning hell on these poor people? Most of these questions are answered through data pads and aural diaries, and theyíre intriguing enough that it largely kept my interest. The voice acting for the audio logs is pretty solid, and adds gravitas to the outbreak of the current predicament. Early in the game youíll learn a bit about the creature Phantaruk, ďA deity scrapped together from the pieces of discarded religions.Ē Is it really a god? A demon? An alien, or perhaps a science project gone wrong? Thatís for you to figure out, but itís a pretty foreboding piece of prose either way.
Phantarukís gameplay will be familiar to anyone whoís played the fantastic Alien: Isolation. As you traverse the ship to do various things, youíll constantly have to worry about the whereabouts of Phantaruk itself. Itís not not nearly as deep of a system as the xenomorph in the aforementioned, but itís effective nonetheless. It largely sticks to a predetermined walk path, but can sometimes pop up in places you donít expect-largely when entering a new sub-section of the ship. I felt that there were few inconsistencies in the monsterís detection, but for the most part things worked pretty well. If I have a gripe with the system, itíd have to be that when you get close to Phantaruk the music swells and a visual distortion is added to the screen. It works to add tension, but the distortion effects the middle of the screen enough that it can be hard to see things that you need to see to effectively escape. If it stuck more to the peripherals itíd be much less of an annoyance.
Map Design Woes
After playing Phantaruk for some time, it becomes clear that there are some fairly annoying issues with the gameís map design. In a game largely focused on stealth and avoidance, a player needs to be able to know where theyíre going and how they can utilize the environment to their advantage, and this often isnít the case here. I got turned around quite a few times because thereís no map, no objective markers, most of the hallways look pretty much the same, and many paths loop back on themselves. I totally dug trying to sneak around and avoid Phantaruk, but it becomes a chore when I had to replay sections because I have no idea where a certain room or object is. Thatís not adding challenge to the game, itís poor map design. Good maps in games like this may make the players think or analyze to figure out where to go, but there are subtle hints to keep it from becoming guesswork. Itís not just navigation either, sometimes itís not clear what exactly youíre even looking for. Towards the beginning of the game, for example, I finally cleared a large area only to find out that I needed an ID card to progress. There wasnít any indication where one of these cards might be found, and I hadnít been told earlier to be on the lookout for one. This made me spend a bunch more time tracking one down, which wasnít a ton of fun. This becomes worse considering the gameís toxin gameplay element, which makes you find antidote syringes every so many minutes or succumb to toxins building in your body. Itís actually a pretty a cool system that adds pressure to progress, but doesnít meld well with confusing navigation.
Foreboding or Forgettable?
Thereís a really cool game with some interesting concepts buried somewhere in Phantaruk, but itís hidden under some unfortunate negatives that kept me from having as much fun as I was really close to having. Despite not being the case, Phantaruk feels like a game still in beta, needed some more time, attention, and polish. I like the concept quite a bit, and there are a few other games out there that prove it can be done extremely well, but there are just too many issue here holding back the things the game does well for it to be an easy recommend.
Interesting narrative, predator/prey gameplay is largely effective
Largely forgettable setting, some seemingly pointless objectives, poor level design.