Phantasmal: City of Darkness
Reviewed by Didi Cardoso
Review Date Platform Genre Rating Production
2016-05-15 PC FPS M (Mature) Eyemobi

I don't know what it is about survival-horror games lately that has perked my interest so much, so let's just assume that this is me facing my fears and go with that!

The most recent that caught my eye in my inbox was Phantasmal: City of Darkness. Phantasmal was introduced to me as a randomly generated roguelike first-person game where you attempt to find your aunt in Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City.

Starting up with a flashlight, a pistol, some ammo and a wooden board, you descend into the dark hallways of Kowloon. Once the home of prostitutes, drug users, gamblers and obscure medical practices, the place is now home to... nightmares. That's about the best way to describe it.

My first encounter with anything living other than me was rather creepy. There was a human shape in the distance, crawling on all fours. I aimed my flashlight at it to see better, and the thing crawled up to me and started to attack me. In my panic, I wasn't sure what was going on. Is this guy biting my toes? Chewing my pants? Does he have a foot fetish? Not on my feet, mister!! I shot it a few times until he finally stopped, face down. I looked down and hit it a few more times to make sure it was dead. And found out I actually had no legs or feet! The creepy factor increased as I imagined myself as a hovering torso, but then I giggled stupidly for a few seconds at that idea... and then the corpse got up and attacked my invisible feet again! ARGH!!

I hit it again and broke my board. Then I shot it a bunch of times until it died and vanished into a red mist. And I was left with nothing to defend myself with. Two other crawlers came dashing at me, and that was it. I guess the noise brought on the creepy crawler's friends... I was dead shortly after and back at the beginning of the game.

After this encounter, I started walking slowly everywhere. I wasn't sure what I was doing for a while. I learned to sneak as much as possible. My character is a very nervous guy, and not only he has panic attacks in the dark, but he slowly goes insane. Literally. Seeing things, repeating himself, hyperventilating, the works. He seems calmer when the flashlight is on. I learned to dash into places that have light and to turn on every light switch I came across.

Some of the inhabitants are not aggressive, and they will just sit or lay there and pay no attention to you. Looking around carefully, I discovered some useful items such as coins, incense, flares, a shotgun, ammo, health pills and sanity pills.

While the HUD isn't all that clear at first, the journal will teach you what is what. Basically, the crescent is your HP bar and the pentagram represents your sanity. Icons in between are what you are carrying in your inventory.

Basically, and no matter how much I seem to be prepared and how well things are going, Phantasmal is the type of game that can take a sudden turn and kill you in seconds. You attack things, but noise attracts creatures. Light attracts creatures, but being in the dark scares you. Random Japanese man that won't shut up and follows you around also attracts creatures. Seeing said creatures also scares you, to the point where everything goes blurry and weird and you can't tell real from hallucination anymore.

Every noise would make me turn around to look in every direction, and the game is pretty good at trying to scare you, even if all you did was step on a glass bottle and shattered it. It's all about setting the mood, and Phantasmal does it well. It's not overly scary, it doesn't rely on jump scares (unless you count spiders falling out of nowhere making me leap off my chair), but it is super creepy and conveys a true feeling of uneasiness and imminent danger throughout, particularly when resources are scarce.

The good news is that you can increase your stats and purchase items when you die and before venturing back down into the darkness. There is a conveniently placed NPC that will accept any coins you've found in exchange for enhancements or supplies. However, this doesn't come cheap, and any coins I've found so far aren't worth that much.

Phantasmal: City of Darkness is a tricky game designed for the persistent gamer. Having to start at the top again with just the basics (except your upgrades, which you still retain no matter what) will probably turn off some players. My first few attempts were pretty short-lived ones, and ending up back in the tiny apartment and having to go through it all again was discouraging. After improving some stats and making more use of sneak and distractions, I started lasting longer.

Sometimes I wonder why I torture myself with stressful and scary games, but using what I've learned from my experiences and a year of Psychology, it's a process of facing my own fears, doing better each time and turning out braver in the end. I've gone from feeling fearless and in control to running away in fear seconds later, and that is the beauty of it. You don't know what to expect, even if you start at the top over and over again. Sure, I've encountered the same enemies many times below, but each time I venture down I can't rely on things being in the same place or in taking the same path. I can only rely on myself.

As much as I enjoy this game, I experienced a few small issues. For the most part, it seems the game slows down once you progress further than level 3, and especially when loading larger areas with lots of elements. I did adjust the graphics to a lower resolution to see if that helped, checked if nothing else was running on my PC, but the issue persists. The other was with this particular creature... the thing spits blood I think, and once killed, it just seems to turn into a twisted mess of mesh and pixels that bounces all over the place. I don't think this is on purpose, since it actually pushed me out of the way and on one occasion launched me up in the air so high I took quite a bit of falling damage coming down. And while I do understand the purpose of finding myself defenseless, I should at least be able to throw a punch.

No matter how many times I've gone down, the experience always remains fresh. Sometimes I will last longer than others. Sometimes I'll go insane because a pair of red lights (are they eyes?) will chase me everywhere I go and I can't attack them. Sometimes I'll just get cornered by a bunch of these armless figures with no eyes. Sometimes I'll be swarmed by the creepiest spiders I've ever seen with nowhere to run. Hell, sometimes I will even let out muffled screeches or start swearing...

But I will always find myself going back down to Kowloon for more.

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