Phantaruk capitalizes on the inherent creepiness of abandoned spaceships while trying to keep the player on the move, yet judging from the preview build, the team is light-years away from managing a solid grasp on the horror genre.
The introductory proceedings are cookie-cutter; the player character wakes up from stasis, with little to no knowledge of who he is or what he is doing among the recently abandoned corridors of the spaceship. Documents scattered about hint at cloning procedures gone wrong and recurring maintenance issues.
This is not one of those well-lit spaceships, either. Phantaruk’s Purity-02 is evocative of a dark, industrial setting, much like Alien’s Nostromo. And the environment is easily the best part of the game. While its spaces are not as artistically rich and as flawlessly detailed as those of Alien Isolation, its closest AAA sibling, there’s not doubt that the team has taken the Unity engine on a true 3D tour-de-force, with solid light and particle effects dotting the claustrophobic corridors.
Yet there’s not, as far as could be glimpsed from our preview build, much of interest happening. Exploration yields little more than a sequence of copy-and-paste room after copy-and-paste room, occasionally brightened up by the odd, unappealing written log that hints very heavily at something gone wrong with experiments happening on the ship and its crew.
These are only one-upped in awfulness by the occasional audio logs unlocked by crossing certain thresholds, whereupon the player character will stop and hold up a cube transmitter of some sort, playing back a message recorded by someone (maybe himself?) in English so crippled by a heavy accent as to be unintelligible at times. The bad voice acting, however, could have easily been forgiven if the writing was up to snuff. It is not.
Soon enough, the game’s antagonist is introduced. It happens early on, and in the worst way possible; the player character has just hit a locked door and a log informs him that he must backtrack to deactivate a generator in order to proceed. Footsteps and snarling are heard from behind him, and the game hints at the need to hide behind objects and in low light areas. So far, so good.
Sadly, even if the player hides behind a crate, in a way that leads the light meter to mark him as in pitch black, the creature –which looks like a reject that didn’t make the cut to be featured in Doom’s bestiary–will still spot him easily enough and rush in for an instant kill. Hiding in a more lit corner, in the meantime, with a paltry stairway handrail for cover, seems to be super effective.
So the stealth system could use some work. Fair enough, the game seems to at least be generous enough with check points. But Phantaruk feels instantly crippled once it tries to introduce a new element into a mix without quite mastering the basics.
The element in question is time constraint. Within the first few minutes of the game, the player learns that he is infected by a virus, and his toxicity level steadily increases, eventually killing him. To counter it, he must collect medicine from around the map, using it when toxicity starts to reach dangerous levels.
This would be a great mechanic in theory; it would force the player to risk exposing himself instead of patiently waiting out for the creature’s slow patrol route. It would create a real reason to explore the environments as much as possible, and generate tension between spending time exploring in exchange for potentially life-saving medicine, versus sticking to the critical path and wasting as little time as possible, minimizing the rise in toxicity.
But for this mechanic to work, the stealth system would need to be flawless, the opponent AI predictable or at least learnable. As stated above, this is far from the case. As such, what could be a meaningful mechanic falls flat on its face and feels burdensome and frustrating rather than challenging.
Phantaruk is set to release on August 16th, and it bears repeating that the build tested is not final. Though even if the team manages to polish the stealth mechanics in a way that makes the gameplay interesting, there seems to be little in Phantaruk’s story to compel the players to take up the challenge.