Phantaruk on PC
Survival horror seems to be seeing a return to form. After some heavily oriented wilderness years, it seems as though developers are going back to basics: vulnerable characters, scattershot supplies, tension, and fear. Games like Alien: Isolation, Dead Space, SOMA, the promising Beginning Hour of Resident Evil 7, and of course the shot off the bow that was P.T. have managed to rekindle our love affair with being scared witless.
Into this world comes Phantaruk, developer Polyslash’s first foray into survival horror. We find ourselves onboard the space ship Purity-02, the sprawling complex ran by the sinister H+ Corporation. There isn’t much messing about: the game begins very abruptly as we wake up coughing and spluttering on the floor of the ship, and start to navigate our way with one simple objective – evacuation. Quite bloody right as well – something has gone very awry with the corporation’s attempts to ‘achieve ideas of transhumanism’ (these things usually do).
The first hour or so spent with Phantaruk is the best hour. Nothing is shoved in your face – to the point of obscurity at times, though it’s never a real problem. Exploring, reading, listening, and hiding make a solid cocktail to be getting on with, and for a time it’s very effective indeed. Polyslash gets the formula right: moments spent creeping along the long corridors, staring ahead and praying you remain alone are nerve-shredding, and nothing is quite as chilling as the sight of something awful in the distance making its slow march your way. Avoidance is key here: you don’t stand much of a chance in a fight and there aren’t any combat mechanics to speak of anyway. The mechanics are fit for purpose; they aren’t intrusive, and things are intuitively made clear to you. Stay out of brightly lit areas to remain hidden; limit the use of your torch for the sake of stealth and the preservation of batteries; be sparing with sprinting and always be prepared to make yourself scarce.
Shadow is very prevalent in Phantaruk. You’ll spend most of your time cowering in it, yes, but it’s the shadows of better games that prevail here, and it is never able to step out of them. There isn’t anything original in the game’s design, its plot, its mechanics – and what is here isn’t an improvement on what’s come before. As effective as some of the scares are, there is never a moment that can’t be had and had better on Alien: Isolation, one of the game’s main drawing points. Unoriginal monstrosities populate unoriginal corridors – and the fetch-quest nature of the game’s narrative arc means you’ll be spending plenty of time getting acquainted with both. The plot is standard fare; the voice-acting is at times laughably over-the-top, and the writing contrived and cheesy.
There is an effective scarcity of supplies, and this means that tension is as palpable as it is prevalent; however, this presents a new set of problems in and of itself. The toxicity mechanic which will dictate the state of play most of the time isn’t very well-implemented at all. Your character is infected with a virus, and as you wander the ship, the toxicity in your blood will rise; only, it will rise far, far too quickly. It gets to the point, quite quickly, where you are never at ease, and not in an effective survival horror way, but in a frustrated and stressed way. I’ve spent so much time rooting around frantically in the dark looking for syringes that I wouldn’t feel out of place in an Irvine Welsh novel. It also doesn’t help that when your toxicity is high the screen starts to smudge into puke-green hue, obfuscating any solution you may come up with in the already pitch black environments.
Likewise, when an enemy is near, what should be a tense, stealthy moment is reduced to a clumsy, dizzying one when the screen blur kicks in. These aren’t poor design choices; it’s clear why they have been implemented, and they are interesting ideas, but their ham-fisted execution blights what would be nerve-wracking and scary situations. It also doesn’t help that the controls feel clunky and you’ll often bump and get snagged on corners – doubly irritating when desperately trying to stay out of sight.
The frame rate is uglier than any beast you will find roaming the halls of the Purity-02 – never reliably hitting 60FPS, and often slowing to a crawl during quiet and uncluttered moments. Polyslash has released an early patch, but while stabilizing the frame rate somewhat, this still doesn’t seem to have fixed the problem entirely. On top of this there was a very irritating bug whereby all loading screens – which were too long – would reset any changes I had made to the controller set-up, meaning I would constantly have to go in and make changes – not just after I had died, either: travelling to new areas of the ship would trigger the bug as well. It’s a shame really, because were this game in full polished condition, it would be far easier to enjoy, but as it stands it only adds insult to injury.
As a first foray into survival horror, it was a smart decision of Polyslash’s to choose its influences as wisely as it did. Bugs, choppy frame rate, and some finicky controls make exploring the drab and sterile environments a clunky chore. There is something here, though. There are times when playing Phantaruk, little moments spent blanketed by darkness and peering around corners, when you can just about see through the grime and make out the shape of something promising. Though you won’t find anything new on the Purity-02, there are still moments of fun to be had. However, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere and there is little to lift Phantaruk above the cliché of its basis.
Score: 2/5 – Poor