When scouring for treasure within dilapidated temples, forbidden ruins, or some other archaeological curiosity, there's always going to be an unstable foundation, an abundance of traps, and maybe a curse or two. It's bound to be dangerous. With that said, idols and relics aren't going to collect themselves. Phantom Abyss, from Devolver Digital and Team WIBY, runs with the idea of running through cursed temples and makes it delightfully competitive, though a few shortcomings diminish this treasure's value.
Legend of the daily temple
For those who didn't jump into the lengthy Phantom Abyss early access period, the concept is a simple one. Players will mainly engage with a daily procedurally-generated temple filled with all sorts of dangers. Using platforming prowess and a whip, the idea is to be the fastest to run through the temple and leave with the temple's relic. What makes Phantom Abyss interesting is that sessions are played asynchronously, so there's no need for online matchmaking. Instead, players go up against the ghost data of other explorers (across both PC and Xbox) who previously attempted the temple, which presents some interesting possibilities. Should a player attempt to run ahead and try to get the best time, trusting their own instincts? Or should they follow some of the ghosts and let them offer hints as to where any potential traps lie? Given how temples are designed, these questions made Phantom Abyss into a more novel experience.
While Phantom Abyss was mainly focused on the daily temple during its early access stint, the game's 1.0 release features a more focused single-player effort. The story sees the player attempting to free a captive spirit in order to escape their confines within a larger temple. The idea is to complete a solo Adventure Mode with stages that escalate in difficulty and utilize different sets of whips. Some whips will offer various abilities, like a double jump, a floating fall, or a boost in collected treasure.
Players are also incentivized to find keys of varying rarity, which feed into a roguelike sense of progression. By exchanging keys in between temple runs, players can upgrade various aspects of their character like whip stats, starting currency, and dodge potential. If nothing else, it gives players a reason to keep plowing through the single-player mode and trying other pieces of the game, like the Abyss Mode, which features temples that turn the difficulty up a few dozen notches. If there's an issue with the progression system, it's that it moves at a snail's pace. There's a lot to upgrade and it'll take a heavy time investment to upgrade everything, which seems antithetical to a game that's mainly about a single featured temple per day.
All of this adds nicely to the overall package, but it's in the single-player modes that Phantom Abyss' flaws become clearer. For one thing, like the main daily temple run, the single-player Adventure Mode also requires an online connection, which seems unnecessary. Player ghost data does start to appear as players progress, but if Adventure is supposed to be a self-contained story, it shouldn't require an online component. This makes the game feel overly restrictive.
Raiders of a lost cause
The other main issue with Phantom Abyss is in the challenges themselves. Having a variety of whips is a welcome idea and introduces variety into the main temple runs. Can a player with a double jump whip fare better than one who uses the whip that eliminates fall damage? Strategies become more varied and that makes for a richer experience. However, daily temple runs, taking cues from later Adventure Mode stages, will also institute challenges and a chunk of those can make the game a lot less fun.
The temple guardians aren't a bad idea in themselves, but their attacks and patterns can often feel cheap. For example, the Masked Defiler will spit poison bombs that fill an area with gas while Devouring Rage will constantly be on the chase and do substantial damage if it catches you. This a fine idea on paper, but it makes certain sections of every temple feel unfair. Hitting a section with invisible floors and walls is a challenge and falling behind other ghost players is bad enough, but finding myself cornered only to see a giant stone boogeyman coming at me when I hit a literal wall feels cheap. Furthermore, if I've got angry rock faces chasing me, it reduces the incentive to experiment. The temples' design, with various platforming sections and vertical jumping puzzles, leaves a lot of room to try and maybe find a different path or explore for a hidden treasure. That goes out the window with the guardians constantly on the chase, because taking even a few seconds to try and go off the beaten path can mean death.
Of course, there are other challenges beyond the temple guardians that can make daily temples feel unfun. Some daily runs will use difficulty modifiers that include an iron mask that restricts vision, a health penalty that takes effect if the dash isn't used, and even a certain modifier that leads to instant death. Certain challenges don't feel like they're designed to add to the gameplay formula, but more designed to arbitrarily punish. Temples are challenging enough because of Phantom Abyss' good level design and some of the challenge modifiers take the spotlight away from that.
Phantom Abyss is a strong concept. At its core, it's about taking 10 minutes out of one's day to try to escape a different temple each day. It delivers that concept well and offers plenty to those players who want something to do while waiting for the next temple to go up. Asynchronous competition is a great way to deliver on the game's potential, plus everyone gets a user code to pass along to friends so they can try out any attempted temples.
While Phantom Abyss is fun, there's no escaping some of its problems, like some unfair challenges, slow progression, and an unnecessary online connection for playing solo. There's no worse feeling than hitting a daily temple, getting a demoralizing modifier, and having to wait until the next day for a fresh run. Maybe some of these issues can be fixed over time, because Phantom Abyss' premise alone should hopefully give it enough legs to outrun some treacherous boulders.
This review is based on a Steam code provided by the publisher. Phantom Abyss is available now on PC and Xbox Series X|S for $19.99 USD. The game is rated E10+.
- Fun concept and great execution
- Easy-to-understand mechanics
- Good level design
- Strong whip variety
- Temple guardians can feel cheap
- Certain challenge modifiers feel even worse
- Progression can be too slow