I’m running. In front of me are half a dozen ghostly figures. They are running too. We are all heading towards a series of rotating blades and pits. I quickly jump over some of the blades, then use my whip to yank myself over one of the pits, landing safely on the other side. I turn around and watch one of the ghostly figures miss their jump and fall into the pit. “I guess that’s how they died here…” I think to myself, before running into the next area of the temple on my quest to grab an ancient relic for a powerful god.
Phantom Abyss is a first-person platformer all about exploring and surviving randomly generated tombs, trying to get an ancient relic out of these catacombs, and then using the relics to help free yourself and an (evil?) god. Both you and the god are trapped in some dark, locked away part of the universe and only these relics can release you both. But in the process, you’ll jump, run and die a lot. And I mean a lot. That’s fine though, that’s all part of the process. At least, that’s what the ancient god statue told me.
Death is also a key part of Phantom Abyss’s asynchronous multiplayer. When you die, the game records all your actions and creates a ghost that stays haunting the temple, while you move on to more randomly generated dungeons. However, that temple doesn’t stop existing once you leave. Instead, temples can be visited by other players, and before you start exploring the game will let you know how many folks have died before you. Sometimes you’ll find temples that are brand new, you the first person to see this specific layout. Other times I found temples that had killed dozens of folks. Those scared me. If someone else comes across a temple you’ve died in, they will see your ghost and the spirits of all those who died before you. It’s a bit embarrassing to die in a really silly or dumb way in Phantom Abyss because it’s recorded forever. One day someone might stumble upon your ghost and watch you fail that one time you went to itch your nose and missed a jump. Though that’s never happened to me.
The ghosts in Phantom Abyss are both useful and dangerous. They might lead you to treasure or a shortcut. But in the back of my mind, I’m also thinking about how these are all people who died and failed. Should I be following them? Probably not. And yet, watching how they died is more fun than I expected.
Phantom Abyss is clearly inspired by movies and games that feature tomb raiding, with Indiana Jones being one of the most obvious influences. You quickly get a cool whip that you can use to break things, or wield as a slick grapple hook. The whip is simple to use and feels great. It can save you from a mistake or help make a section of the temple easier. It can also get you killed—the game has fall damage, and it’s very easy to overdo it and launch yourself too high, in the process killing yourself when you crash back down. Talk about embarrassing ghosts.
After only a few minutes of playing Phantom Abyss, I found myself pulling off cool jumps and exciting escapes. After an hour or two I was still just as cool looking, but I felt like I hadn’t made much progress, which forms my main complaint with the game. I wish there were smaller victories and moments of progression between getting relics, but instead it requires you to fully explore and complete a temple. Still, it’s in Early Access with at least a year’s development to come, so I’m excited to go back and play more. Even if it’s only to watch more people’s flailing ghosts, while I look cool holding a whip.