Developer / Publisher – The Shady Gentlemen
Price – US $9.99 / EU €9.99 / UK £7.19
Release Date – June 12th, 2017
Input – Tracked Motion Controllers
Play Area – Room-scale
Store – Steam
Reviewed on – HTC Vive
Phantasma is an atmospheric, psychological horror, story-driven puzzle-adventure game. The protagonist’s obsession with uncovering the “truth” about “Flappy Bunny,” a popular kids’ show, has led him to a police interrogation room for reasons unknown to the player. You must solve a sequence of puzzles as reality becomes progressively more distorted.
Phantasma’s gameplay mainly consists of highly challenging puzzles that involve putting cubes in their correct locations. For the most part, these puzzles are very well-designed. While it’s hard to say much without giving away solutions, many puzzles deliberately give you a sense of hopelessness. You aren’t always sure when (or even if) the game will respond to your solutions, but this is made a non-issue by subtle visual and audio cues which point you in the right direction. You can also press a button to receive helpful hints.
Still, puzzles are very difficult. I put a solid four hours into Phantasma, most of the time being stuck. Speed-running the game, knowing the solutions, takes under 40 minutes. For a puzzle game with a well-written story, this is still an acceptable content value. There are a solid number of puzzles, each with unique solutions. The only issue is that they all use blocks, and while it’s always appropriate, I got tired of throwing cubes around after a while.
As an atmosphere-driven experience, Phantasma’s superb environmental design is its most significant quality. Rather than jump-scares, this game relies on a buildup of atmospheric dread, making you more uncomfortable and confused with each sequence. Some environments are designed as psychedelic twists-of-reality, and successfully instills a trippy theme throughout the game. Although some such environments are intricately and beautifully designed, some others repeated themselves. This led to only three environments reaching their full atmospheric potential.
It’s difficult to describe the story without spoiling anything, but it works as a phenomenal psychological horror narrative. You start without any context, other than a weird obsession with Flappy Bunny. As you progress through the game, you come to numerous horrifying realizations, both about the protagonist and about the society he’s living in. There are also some fourth-wall breaking moments, which didn’t dampen the game and only made it more chilling. The story, fitting with the environment, makes Phantasma a remarkably avante-garde experience.
You can find pages scattered throughout the game, with drawings and graphic-novel-style dialogue. Very few of these seemed relevant to the story, but they’re artistically done and I enjoyed reading them all. According to a Youtube comment posted by the game’s developer, these detailed comics were actually doodled two decades ago by his close friend, while he was bored at work during his grad school days. Impressive!
Running off of the Unity engine, Phantasma’s graphics are superb, with incredibly realistic shadow and lighting effects. Textures are sometimes smudgy, but never downright ugly. The game runs at a butter-smooth frame rate with very few hiccups in performance. The only issue was when a cube clipped through a wall and I had to restart the game to complete the puzzle. This was frustrating, but only happened once, and was the only glitch I encountered. There also aren’t any menus- starting the game puts you straight into gameplay, and beating it closes the game. This doesn’t actually hurt the game’s friendly user interface and only adds to the atmosphere.
What would I pay for it? Phantasma’s story and environment is a work of art, a narrative in its own league. It stayed interesting the whole way through, and its puzzles are varied- though I occasionally got tired of them. The overall experience is one that I’ll be thinking about for long after playing, and unlike many other adventure-horror games for VR. A short, but highly memorable experience, I believe $10 is the perfect price for Phantasma. I would strongly recommend this to any fans of story-driven psychological horror games.
The Shady Gentlemen provided The VR grid with a review code for this game and, regardless of this review, we thank them for that!