The horror genre in gaming is growing due to success with the likes of Outlast, Alien Isolation, P.T., and the original Dead Space. They speak to us as gamers in a unique way, and if done really well, become instant classics. Indie space horror game Phantaruk is new developer Polyslash’s first attempt at tapping into that primal vein, and as such, it’s not too surprising that the game is far from perfect. But it does a lot of things right too, so let’s jump in and explore the horror genre according to Phantaruk.
Proper horror is an art, the ability to create fear, unease, and tension is something to be admired. As someone who actively enjoys horror in its many forms I was excited to get my hands on another space horror game. Phantaruk is set on a spaceship owned by a company that wants to make biologically superior beings, and of course they turn out to be violent monsters instead.
Players are thrown into the role of a clone on the ship, and that’s pretty much all the information you have to start. From there you pick up little bits of data that explain some things at times, but usually not. The most information I’ve found has been an audiotape that explains the name of the game. From what it said, Small Pox came back and killed three billion people, which was roughly the population of the world in 1960. World religions collapsed to create a really angst-prone one known as Phantaruk, which is all hellfire and brimstone. Other than that you pick up notes along the way that contain bits of information about people on the ship and things that were going on. These might have been interesting if they were well written, actually contained information integral to the story, and didn’t have typos all through them. These sort of mistakes are throughout every aspect of the game unfortunately. The English translation of the notes is very bad.
Phantaruk is played entirely in first person, and to no surprise you spend most of the game walking. The controls are simple enough to get a hand on, and will feel pretty natural to anyone who is used to playing first person games on PC. However, that’s about all the good I can say about gameplay; it works. The first thing I have to complain about is the fact it’s just boring. You spend most of your time walking from copy-paste corridors with maybe some debris or gore thrown in looking for buttons to press and doors to walk through. The other thing you find yourself doing is hiding or running from the monsters on the ship.
This leads me to one of the biggest failures of the game. The monsters are supposedly attracted by sound or vision. But I have experienced multiple times when I was standing still on the other side of a wall only to have a monster come running at me for no good reason. When that happens, all you can do is run and hide which is just as problematic.
Phantaruk’s light detection is terrible. You are directed to go into dark areas, because the monsters supposedly can’t see very well in the dark, not unlike the Thief game series or many others where darkness is a player’s best friend. But here, many times I had darkness on all sides and the game still tells me I am visible. Then on the opposite extreme, I’ve practically stood inside a searing spotlight and been told that I am completely hidden. This makes hiding a nightmare since you have no clue what will actually hide you or not.
This is compounded by the game’s collision detection which is spotty at best; I frequently found myself getting stuck on pockets of air which quickly led to me being mauled by the highly-aware monsters. Not to mention when you are in the presence of a monster, your screen goes blurry and out of focus quickly straining your eyes.
If you can manage to survive the monsters, you have another problem. Does anyone remember malaria in Far Cry 2? Yep, this game has something similar. You have a toxicity meter that unfortunately is not leading you closer to a System of a Down Easter egg, but instead shows how much toxin is in your body. The reason why this is such a problem is because it is always increasing, and quickly. So to counteract this you have to take drugs which also have side effects. Whenever your take them, the game goes white then flashes brightly painful colors before returning back to normal.
Even the loading screens are somehow problematic. Aside from being long and prone to freezing, they are also just as headache inducing as the drugs. Seriously, this game hates epileptics more than the original Marvel logo in front of all their movies. This along with a poor framerate and freezing, even in the main menu, makes for a trying experience that has nothing to do with the horror the game is trying to build.
Aside from the annoying flashing with the drugs, Phantaruk is visually unimpressive. Even set to the “Very High” graphic quality settings, everything just looks kind of dull and matte. The ship is undetailed and the monsters appear to be ripped straight out of Killing Floor, and just look dated.
I really wanted to love Phantaruk, and I really tried. It’s great to see a new developer try their hand at horror, but it’s just so difficult to do well, and I think most players will discover that Phantaruk falls pretty short of the mark. Five years ago, Phantaruk might have had a better chance, but today, in a market where good horror games are becoming much more frequent, with a few really great ones smattered into the mix, Phantaruk is just too flawed to make much of an impression.