Games

Phantom Abyss, the new asynchronous multiplayer game from Brisbane-based studio Team WIBY, promises to take the social stress out of online gaming. By Jini Maxwell.

Phantom Abyss

An early access image from Team WIBY’s Phantom Abyss.
Credit: Devolver Digital

If 2020 was the year that online multiplayer games permeated our social lives, 2021 is the year for innovations in the genre. In the tradition of Indiana Jones, Uncharted and Tomb Raider comes Brisbane-made online multiplayer game Phantom Abyss.

The game takes the popular battle royale format of titles such as Fall Guys, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite and removes the element of real-time social pressure. Developed by Team WIBY and published by indie giant Devolver Digital, it’s an asynchronous online multiplayer game that riffs on popular genres to create something new.

Rather than facing off against a mass of enemies, a Phantom Abyss player is challenged to navigate the trap-laden chambers of a temple in order to retrieve sacred artefacts from the depths. Phantom Abyss offers an infinite number of procedurally generated temples, endlessly re-creating the thrill of the “daily challenge” offered by many online games. This dynamic structures the entire game with the thrill of a new challenge built from familiar elements, allowing a player to hone their skills without the boredom of repeating levels.

The team behind the title are alumni of Brisbane’s Halfbrick Studio, which was responsible for the smash-hit mobile title Fruit Ninja. Before Phantom Abyss they worked together on Mr Shifty, a top-down beat-’em-up with a short play time that had the player teleporting through fast-paced action scenes, disposing of enemies through brutal melee combat.

The team’s interest in kinetic, fast-paced play is clear in this title too. The player navigates these deadly environments with only a whip, which allows them to swing from ledge to ledge, and their own physical skills: strafing around swinging blades, dashing across panels of rising spikes or making timely leaps over dissolving platforms.

It’s a familiar, exhilarating set of platforming challenges, the thrill of which is magnified by the lack of save points, the finitude of each death and the fact that each temple can only be attempted once. Moreover, once one person has reached the end and retrieved the relic, that temple is gone forever.

This doesn’t mean the experience is lonely, however: as you enter a new temple, the ghosts of adventurers who fell foul of the temple’s traps continue to retread the pathways that led them to their doom. They set off traps as they go and their failures guide you on your journey to survive. Rather than being asked to compete directly against friends, a player can challenge their friends to particular temples after they have failed. Without the pressure of real-time multiplayer, the game’s social dimension creates a tension that sits somewhere between collaboration and competition.

While a more hot-headed player might be tempted to race the ghosts through the depths of the temple, a cautious player will be rewarded by learning from their mistakes or allowing them to set off traps to open safe passages.

Currently in early access, the game already rewards a breadth of playing styles: for those who lack the dexterity of a seasoned first-person-shooter player, more strategic, watchful approaches can bear fruit. Phantom Abyss is already an exciting addition to the landscape of Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) games, without the social stress.

The game isn’t simply an iteration of the battle royale genre. Unlike the goofy cartoon beans of Fall Guys or the ever-evolving social world of Fortnite, this game hinges on an explicitly violent trope: you play as a looter tasked with stealing sacred relics. The environment itself explicitly exists only for the player, with no consideration given to the spaces as they might exist without the intruder’s presence.

The temples in Phantom Abyss wear the skin of sacred places of worship; they aren’t conceived of as culturally meaningful spaces with histories, as spaces that might be understood or even grieved. They are designed to trap and challenge: there is no logic to their interior design outside of the logic of play, of keeping the intruder interested. The temple spaces could just as easily be mediaeval dungeons or a series of bank vaults – but they’re not. The game has nothing to say about the players’ repeated incursions on ostensibly sacred ground. After a while, the experience doesn’t even feel transgressive; it feels hollow.

The colonial underpinning of Phantom Abyss is only compounded by the game’s reliance on procedural generation. Each temple is created in response to player demand and is solely responsive to the player. They don’t add up to more than the sum of their constituent parts – a series of traps, blocks and nemeses recycled in new configurations for the purpose of entertaining the intruder in an infinity of different configurations. They pop into existence to provide a new challenge and disappear once “solved”. You could easily substitute the word “subjugated” here.

There are plenty of indications that Phantom Abyss will enjoy commercial success. It’s backed by a renowned indie publisher and there’s undoubtedly space in the market for an asynchronous battle royale-style MMO, as audiences for social games continue to grow through 2021.

If Phantom Abyss continues refining the balance between the dopamine hit of a challenge and a sustaining sense of community while alleviating the time and scheduling pressure of a real-time multiplayer game, it will find rapacious new audiences eager for adventure on their own time.

The game has some innovative social design and the world it presents doesn’t totally lack signs of life: throughout each temple is a consistent language of symbols that the game’s passionate fanbase have already begun to decode. A logic governs which temple guardian will appear where, and what they will do.

But there’s little indication that Phantom Abyss will take a more circumspect approach to its colonial genre than its predecessors. Even the name itself parrots the most insidious myth of any invaded place, especially so-called Australia: that it can be both void and haunted.

Phantom Abyss is available in early access on Steam.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 7, 2021 as "Chasing ghosts".

A free press is one you pay for. In the short term, the economic fallout from coronavirus has taken about a third of our revenue. We will survive this crisis, but we need the support of readers. Now is the time to subscribe.

Jini Maxwell is The Saturday Paper’s games reviewer.