Reviews - Updated on April 1, 2022

Devolver Digital is famous not only for its fun show programs at E3, but also for the fact that it knows how to find among the many indie developers those who create truly interesting and original projects. I won’t sin against the truth if I say that the logo of this company on the cover is a sign of quality: it’s not a fact that we have an unconditional masterpiece, but a noteworthy game at least.

Phantom Abyss by Team WIBY, recently released on Steam Early Access, is just such a case. It seems to be nothing outstanding, but the concept is intriguing – I want to take a look at what the developers have prepared for themselves.

tomb raiders

The fact that we have a product in early access is visible to the naked eye. This is indicated by the ascetic design of the menu, unpretentious graphics and the usual localization flaws in the form of fonts that crawl out of the text field. In addition, the developers do not bother much to explain what is happening here at all – the plot is on the sidelines.

The protagonist is an adventurer with only one whip, who climbed into a huge ancient temple in search of prey, but found trouble instead of a treasure. You can’t get out of the temple until all the relics in it are obtained – only then a powerful spirit, also a prisoner, will help us gain freedom (at the same time he will be released himself). The task is difficult, but there is nowhere to go: here even death is not an option, but only an opportunity to start again.

Phantom Abyss: Early Version Preview

The level design is reminiscent of Mayan and Aztec pyramids.

There are no colorful cutscenes, characters (with the exception of the protagonist and that same spirit) and generally a clearly defined plot. Not surprising for a “bagel” and just as familiar to a parkour platformer – namely, this game is a fusion of these two distant genres.

Whip and hat

Phantom Abyss took the lack of saves, indirect transfer of progress and random generation of levels from roguelikes, and the way to pass these levels from platformers.

Each attempt to get to the heart of the dungeon, where the most valuable relic is located, is a run through an entire obstacle course. The builders of the temple made sure that anyone who dares to disturb the peace of the ancient walls had to think not about wealth, but about how to keep their skin intact. Blocks falling from the ceiling, piercing spikes, abysses with burning lava, rolling stone balls, crossbows and huge spinning knives – this is just a small list of what unknown designers have prepared for those who are going to rob the inhabitants of the temple.

Do you think we need gold more, because they died anyway? The guards of the temple, who interfere with the player no less than traps, will not agree with this. There are several guards – for example, one shoots with a hot beam, another throws exploding poisonous balls, and the third inevitably pursues the player, not paying attention to obstacles.

Phantom Abyss: Early Version Preview

The Guardian is constantly pushing the player, which makes it easy to make mistakes and lose a life even on the easiest trap.

The further into the depth, the more difficult the locations become and the angrier the guards. On the other hand, the size of the reward also increases. In addition, after every three levels passed, we have the opportunity to be satisfied with the small – not to go deeper, but to pick up a relic of a lower rank. In addition to the relics themselves, you can collect other jewelry – coins and keys. Coins lying in chests and vases are needed for offerings to altars (there are at the beginning and end of each level), in return for which the spirit can give a blessing: from simple healing of wounds to extra lives or a super high jump.

Keys are much rarer (usually in hard-to-reach places or near a relic) and are required to buy new whips. The regular one we start the journey with is good only for breaking vases, opening chests and, most importantly, clinging to any surface, pulling up to them. Other whips, offered for purchase before the next attempt, add features to the main functions that not only make it easier to pass, but can also change the tactics of traveling to the center of the temple.

Phantom Abyss: Early Version Preview

We select the whip for the next passage.

For example, one whip gives as many as two additional “hearts” in addition to the standard three, but the blessings at the altars are more expensive; the other removes fall damage but buffs guardians. The negative effect of the whip can be removed if you get another relic, and already purchased whips are saved and always available for selection before the next attempt.

Look under your feet

Let’s move on to the main thing – directly to the races around the temple in search of relics. The word “race” is not without reason here, because before us, let me remind you, is a parkour platformer. Nothing more – just running, jumping and overcoming obstacles with a whip in various combinations. The levels are designed in such a way that, even if you do not take into account traps and guards, you can always fall into a bottomless abyss or get hurt by falling from a great height.

