Phantaruk Review | Discounted Horror

One of the most overlooked features of the Nintendo eShop is it's Gold Points. For those who don't know how the points system works, the simple explanation is that for every game you buy on the eShop you are given a certain amount of GP. These Gold Points then can later be used towards the purchase of another game or app in the shop. The reason why I'm starting this review by talking about the points is that over a year ago, while I was browsing through the eShop's now extensive library of Switch games, I came across a title called Phantaruk. I hadn't heard of the game before, but from a quick scroll through its screenshots, I was interested. So I added it to my wishlist and kind of just forgot about it. That is until last week when I revisited the eShop to see what's new and to my surprise, Phantaruk, which was $4.99 when I initially saw it, was now on sale for $0.49. And even better, was the fact that I could get it completely free with the Gold Points I had sitting in my account. What I'm trying to say is, check your points, because you never know what free game you have just laying around. With that out of the way, let's talk about Phantaruk.

In Phantaruk, you wake up on the Purity-02 spaceship, presumably having been ejected from your water-filled cryo-chamber of some sort. It doesn't take long to notice that things aren't right aboard the space vessel as the ship's state is barely functional and someone (or something) is wandering the corridors. The game doesn't have too much of a narrative other than the main objective of getting off the ship and the back story is mostly left for the player to piece together from audio logs and scattered notes. Let me start by saying that I really enjoyed the first 40 minutes of Phantaruk. There was a part of me that felt like Ellen Ripley from Alien as I crawled through ventilation shafts lit only by the blood-red emergency lights overhead. Phantaruk clearly takes inspiration from the science fiction horror games that came before it, but let me make it clear that it's not fair to compare Phantaruk to games like Alien: Isolation or Outlast because, while they do have similarities by way of no real combat system, they come from very different backgrounds. Phantaruk comes from Polyslash, a small game studio in Poland, which doesn't have the backing of a publisher like SEGA (as is the case with Creative Assembly for Alien: Isolation). As you read more about the game below you may be inclined to draw comparisons, but for better or for worse, Phantaruk is not on the same playing field.

Gameplay in Phantaruk consists of sneaking around the Purity-02 and doing a series of "fetch quests" until you can escape. However, things are not that simple. As I said, there is no real combat system in the game, which means you can't pick up a gun and blast your way through enemies. Your only option when you see an enemy is to sink into the shadows and hope that you are not spotted. To help with hiding there is an eye in the bottom left corner that lights up if you're visible and fades away when you're hidden. This mechanic works well enough, but there were a handful of times where I was in direct line of sight of an enemy but they just walked past me and others where I feel fully enveloped in darkness but somehow get attacked. This inconsistency wouldn't be as problematic if the loading times on the Nintendo Switch following each death weren't so long.

As you play the game you also have to keep an eye on your heart rate and toxicity levels. Heart rate is managed by keeping a safe distance between you and an enemy, the closer you get the more panicked you get, which results in the screen getting darker and distorted. Toxicity levels are a bit more complicated, they automatically go up as you play the game and once it reaches 100% you have to inject yourself with glowing syringes that are found throughout the ship. If you reach 100% and you don't have a syringe the experience is truly unpleasant with the screen pulsing bright yellow and visibility dropping radically. At times like these, I found myself wandering blindly with my flashlight on in hopes of attracting an enemy who can put me out of my misery. Both these machines are good overall, but the visual distortion can get frustrating after a while. Luckily, Phantaruk takes 3 to 4 hours to beat which means this shouldn't get monotonous enough to prevent you from finishing the game.

Phantaruk isn't a visually striking game and there won't be set pieces that will make you stop and stare. At the same time, the visuals aren't awful either. Phantaruk can feel like a PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 game at times and, while I may have picked it apart if on the PC, on the Nintendo Switch I didn't really mind. I do have one problem with the game's aesthetics which has to do with how dark the game is. I played the game mostly in handheld mode and playing the game with the smallest light on made it difficult to see anything. Even with the flashlight on, the visibility is low, and with the added bonus of constant visual pulsing from heart rate and toxicity I resorted to increasing the gamma halfway into the game.

As crucial as visuals are, sound design is what truly makes or breaks a horror game and Phantaruk is a mixed bag in this department. Early parts of the game are made extra suspenseful with the sounds of rabid monsters that stumble through the corridors of Purity-02. However, the sound design isn't always spot on and while it may sound like a monster is right next to you, a quick look around shows that you are completely alone and the sound is coming from a room or hallway on the other side of the wall. While this didn't entirely take away from the intensity of the game, I found myself getting less nervous when I heard an enemy snarl in my ear because I knew that, most likely, I was out of harm's way.

On the topic of sound, I do want to talk briefly about my favorite thing about Phantaruk, which is it's voice over. Throughout the game, you will come across terminals that will play the captain's audio log, and while it does slow down the pace of the game because you cannot walk around while the audio is playing, the delivery on the voice acting is great. The voice actor's performance of the dialogue felt honest and kept me thoroughly engaged in the narrative of this deep-voiced former Captain of the giant H+ sponsored spaceship. A small piece of advice though, don't bother trying to follow along with the subtitles because they are horribly out of sync and are on the screen for either too short or too long but never the right time.

But perhaps Phantaruk's biggest drawback is in its environments. There is so little to do and interact with, that the experience doesn't feel truly unique or special. There are lockers and strange glowing boxes at every level and while they may give off the false impression of interact-ability, they are just set dressing. All you can interact with are switches and scanners that often glow very obviously to tell you they are interactive, and when an enemy sees you, all you can do is step into the shadows, or out of their narrow cone of vision, to getaway. There is the occasional table you can crawl under but the mechanic isn't flawless and it's hard to tell what surface you can hide completely under and what surface leaves you vulnerable.

In the end, it is clear that Phantaruk takes a lot of notes from other science fiction horror games. But that shouldn't take away from the, at times,  rather intense and atmospheric game that Polish studio, Polyslash, has created. It's just a shame that the game is so often held back by small things that, when added up, make it more frustrating than engaging. However, with the aforementioned steep discount on the eShop, it's not much of an upfront investment to play if you want a quick scare or two.

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