Skip to main content

Phantom Abyss review: The abyss gazes back into you (with lasers)

Phantom Abyss is a thrilling game for adrenaline junkies that never lets up
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Dodging things makes you look and feel cool, this is a simple fact of life. Doesn’t matter what you’re dodging or what the thing you dodged ends up crashing into, if you move out of the way of something hurtling towards you at the last second, all eyes will be on your cool maneuvers. It’s no surprise then that someone looked at the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy runs through all those traps and said “What if we made a game that was just that?”

Enter Phantom Abyss, a game where you have to run through an ancient temple dodging increasingly deadly traps armed with nothing but a whip; though, like any good fictional whip, you can use it like a grappling hook if you attach it to something. You might wonder how much longevity a concept like that has, but over 100 hours of gameplay later I can tell you, it’s a lot.

Phantom Abyss Gameplay

At its most basic level, I find running through these maze-like temples endlessly fun. There is a huge variety of traps that test your quick thinking and reactions in all kinds of ways. There are the classic dart traps and giant boulders, but also massive spinning blades, spike traps, and homing bombs – and that’s just the first of the game’s four areas.

You start in Caverns facing roughly what you’d expect, where things don’t hit too hard and treasure is easy to find. Then you’ll progress into Caves where things become more dilapidated and traps are less forgiving. Next up is Inferno, where lava causes problems on purpose – as lava often tends to do. Finally, you end up in Abyss where the laws of physics cease to make sense and you’ll be faced with lasers, entirely floorless rooms, and every other trap you’d already faced made far more deadly.

And don’t you dare take too long navigating any of these life-threatening traps, or one of three guardians will hunt you down. The Eye of Agony fires lasers at you every few seconds, The Masked Defiler attempts to block your path with poisonous gas, and The Devouring Rage constantly and unstoppably advances on you with deadly intent.

Phantom Abyss Gameplay

All this comes together in the most tense and joyous gameplay loop I’ve ever played as your mind has to constantly juggle so many ideas. You’re scanning everything in front of you trying to work out the best way to get past while being inexorably pushed forward by the guardian at your back and still scanning each room for the many random hidey-holes where treasure is stored. It keeps my brain constantly whirring in a way that pumps adrenaline through my system, especially when I’m on low health trying to make one last push to the final exit.

That’s before I’ve even mentioned one of the biggest gimmicks, which is that each of these procedurally generated temples can only be completed by one person, and when you enter a temple you will be joined by the ghosts of all the people who failed to complete it before you, and finding the spirits where they died can help make your run easier.

Phantom Abyss Gameplay

It’s not just endlessly running into the abyss though. If you like more direction then there are several different modes. Daily mode sees everyone run the same temple to compete for times and high scores, or there is Adventure mode, which is designed to guide you up a nice difficulty curve and let you unlock new whips with new abilities.

These whip abilities massively mix up gameplay. Some do simple things like make you immune to fall damage or give you hearts, while others do more complex things like allow you to temporarily disable traps or slow time. Gradually unlocking these whips gives a nice sense of progression and they help add variety to each run.

That variety doesn’t just come in the form of blessings though, as there are plenty of curses too. Not only is a curse added between each floor of the run, but you can customize your run by adding curses at the start in exchange for more treasure. Treasure, in this case, can mean more gold to spend on blessings inside a run, or resources to buy permanent upgrades between runs.

Phantom Abyss Gameplay

It makes for a satisfying feedback loop where, as your skills increase, you get permanent boons like more health or a longer whip, which lets you do more with those skills. In turn, you slowly start to become familiar with the layouts of the many rooms in the temples, developing strategies to deal with each one. Still, no matter how familiar you get, things like curses and guardians mean there’s no perfect route through each room – you will always need to adapt on the fly.

The game then makes that vital shift for any roguelike which is that, when you get good enough at it to conquer its toughest challenges, you still want to dive in for more to try and do it as cleanly as you possibly can. There doesn’t need to be a goal dangled in front of me when the gameplay is so much fun that I want to keep diving in over and over because each I keep getting better, and keep coming away with more impressive runs.

That’s another thing that makes me unable to put Phantom Abyss down – my near misses, skillful dodges, and lucky escapes never become mundane no matter how much I pull them off. It’s endlessly satisfying to slip by a room of twenty spinning blades unharmed or to get stuck in a tight spot only to find the perfect place to whip and get me out of trouble. No matter how good I get, I feel like the game is still keeping up with me and that is very hard for even the best games in this genre to do when you’re 100+ hours in.

Phantom Abyss Gameplay

There’s a lot to be said for how much the soundscape contributes to this. It gives you some classic intense music when a guardian is on your tail, but more importantly than that, it makes every trap feel huge and threatening. Crushers land with an echoing thud, hammers swing with great effort, harshly pushing the air out of the way, and your whip makes a nice clink and whoosh as you latch on to something and pull yourself toward it – all of it giving way into peaceful silence when you reach the end of a floor and have a moment to decompress.

I’ve been playing Phantom Abyss since it first entered early access and I will not be stopping anytime soon now it’s officially launched. The adrenaline-fuelled gameplay gives me so much joy every time I do a run, whether I’m playing it casually or seriously trying to challenge myself. It is a game that will join the likes of FTL and Spulunky as games that are forever in my regular rotation, and for a game like this, I can offer no higher praise.

Score: 10/10

  • Visuals: 10/10
  • Audio: 10/10
  • Gameplay: 10/10
  • Performance: 9/10

Phantom Abyss technical performance

Phantom Abyss is very reliable on PC. There are occasionally minor hiccups and frame drops when entering a busy room, but have never cost me any runs.