General game information
Game name: Phantom Abyss
Release date: June 22, 2021 (Early Access)
Price: US$24.99 (a 20% discount will run from release until July 8th, bringing the price down to US$19.99)
Store page: Steam
Genre: Asynchronous multiplayer roguelike
Developer: Team WIBY
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Phantom Abyss is the sort of title that might not catch our attention upon first viewing a trailer, but at some point in time we’ll get our hands on some gameplay and go from “don’t really know what this is” to “give it to me now, I’m addicted and I haven’t even touched it yet”. Have you ever played a multiplayer game that feels designed to draw in people who don’t engage in multiplayer shenanigans? Team WIBY‘s debut release is exactly that, as its asynchronous multiplayer implementation means that pretty much anyone with an Internet connection can enjoy its murder puzzles with others, but without having to go through the stuff most of us dislike. Intrigued yet?
Our job once we fire up the game is to run gauntlets of temples that will throw all sorts of traps our way in order to stop us in our tracks and prevent us from reaching the end. The interesting bit is that as we run those gauntlets we won’t be alone, as the ghosts of our predecessors are there, doing whatever they did before reaching their untimely demise. This lets us see traps that might have slipped past our radar, and can also work as a sort of asynchronous co-op experience once we run into chests opened by these spectral companions, as every time we open a chest and the loot flows out of it we have to wait for the animation to play out, something that’s negated should we arrive at one of these loot dispensers after a ghost has already been through the area. If seeing the transparent outlines of our predecessors wasn’t haunting enough, there’s also the knowledge that any ghost we see has failed their run at the specific temple we are trying to beat, since once a raider reaches the final room and claims the prize at the end of a temple, it gets closed for good, and no one else can ever attempt to beat it afterwards. This ups the stakes, as there’s always that nagging feeling at the back of your head pushing you to keep going and show everyone who’s boss.
Gameplay-wise, Phantom Abyss is the kind of title that feels easy to learn but difficult to master, as we have access to a limited number of abilities that will carry us for the whole adventure. Our character can walk, run, crouch, jump and slide, and after a brief tutorial we also get access to a whip that can be used to open chests/trigger traps or act as a sort of short range grappling hook. Combining all of these movement options lets us gracefully parkour around, over and under traps, and there is also the option to do a combat roll just before hitting the ground for long drops. The whip may feel a bit sluggish at the start, but that’s because there is an upgrade system under the hood, which lets us get mid-run boosts such as longer range, faster swing speed, etc. We start every run with three health containers, and stuff like failing to correctly do the combat roll, getting hit by a trap, or damaged by other hazards will remove some health. Once our containers reach zero, that’s game over for that run and we’ll be extracted and presented with the option to go to a different temple.
While we are on the subject of losing health, the traps that will try to get in our way as we run the gauntlet and try to reach the end of each temple are all classic adventure movie stuff (things like spikes rising from the floor, bottomless pits, falling blocks, etc.) but from my experience none of them feel cheap, which is a concern I had before going into the game. Traps are clearly telegraphed, and players who are careful (and dexterous enough, of course) will be able to complete entire runs without losing a single pip of health. I feel it’s important to highlight this as way too many titles have attempted similar ideas but failed when it comes to implementing fair obstacles for the player, relying in hard to spot traps that require memorization and needless health losses.
Should we decide that getting to the end is not an achievable goal during our current run, at certain points of the adventure we’ll get the option to decide between venturing deeper into the temple, or going for a lesser relic, which will not close the gauntlet for others, but will allow us to escape with the loot acquired during this particular run. This will forever close that temple for us, but it will stay open for other players so they may attempt to beat it fully. Speaking of loot, there are different sorts of valuables to be acquired in-game, with a mid-run currency acquired from chests that lets us purchase different “blessings” (upgrades such as the ability to double jump, heal some lost life force, get a chance to avoid damage, etc.) that only last for the current run, a more “permanent” currency that consists of keys (also obtained from chests) that can be used to unlock whips for later use (more on that later) and the relics themselves, which are also permanent, and can be used to upgrade our whips. Dying during a run will make us lose the keys acquired, and our whip, if it wasn’t the default one, which can’t be lost. Other players can return our lost loot to us if we give them the link to that particular temple and they manage to beat it, which is a pretty neat way of encouraging a sort of offline cooperation that I quite enjoyed.
Going back to the whips, our character starts the game with access to a normal whip that has no extra features(it can open chests/trigger traps and act as a grappling hook like all the available whips) but once we’ve played a bit and returned to our base with some keys, we can spend them unlocking new whips that add extra functionality in exchange for some sort of drawback. For instance, one of them gives us the ability to spend coins to heal in water, but at the same time, should we get hit, we’ll drop some of our cash (similar to Sonic losing rings when hit), another adds more health containers in exchange for pricier blessings, etc. Getting relics while carrying non-default whips will “bless” them, removing the negative effect from them, but of course this means we’ll first have to use them and either complete a temple, or go for a relic run. Failing a run will result in our non-standard whips getting “captured”, and we’ll only get them back if someone completes that temple using our link, or if we choose to spend even more keys to re-purchase them. This means we are not encouraged to use alternate whips as a crutch in order to brute force the game without getting better at the basic mechanics, but they are there as an option for these moments when we feel that we are “in the zone” but need an extra boost.
Aside from all the traps we’ll have to contend with, each temple has its own Guardian, a floating creature that will start stalking us after we cross the threshold to the second area of a run. Guardians come in different shapes and sizes, and each has their own ability. So far, I’ve met a menacing Terminator-like figure that hunts the player down and outright kills them once they come in direct contact, a floating blob that can cover an area with a cloud of damaging gas, and another that has a heat ray that hurts the player but doesn’t kill them in one hit. Each floor we traverse makes the temple’s Guardian more threatening, giving the Terminator a speed boost, more gas grenades to the floating blob, or faster ray attacks with less aiming time for the heat ray Guardian. It’s a mechanic that works very well, as the player can have an entire floor to explore at their own pace, collecting coins and getting comfortable with the controls, and from then onwards, they have to balance exploration with survival as the Guardian inches closer and closer, bringing certain death with them.
All of these mechanics coalesce to form a title that doesn’t exactly have an equal in today’s gaming landscape, even if roguelites and first person multiplayer games are dime a dozen. Team WIBY‘s debut release deftly mixes Spelunky with the madness of Fall Guys and delivers an incredibly addictive multiplayer adventure for people who don’t enjoy playing multiplayer titles. It might be early in development, but Phantom Abyss already shows incredible potential, and I hope to see it fully realized once it exits Early Access.