So last week was technically supposed to be the Halloween issue, but I had already lined up “Spelunky 2” for a review and didn’t realize until after I had submitted it. So consider this a bit late, but I am writing this on Halloween day so to me it is a proper Halloween article. With that said, this week I have opted to review a game that gained a lot of popularity recently, perhaps in no small part thanks to the spirit of the season: “Phasmaphobia.”
“Phasmaphobia” is a game my friend Billy wanted me to play with him, but despite telling him I would do so, I consistently put it off because I was either doing homework or playing “Endless Space 2” with my friends. Finally, my friend Evan suggested it to me one day when I was bored and I said sure. And boy did I pay the price for my insolence.
My introduction to the game was thus: I was instructed to do the tutorial, whereupon I missed the piece of dialogue telling me to pick up a tiny key on a table and couldn’t proceed. So instead my friend decided to run me through a relatively easy mission to show me the ropes himself. The two of us entered a small, two-story house in a suburban nowhere armed with thermometers, spooky radios, and flashlights. We went upstairs, checking the room temperature to determine which one the ghost inhabited, and stumbled across an Ouija board. He, a more experienced player brimming with confidence, decided to use the board in the five minute grace period we had before the ghost could start picking us off. He proceeded to use the board a number of times, one of which angered the ghost and immediately triggered a hunt, whereupon the ghost immediately killed me. It was great.
The premise of “Phasmaphobia” is fairly streamlined. You’re sent into a haunted house where your job is to determine what type of ghost is haunting the place, presumably so you can feed this information to Luigi so he knows what setting to use for his Poltergust. There are a number of different types of ghosts, which can be narrowed down using three pieces of evidence. There are six different types of evidence that correspond to 12 types of ghosts. You have three slots that can carry equipment to either help you find evidence or keep you alive. The thermometer is used to find the low temperatures that can tell you the ghost’s position, the spirit box can be used to ask the ghost questions, the blacklight can be used to see a ghost’s fingerprints, an EMF reader can be used to determine the level of paranormal activity, the journal can be left for a ghost to write in, a camera can be used to monitor ghost activity, and the flashlight lets you see. Freezing temperatures, getting a response on the spirit box or the journal, seeing a "ghost orb" in one of the cameras, finding fingerprints, or getting an EMF reading of five are all pieces of evidence. You can also purchase additional equipment to aid you, like the cross that can stop a ghost from hunting or the smudge stick which slows them.
Now if you haven’t played the game, you assume that when I say you “ask the ghost questions with the spirit box,” that you might pull up some kind of dropdown menu of preset questions. Nope. You have, on your own mic, ask those questions out loud for the ghost to answer. Now, the last time I can remember seeing voice commands being utilized as gameplay mechanics was “Ryse: Son of Rome,” where the player could shout commands to their Kinect to perform a few minor gameplay actions. For “Phasmaphobia,” voice commands are very much so a central mechanic.
A gameplay hint that can sometimes be seen on loading screens is quick to remind players that “the ghost is always listening,” and that isn’t a lie. So long as you set up your mic properly and have it on, the ghost is programmed to recognize and respond to a number of spoken words and phrases. In addition to questions that can be asked via the spirit box and Ouija board, the player can speak up anywhere at any time to try and get a reaction from the ghost. At the beginning of the mission, you’re given the name of the ghost. Saying its name out loud may anger it, causing it to act up which can be dangerous but may also be useful in pinpointing its location. Failing that, saying things like “give us a sign” out loud can have a similar effect. Swear words will also anger the ghost, and can very easily trigger a hunt when spoken in perpetuity.
The ghost will start a hunt once it has been angered enough, either by player actions or at random. When a mission starts, the ghost will usually be rather passive. As time goes on and players investigate the level, the ghost will act up more and more; turning off lights, closing doors, throwing objects at them, or even appearing in a shadowy form before them. Once a ghost has been angered enough, it will start to hunt. Once all the lights begin to flicker and the door out closes and locks, a hunt has begun. A hunt is the only time the ghost can actually kill players. Your only real course of action is to either hide or manipulate the ghost’s behavior to avoid being killed. For instance, Mares are much more aggressive in the dark, so staying in the light will make it less likely to trigger a hunt, and Jinns are very territorial so steering clear will usually keep you safe. Every ghost has a strength to be aware of, and a weakness to be exploited. However, since you don’t know what kind of ghost it is, it’s up to you to follow your best intuition to stay alive.
The game does a really great job building tension and atmosphere. No matter the level, the game does a great job balancing out advantages and disadvantages depending on how many players are present and what type of ghost it is. Because the ghost is a physical entity, even though it cannot be seen by players, it does a great job of creating legitimate unrest as you all try to pinpoint it’s location while it slowly becomes more and more aggressive. You never know what it’s going to do next, whether it's closing a door you were about to walk through means it's a Jinn and you were about to walk into its territory or its a demon and it just trapped you in here with it. Its use of voice commands is really what makes it though. The knowledge that the ghost is always listening in gives an uneasy feeling of being watched, especially when you ask it where it is and it responds “behind.” It works amazingly to create this intricate game of cat and mouse you play with the ghost.
That being said, there is one big criticism for the game I cannot ignore. Multiplayer games just aren’t suited well for horror. That’s not to say it can’t be scary with more people, but it tends to be that the more people you play with the less scary it becomes. The game makes a good effort to keep it scary, during a hunt your radios shut off and you can’t communicate with your friends, and the bigger levels require you to split up to search effectively. But isolation is a primal source of fear, and just knowing your friends are there at all mitigates it. It results in this odd balance where fewer players make the game more scary because you’re isolated and vulnerable, but more players make the game more fun because there is more to do and extra teamwork to be done. I recommend a little of both, getting the appropriate amount of adrenaline from scares and serotonin from social interaction.
And one last note, although I know this is a rather petty complaint, in-game your character gets paid practically nothing. The hardest missions in the game will only reward about $1000 for you have put your life on the line to combat the paranormal. I know it doesn’t affect anything and money is only really there to purchase extra starting equipment, but it really irks me.
Final Score: 8/10, a really solid and unique horror experience. Go it solo in the dark of your dorm at 1 a.m. or laugh alongside your friends in the brightness of the green lounge at 7 p.m.