Roguelites have a special place in my heart, especially in the midst of the existential void we live in. There’s something at once depressing, enraging and cathartic about them, like the drama graph but never-ending. Multiplayer games, on the other hand, are something I rarely enjoy. I just don’t see much fun in waiting 20 minutes for a five-minute game riddled with lag and dickheads in chat — though, I’ll admit, that says more about my internet connection than the games themselves.
Nonetheless, when I heard that Devolver Digital was publishing an Australian-made game using the phrase “asynchronous multiplayer”, I was curious… Mostly as to what that even means. After playing developer Team WIBY’s Phantom Abyss, I can now confidently say that “asynchronous multiplayer” means “single-player with extra steps.”
Let’s start with the basic stuff. The art style is… well, it’s consistent. It doesn’t do much for me, but it’s competently made and consistently applied. The various levels are clearly separated by ambient lighting: starting green, then blue, then red. Team WIBY isn’t going to bowl anyone over with the visuals here, and the same goes for Phantom Abyss’s sound design. It does the job it needs to, which in this game is not drowning out the podcast I put on in the background. Combined with the fairly simple visuals, Phantom Abyss fits neatly into a growing mass of games that feel almost designed to be played while listening to podcasts.
Phantom Abyss’s gameplay is a strange intersection of a Mirror’s Edge-style first-person free runner and a puzzle platformer. This mostly works. The levels are fairly linear and the way through is effectively signposted. You have a grappling whip (yes, a grappling whip) that lets you jam traps or swing to and fro like a little insect. Since this involves getting up high, there are a few times you’ll be falling and, to avoid fall damage, you have to roll. This may cause motion sickness as the room spins, and it takes practice (and you may find yourself rolling into a few spike traps), but there’s no denying the feeling you get from nailing a roll after running across a room full of traps.
The complication to this is that you only have three lives, and every bit of damage you take reduces your life count by one. You can heal yourself or get other bonuses at the end of every level by spending the gems you find hidden in each map. This wouldn’t be too difficult, but every map has you being chased by an incrementally faster and more powerful monster, so it becomes a choice between getting the money you need to heal yourself, and just plain surviving.
That brings us to a drawback of roguelites: they depend on a delicate balance between entertainment and the rising suspicion that you’re being fucked about. For that reason, my tolerance for Phantom Abyss was a little lower than in other games. That’s not to say I hate it, just that it’s best enjoyed in short bursts.
You may have noticed I haven’t delved into the arcane secrets of the “asynchronous multiplayer”. That’s because it doesn’t matter a whole lot.
It’s an interesting idea, but at its core, you just see the ghosts of other players that died along the way. This seems like a neat idea, and it certainly doesn’t take anything away, but in most runs, I’m either concentrating on not dying too much to notice them, or I’m focusing more on a podcast, so I don’t see what Team WIBY gained by putting the mechanic into a perfectly serviceable game… Other than giving Devolver Digital the ability to shout “hey, look at our asynchronous multiplayer platformer!” and ship a bunch of copies before everyone catches on.
Overall, though, while they don’t add much to the game itself, those “asynchronous multiplayer” mechanics don’t take anything away from Phantom Abyss. Whether you engage with them or ignore them, what you’re left with is a fun, engaging roguelite platformer that’s worth a look if you’re a fan of the genre.
Phantom Abyss is an engaging platformer with some unnecessary multiplayer mechanics. However, these superfluous mechanics are mostly unintrusive, and the game as a whole is adequate.
Callum reviewed Phantom Abyss using a retail Steam code provided by Devolver Digital.
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