I guess for a certain kind of game, the only currency that matters is rooms. This feels like it might be the case for Phantom Abyss, a new roguelite that I suspect has the makings of a proper classic. I cannot stop playing it. And as I play – it’s out now in Early Access – what I’m thinking about is rooms. I’m recognising rooms. I’m being surprised by rooms. I’m wondering how many rooms the team has in its room coffers.
3D Spelunky is the easy pitch, and for once the easy pitch is sort of right. Sort of. You’re an adventurer exploring a tomb in first-person, aided by a whip that can basically teleport you short distances and a nice dash and a nice duck and slide. Movement here is pure sweetness. I already dream of the way I ghost about, whipping over chasms and past bits of ancient machinery that want to do me in.
The gimmick is that each procedural temple can be played just once. You have one shot at getting to the idol that lies at its heart. If you get it, nobody else will ever play this temple. If you die, then you are a ghost in the temple, haunting the place, and haunting other players who come by to try and get the idol themselves.
This means that you’ll often jump into a temple and be the only living person around six or seven ghosts, intricate records of the players who have played before. All you know at this point is that they failed to get to the idol. Maybe you will be different! Maybe you can learn from them, watching how they move and the routes they take. It can be a bit like the way ants refine their routes by following the trails left by other ants, each follower refining things, cutting off corners, and then – oops! (It is quite hard being an ant.)
I followed a ghost this morning who was really lazy – left loads of treasure chests unlooted, which is silly because the loot you collect along the way allows you to buy blessings from shrines along the way – fresh hearts, more hearts, a double-jump, a faster whip! Yesterday I followed a total boff who got everything! It was a master class. I learned so much, and I felt weird to find their body sprawled at a junction deep in the tomb. After that I was on my own.
This is the special magic of Phantom Abyss, even now at the start of its Early Access period. A sense of community and camaraderie with ghosts! A sense that we’re all in it together, just for now, and that this place we’re in is special and will never be repeated.
And we’re back to the room economy. I’m already recognising a lot of rooms, sure, but the game is good at mixing rooms up internally. So maybe – I think I’m right – the big sloping room that I often start off in will sometimes have breakable pots, or will have a bit of missing flooring. Maybe later on there will be spikes before the big roller or tiles that drop away. The room economy allows you to learn: I know now not to duck the rotating fans of death but rather to whip-hop up onto the pillar that acts as their axle. This feels a lot like Spelunky – repetition with variation leading to specific learnings, but also generalised good practice: the whip is useful! Look up more!
What thrills me the most? Two things. Firstly I am already seeing serious signs of depths here – the kind of depths the game will need to keep going. There is at least one language to crack. There is already a hint of wheels within wheels.
This feels a lot like Spelunky – repetition with variation leading to specific learnings, but also generalised good practice: the whip is useful! Look up more!
Secondly, while there are no frog-level baddies scattered about (the whole temple with its traps is a kind of regular low-level baddy anyway), as you progress further through the tomb, the tomb’s guardian starts to come for you, growing in power with each floor you pass. There are a bunch of guardians, and they’re all terrifying. They’re an indicator, I think, that the developers have realised that you can progress reliably in this world by just slowing down. So now you can’t slow down! Argh!
Oh, a third thing, because Phantom Abyss is such a rampaging charm of a game. The whip! This game has incredible movement, empowering movement, movement that I know I will be wishing I had available to me when I’m out in the park or in Tesco. That whip crack that lofts you across gaps and past spikes. Marry me! Phantom Abyss is something else. Cor.