Early Access Check-in: Lose hours of your life to the hidden temple grind in Phantom Abyss
Early Access Check-In is a new series to provide brief updates on early access releases and share impressions of what's available to play today.
In a museum full of artifacts and replicas of ancient ruins, you can practically feel the heft of history and the ghosts of bygone eras.
Taking that idea as literally as possible, the asynchronous multiplayer roguelite Phantom Abyss pits you against the "phantoms" of past explorers as you loot tombs for relics to return to the spirits they were stolen from.
Phantom Abyss is being developed by Team WIBY with publishing help from the indie extraordinaires at Devolver Digital. It released in early access on June 21 and has already received multiple quick patches since its launch.
The gameplay loop has you dashing through dangerous temples, evading every type of dangerous trap imaginable and ancient spirits who really don't want to see you succeed. Each temple is randomly generated and, most often, is filled with a fleet of phantoms — adventurers who failed to grab the treasure waiting at the end of the temple — although you'll occasionally be the first to enter, starting with a clean slate to fill up with your deadly mistakes.
As you do your Indiana Jones thing, a spirit guardian awakens and begins chasing you. At launch, the game features three unique guardians who can create chaos for your journey. The Devouring Rage (slow-creeping, phases through walls and obstacles), The Eye of Chaos (emits a giant red laser every few seconds), and The Masked Defiler (spits goo balls of poison to chew away at you). As you descend deeper in a temple, the guardian threat becomes stronger.
Equipped with your handy adventurer's whip, which also serves as a grappling hook, you'll platform through the temple. If you manage to nab the sacred relic at the end, you close that temple forever and it becomes a trophy in your adventuring pocket. There are three tiers of difficulty and depth you can conquer in the early access release, each with its own tier of exciting relics to collect.
After just five hours of temple diving, I've come away pretty excited for the future of Team WIBY's debut release. First of all, it's the right kind of hard. It's a tough first-person platformer that never feels unfair. Traps telegraph themselves just enough that the only times you get caught in them are when you're playing carelessly enough to miss their warnings. Platforming mistakes feel avoidable thanks to the game's only tool, the whip, which can bring you back from a potentially devastating fall.
Learning the temples is a fairly easy task in Phantom Abyss' current state, as the pool of procedurally-generated room options remains small for now, but that will inevitably grow as content is added over time.
The phantom system is neat, but will reach its fuller potential when the player-base has grown. In the early going, I've descended many temples while contending with only two or three phantoms, as opposed to the upper limit of 20. I was surprised to find myself often the sole adventurer traipsing through temples, which had a larger negative effect than I thought possible, as certain perks and nerfs for the game's whips were essentially negated when I was left alone. Again, something that can be fixed with time; and thanks to the nature of the game, ghosts can accumulate in a temple regardless of player count until someone can finish it off and shut that temple for good.
I do appreciate that while these phantoms are not actual live players, they trigger and activate traps the same as you, so you can find yourself falling to your doom unexpectedly or able to sneak through a room without worry thanks to their fleet feet triggering traps ahead of you. It's a fun way to feel connected in the asynchronous game format.
The guardians are an unexpected wrinkle that I didn't see touched on very much prior to release. They add an extra layer of dynamic gameplay that keeps you pushing forward and keeps you prone to making rushed mistakes on your way to the gold.
Parallels to games like Spelunky are obvious — gathering coins and treasures in a hard as nails platforming environment — but the comparison point that I didn't expect was Fall Guys. Dodging obstacles, dealing with pesky multiplayer combatants, all in the quest to grab the gold at the end of your run. It's Fall Guys!
The rush that you get in a last minute dodge and the satisfaction of getting your first relic is one of the best feeling things in 2021 gaming, not unlike winning your first crown in Fall Guys was for gaming in 2020. All in all, Phantom Abyss is one of the best early access releases I've played in years. The foundation and core loop will keep you engaged for hours on end. It took me nearly four hours to retrieve the first zone's relic, and the game is built to have you gather up a collection of relics from each zone. And it's only going to get better and more content-full with time.
Come join me in the belly of the beast and grab a few relics along the way. You just might hear the echoes of my angry deaths deep down below...