With traps, running to the door to the next floor becomes even more difficult. At first glance, they do not represent anything special – safe surfaces are highlighted, spikes or falling stones are visible from afar, and locations, despite procedural generation, are assembled from repeating rooms, the safe way of which is easy to remember. As soon as you get used to it, you start running through the initial floors without any problems – even the guard who does not give a break, which first appears on the second level, does not interfere too much. The main thing here is not to fuss: you can almost always save yourself from falling into the abyss or meeting with spikes and a knife with the help of a whip.

Phantom Abyss: Early Version Preview

It is better to spend time searching for chests with coins – without blessings at the lower levels it will be quite difficult.

But the further into the depths of the temple you climb, the faster the requirements for reaction grow. The Guardian also gets angrier and uses their weapons more often, making it harder to stay cool. At medium levels, you usually die just while trying to escape from the guard – he does not allow you to think about how to get through a particularly tricky room, in which a step to the side threatens death, and you won’t immediately notice the point for tying a whip.

Only the most skilled will be able to get to the heart of the temple (for example, I never managed to do this). You will also need knowledge of locations, obtained in previous attempts, and reaction speed, and luck. There are enough moments when the player manages to get out of a hopeless, it would seem, situation, bypassing the trap in the fall or clinging to the wall with a whip at the limit of its range. True, however, the opposite is also true – sometimes you just get unlucky and die on the simplest obstacle.

Comrades in misfortune

Such a death will not go unnoticed – in the temple you can find ghosts that repeat the actions of players who died during the passage. Ghosts cannot be directly interacted with, but can only be observed – according to the developers, this can help the next adventurer safely complete the level. A sort of TrackMania (but it’s worth remembering that all the other “racers” are losers) or Fall Guys (without the ability to interact with other participants in the race). It sounds interesting – instead of breaking through the traps yourself, it’s better to see how they did it before us. But in reality, such asynchronous multiplayer is useless.

Phantom Abyss: Early Version Preview

It is possible to catch such a crowd only at the very beginning – over time, only a few of the most successful and skillful will remain.

There are many ghosts only on the first floors, which are easy to get the hang of passing without prompts, and in the depths of the temple you usually travel without other people’s copies – everyone died earlier. Even if they are there, it’s of little use – the level design makes demands on speed, and not on the skills of finding a route. And without ghosts you see how to act, so soon you stop paying attention to them, especially since sometimes it’s just not up to it – to take your feet away from the guard. The main thing to remember is that ghosts activate traps – sometimes this brings an unpleasant surprise.

The “feature” with the only winner for each temple also looks meaningless. If the player gets to the most valuable relic and takes it with him, then the temple will disappear – no one else will be able to pass it. But what’s the point if we already have procedural generation of locations, and the obtained relics give only a cosmetic effect (they appear on the altars in the initial hall)? No one will regret that the next set of randomly molded rooms is no longer available for passing – the game will always offer new ones. No one will know the name of the lucky one.

Flashbacks from Indiana Jones are provided.

Phantom Abyss is unlikely to become popular – the developers pay too little attention to the surroundings and do not try to diversify the gameplay. But focusing on the very essence of parkour platforming – “spinal” gameplay, nothing more – gives a chance to keep a narrow, but fairly stable audience. You can also find the potential of the speedrunning discipline – more and more new records are already being set on speedrun.com.

However, there is still work to be done here. So, something needs to be done with the difficulty curve: to get to the lower floors of the temple, each time you have to run through the initial levels already learned by heart, which does not cause much trouble, but forces you to waste time. Even if you consider this a warm-up before a real test, few people will be happy with the mandatory repetition of the passed – do not forget that the location generator builds levels from the same set of rooms.

Team WIBY has plenty of time – according to her, Phantom Abyss will spend at least a year in early access. Enough to fix bugs, polish the gameplay and add new features.

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