Phantom Halls – Indie(Velopment)

Today we’re going to review an early access independent Action/Adventure/RPG horror game I picked up on Steam:  Phantom Halls by Incendium. From what I can gather about the company, this is pretty much the only game they have out right now, and it’s their only listed on the Steam Store.  This game is cartoony, quirky, and fun. The premise is simple, per the Steam description:

Enter a haunted mansion and prepare to face the undead terrors that stalk the phantom halls! Squad up to survive the night using whatever you can find, but remember – you can’t kill what you can’t see, so be sure to bring a flashlight…

The game is still in development, hence the post’s title, so some (if not all) of what I’m going to say is likely to change. That said, let me give you my thoughts on this game that I’ve spent the better part a week playing through.

2018-03-28 (2)Description. The game is a side-scrolling 2-D adventure/horror game where you explore a haunted mansion with 1-3 characters per mission based upon high school archetypes. You have the Jock, a clean-cut, All-American boy who swings a baseball bat at problems and has a protective special ability. There’s the Goth, a girl in black who can shroud the party in darkness allowing them to escape. The Nerd, with his horn-rimmed glasses and pocket protector, can rage out barbarian style. The cheerleader functions as a minor healer, and the All-Star throws incendiary basketballs. There are other unlockable characters, but this is the starting line up. Each character has a series of quests with objectives that offer customization points, allowing the player to unlock different abilities and, presumably, other benefits. I’ll be honest, I’ve only completed one quest, as the game is punishingly challenging. Your intrepid high school heroes must face giant beetles, grubs, bats, skeletons, zombies, and Pennywise himself (minus the hilarious dance from the movie).

Graphics. The game is dark, which, I know is part of the atmosphere and forces you to 2018-03-28 (5)keep your flashlight handy to see doors, objects, traps (falling chandeliers in almost every room!), etc. It’s an intelligent decision that adds to the atmosphere, but, when paired with the sometimes clunky item select process, becomes problematic. I had to play the game in total darkness in order to see details on objects. The characters are polygon-based avatars, similar to early 3D games like Final Fantasy VII who almost don’t look like they fit the art style of the environments (when I can see details of them).

Gameplay. This is where I really find some problems that need addressing. The default settings, which I always use when I first play a game (it’s how the designers expect it played), are awkward. The D-Pad toggles your inventory. The Left Joystick moves forward and back. The Right Joystick aims and turns you. Right Bumper (or Q – it switched on me at one point for no reason) uses whatever item you have selected. X activates your character’s special ability.

The controls need a bit of work and manipulation. They’re very responsive, which is good. I like a responsive control, but the default sensitivity setting is pretty high. Toning it down makes a few things, like movement and aiming, easier. I find using the D-Pad to select items a bit awkward, as I’ve grown accustomed to Item Select screens. The issues with control become magnified when I’m controlling a party of three, and each has their own button for everything. That’s when I find it difficult to remember the controls, forcing me to look at the bottom of the screen at the most inopportune time. My biggest complaint is that sometimes, controls seem to switch on their own. Usually, the Left Joystick and D-Pad will switch functions, which is frustrating.

Inventory space is small – very small. Yes, that’s realistic, as it’s difficult to imagine real people carrying a pistol, an automatic handgun, a machine gun, a machete, a med kit, a flashlight, a crowbar, etc. While I’m an item hoarder in games, I appreciate this decision that forces me to think and play tactically. Also, it’s fun to mow down a horde of zombies with a machine gun. I’ll be honest.

Combat is pretty straightforward at first glance – kill the monster before it kills you. That said, the action is fast, and the enemies attack from all angles – flying bats, crawling bugs, shambling zombies, skeletons that lob their bones at you, and Pennywise floats exploding balloons your way. Ammunition is scarce, and even melee weapons have limited durability. This makes enemies that would be “simple” a challenge with lots of options. Do I mow down the skeletons or save the bullets for a big monster? Should I duck behind cover or in this cabinet and hide from them? What if they see me? This is a welcome change from the normal “guns blazing” or “RUN AWAY!” of most horror games lately.

Impressions. I really do enjoy this game. It’s got its quirks, like the early 3D character models that feel odd. It’s got its share of issues in control that annoy me. That said, the Incendium team did a great job of providing an interactive answer to “What would it really be like if I were to venture into a haunted house when I was in high school?” as opposed to how I would pretend it would be (where I would be able to survive anything). The game makes you think – “If I want to survive this, how am I going to do this?” The dark atmosphere, somewhat (but not broken) control problems, and limited supplies/carrying capacity engage the necessary elements of fear, dread, and lack of total knowledge/control that makes the fear in horror games real.  It needs a bit of polish, but it’s a great game that I will continue to play. I’ll also likely stream it on twitch later this week.

Rating. 3.6 out of 4 NES cartridges.

As always, feedback is welcomed, and I encourage you guys to suggest games on Steam for me to play, review, and, eventually, stream!

Game on!