Review: Phantom Abyss

A whip more versatile than Indy's.
Screenshot via Destructoid
GoodSolid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.

The best way to describe Phantom Abyss is that it feels like a fever dream you have after falling asleep with Temple of Doom still playing on your TV.

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It is an action-adventure game that, at its best, makes you feel like an explorer encountering mystery and danger at every turn. Spectral guardians chase you through temples filled with devious traps and secret paths full of treasure. 

Exploring the game’s various regions in Adventure Mode is initially thrilling, but as the experience drags on – and the quirks of the game’s random generation become more predictable – Phantom Abyss becomes less like classic Indiana Jones and more like a by-the-numbers summer blockbuster. 

Screenshot via Destructoid

Phantom Abyss (PC [reviewed], Xbox Series X|S)
Developer: Team WIBY
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Released: January 25, 2024
MSRP: $19.99

Meeting an ancient prisoner…

The story of Phantom Abyss is light and unobtrusive, which didn’t bother me in the slightest. My character awoke in the game’s central hub to find that they, and a number of other spirits, have become trapped inside a complex of ancient temples. 

A giant talking statue asked me to free it from its chains by completing a number of challenges in four different regions. The other phantoms all had a quirky line of dialogue or two, but nothing they said seemed to matter that much, so I grabbed my Adventurer’s Whip and dove right in. 

The first temple introduces the basic mechanics of the game. You run, jump, dash, and slide your way through temples avoiding traps like spike pits and rolling boulders. With a quick flick of your whip, you can grapple your way up walls and over chasms. 

Aside from traps, temples also contain chests full of coins that can be used to buy blessings for your individual run – boons like faster movement speed or the ability to temporarily slow time – and keys that help unlock permanent boosts, like more health and a faster whip. Once you’ve gotten a quick warm up, you’re thrown straight into Adventure Mode. 

Screenshot via Destructoid

Stumbling into secrets

From the outset you’ll only have access to the Ruins, an area with six different temples for you to explore. Each temple comes with its own set of challenges and pairs you with a unique whip that comes with a built-in blessing. This area also introduces you to the three different guardians you’ll face throughout the game. These are giant spirits that follow you throughout your run while spitting poison, shooting lasers, or exploding in a fiery rage. Completing enough temples in the Ruins unlocks the Caverns, which then unlocks the Inferno, and finally the Rift. 

Exploring these regions was easily my favorite part of the game. The general layout of all these temples is somewhat fixed and clearly designed around the specific whip and guardian you’re paired with, so I knew to expect lots of platforming in one temple, or multiple spinning hallways in another. The specific traps and hidden secrets inside each room, however, were randomly generated, which kept every run surprising and engaging while still letting each temple have its own unique flavor. The first time I looked up and noticed a hole in the ceiling that led to a treasure room I was delighted – especially since the gold there paid for a blessing that got me through the rest of the run. 

The Adventure Mode regions also introduce the game’s asynchronous multiplayer mechanic. As I made my runs, I could see the phantoms of other players also journeying through the dungeon. Most of the time, we were moving so fast that I quickly lost track of the phantoms, but occasionally they came in handy. If a phantom unlocks a door before you, for example, it stays unlocked in your run, too. Sometimes when facing a particularly challenging room, I’d spend my time avoiding the guardian while letting someone else’s phantom fetch the door key for me.

Screenshot via Destructoid

Learning from experience

As time wore on, I started to feel like a true seasoned adventurer. I’d collected enough keys to power up my character to a reasonable degree, but the increasing difficulty of the temples still kept me on my toes. Like any game with roguelike elements, there were certain runs where it seemed like Phantom Abyss was really stacking the odds against me and others where I found just enough treasure and the exact blessings I needed to eke out a win. Ultimately, though, every win or loss came down to my snap-second response to traps and the preciseness of my whip. 

By the time I reached the Inferno region, the mechanics were really clicking with me. I found that every new whip power gave me a satisfying new way to tackle the more difficult temples. Unfortunately, I also started to notice fewer and fewer surprises in every run. It turns out there’s only a handful of places where secret rooms and paths get hidden inside a temple, so even as the difficulty of the temples increased, the exciting sense of exploration they offered in the earlier regions began to dwindle. 

Screenshot via Destructoid

Running out of steam

After beating all four regions in Adventure Mode, which took me about twelve hours, I unlocked two new game modes that are clearly aimed at giving Phantom Abyss more of a lasting appeal. 

Daily Mode doubles down on the game’s asynchronous multiplayer. Every 24 hours the game generates a new temple with its own set of challenges, and players are encouraged to race each other for the best completion time. Abyss Mode, on the other hand, creates a fully randomized dungeon that only one person will ever get to explore. You can select from a handful of different difficulties that determine how long the temples are, and you can bring whatever whip you want into your run.

I was excited to check out the new game modes, but after I started making runs I realized that they really didn’t offer anything new. Adventure Mode had already introduced the various tiles, traps, and secrets I could expect to see in the temples. The new game modes just presented me with randomized conglomerations of challenges I’d already seen before, and these fully randomized temples lacked the character of the levels in Adventure Mode. Some Abyss Mode temples were half a dozen floors long, but I always knew where I could potentially find hidden chests and shortcuts along the way. Resource gathering was a breeze, so I mostly felt like I was bouncing off the randomness of the blessings I was offered at the end of each floor.  

That said, I still enjoyed the mechanics of making runs, but the sense of adventure that captured my attention early in the game really evaporated, ironically, after Adventure Mode ended. The Daily and Abyss modes might motivate me to poke my head back into Phantom Abyss from time to time after a break, but honestly, the Adventure Mode dungeons would have accomplished that on their own. 

Phantom Abyss has the potential to really be something incredible. The early game is an incredibly mix of tense runs and surprising discoveries that can lead to your death or a new set of blessings. The endgame hook, however, falls short because it doesn’t take long until you more or less know exactly what is lurking around every corner. 

If the tile set was larger, the randomness of the Daily and Abyss modes could have been enough to hook me for dozens of hours, but even though it lost me by the end, I enjoyed the adventures that Phantom Abyss provided.

Phantom Abyss isn’t a perfect endless temple speedrunner, but for a dozen or so hours, it has a great hook. 

[This review is based on a retail build of the game provided by the publisher.]

7.5
Good
Solid and definitely has an audience. There could be some hard-to-ignore faults, but the experience is fun.
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Author
Gabran Gray
Freelancer writer - Gabran has been an avid gamer since he was old enough to manipulate a keyboard and mouse. He's been writing professionally and covering all things video games since 2021.
Author
Gabran Gray
Freelancer writer - Gabran has been an avid gamer since he was old enough to manipulate a keyboard and mouse. He's been writing professionally and covering all things video games since 2021.