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. It’s not clear what exactly is going on, but between the alarms sounding, bloody walls, and broken equipment it’s clear that it isn’t good. I’ll admit that I had to roll my eyes a bit when I first started the game. It’s not like there’s 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 game’s good I suppose it doesn’t really matter- it’s just got a longer way to go to make itself memorable.
Phantaruk doesn’t 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, you’re immediately given instructions to head to another part of the ship. An easy enough task, but you’re also warned by the alarm system to “Avoid contact with infected subjects.” Immediately with this first instruction, and indeed with much of the rest of the game, it’s not really clear why you’re doing what you're doing and going where you’re going. I’d 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 didn’t help that most of the environments in the game stay as relatively boring and cliche as the beginning. Again, it’s not that things are particularly ugly or or the artistic direction is bad. It’s just that I’ve played a hundred games that have looked exactly like this, which makes things feel stale- especially when it’s 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. There’s 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 they’re 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 you’ll learn a bit about the creature Phantaruk, “A deity scrapped together from the pieces of discarded religions.” Is it really a god? A demon? An alien, or perhaps a science project gone wrong? That’s for you to figure out, but it’s a pretty foreboding piece of prose either way.
Phantaruk’s gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s played the fantastic Alien: Isolation. As you traverse the ship to do various things, you’ll constantly have to worry about the whereabouts of Phantaruk itself. It’s not not nearly as deep of a system as the xenomorph in the aforementioned, but it’s effective nonetheless. It largely sticks to a predetermined walk path, but can sometimes pop up in places you don’t expect-largely when entering a new sub-section of the ship. I felt that there were few inconsistencies in the monster’s detection, but for the most part things worked pretty well. If I have a gripe with the system, it’d 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 it’d 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 game’s map design. In a game largely focused on stealth and avoidance, a player needs to be able to know where they’re going and how they can utilize the environment to their advantage, and this often isn’t the case here. I got turned around quite a few times because there’s 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. That’s not adding challenge to the game, it’s 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. It’s not just navigation either, sometimes it’s not clear what exactly you’re 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 wasn’t any indication where one of these cards might be found, and I hadn’t been told earlier to be on the lookout for one. This made me spend a bunch more time tracking one down, which wasn’t a ton of fun. This becomes worse considering the game’s toxin gameplay element, which makes you find antidote syringes every so many minutes or succumb to toxins building in your body. It’s actually a pretty a cool system that adds pressure to progress, but doesn’t meld well with confusing navigation.
Foreboding or Forgettable?
There’s a really cool game with some interesting concepts buried somewhere in Phantaruk, but it’s 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.