Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Phantasmaburbia - Bustin' Makes Me Feel Good

Phantasmaburbia is an indie RPG set in a small suburban neighborhood that, overnight, has become host to a large population of ghosts and dark spirits. In the middle of the night, four teenagers are woken up by ghostly disturbances in their houses; seeking weapons with which to defend themselves, they each meet with a friendly spirit who helps them quell the ghosts in their homes. With their new ghost buddies, the four protagonists set out into the neighborhood on their own personal quests, but soon come to join forces to defeat the demon responsible for awakening the evil spirits and casting their families and neighbors into unwaking slumber.

The premise itself is pretty interesting, but there's a whole lot going in this game's favor. It has a really nice atmosphere (thanks to the visual design and the music), an engaging and unpredictable story, pretty decent character development, fun battle mechanics, clever puzzles, and several interesting twists on the typical RPG formula. Certain elements of the game even remind me of The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. And with a single playthrough lasting 10-12 hours, with good pacing throughout, I had a very wholesome, fulfilling experience with Phantasmaburbia.

As usual, if that summary isn't enough to convince you, I have more thoughts on the game after the jump.

The four main characters are all introduced as different highschool stereotypes; one guy plays guitar and has a huge collection of vinyl records, another guy is a big gamer, one girl is really into reading and writing, and the other girl has kind of an emo/goth lifestyle. They're all woken up by some ghostly presence in their house, and meet with friendly spirits who help them fight the ghosts. The musician who uses his dad's katana meets with the spirit of an ancient samurai warrior; the gamer meets the spirit of a Native American prophet; the writer meets the spirit of a young boy; and the goth chick meets a confused spirit who doesn't know its own identity.

One of the game's references to Ghostbusters

Each of the characters sets out into the neighborhood for their own reasons (the writer's looking for her dog, the musician is going to the gamer's house, and so on); in the process of exploring the neighborhood, which now has spectral barriers everywhere and ghosts wandering the streets, they stumble into spirit tunnels -- otherworldly dimensions that connect the realms of the living with the realms of the dead. From there, they start to bump into each other, and eventually learn that they have to stop a demon from reaching its full power before it kills everyone.

Thus begins the main quest of the game; the demon is going around collecting nature spirits, so you have to try to beat him to the spirit tunnels and collect the power for yourself. This is where the game reminds me a little of A Link to the Past -- the gameplay becomes somewhat free-roaming, letting you explore the map and search for spirit tunnels on your own. The spirit tunnels are sort of like dungeons from ALTTP with monsters to defeat, puzzles to solve, and keys to collect as you advance towards the boss at the end of the dungeon. And much like ALTTP, you can complete the spirit tunnels in basically any order you want.

What makes the spirit tunnels fun is the environmental puzzles you have to solve to advance through to the boss chamber at the end. Each of your four ghost buddies has a unique way to interact with the environment; one of them can take control of animals; another lets you trade places with animals; another lets you move hollow objects; and another lets you destroy weak objects. These different abilities get used in different ways to solve different types of puzzles -- in one scenario you're rearranging a limited selection of pipes to direct the flow of water; in another scenario, you're placing orbs in strategic positions to light up certain beacons while not lighting up others.

Solving a puzzle by lighting orbs.

The puzzles are some of the most clever and satisfying that I've seen in an RPG in a long time. In the later stages of the game they get to be particularly challenging, but they always feel manageable -- never too challenging or abstract to be impossible. They're satisfying because they're a little tough, and because it takes just a little bit of trial-and-error to deduce the rules and the solution for yourself. It's also remarkable how natural they feel in the context of the game -- each puzzle makes sense for the environment it's in, and your way of interacting with the environment (by use of your ghost buddies' unique special abilities) helps tie everything together.

By clearing a spirit tunnel and claiming the nature spirit for your own, you get to imbue one of your characters with that nature spirit, giving them elemental damage bonuses and even more unique special attacks. For each nature spirit you collect, you get to choose who claims its power. But what's really interesting is that, while you're claiming nature spirits for yourself, the demon is also off collecting nature spirits. When you clear one spirit tunnel, you emerge to find that another tunnel elsewhere on the map has already been cleared. There are a total of eight spirit tunnels, but you'll only be able to visit four of them, meaning it matters what you choose to do in this game, because you'll be experiencing different content and unlocking different specials depending on what you do.

Needless to say, since you only experience about half of the game's dungeons, there's plenty of replay value to be had with Phantasmaburbia. When you beat the game for the first time, you unlock "new game plus" mode that starts you off at the beginning again, retaining some of the special items you'd collected in your previous playthrough, and gaining a bonus to your leveling rate. Besides visiting the four dungeons you didn't go to the first time through, you can also work on collecting more roaming spirits and filling up the beastiary at the library to unlock extra goodies. Even in a first playthrough, there's quite a bit of optional side-content to experience if you're diligent about exploring the neighborhood.

The explorable map of Phantasmaburbia

As an RPG, Phantasmaburbia has you taking control of four characters in a party, battling foes in turn-based combat. Turns are based on an action gauge which charges based on each character's speed statistic. As you win battles, you earn experience points that go towards leveling up and improving your stats. Each character can learn up to 14 different special skills (used at the expense of spirit power), but the twist is that you can only have four "equipped" at any given time. You have to pick and choose what skills you want each character to use, based on what suits your playstyle, what skills might be necessary up ahead, and what skills you want your entire party to have.

The special skills consist of basic offensive attacks, healing spells, buffs, and debuffs, but each character also gets a unique super-attack to execute with their ghost buddy. You can combine these attacks and have up to all four attack at once for even stronger effects. These attacks feature a unique mini-game that determines how much damage it does. For the kid who uses a pistol, you have to grab energy orbs as they slowly slide across the screen and drag them into the gun to charge it; for the girl who uses kitchen cutlery, you have to cut orbs as they pop onto the screen; for the kid who uses a katana, you have to shake the hilt as fast as possible; and for the girl who uses a baseball bat, you have to keep the cursor inside an orb as it moves around the screen.

Likewise, certain enemies deliver attacks with mini-games that allow you to reduce the damage of the attack or even completely dodge it. One enemy hovers in the air and tries to smash your party members with a downward thrust, and you get a chance to click and drag each party member out of the way. Another enemy shoots vines at you, and you have to click and hold the cursor on the tip of each vine as it moves across the screen before it reaches you. Sometimes you get to click on projectiles to detonate or deflect them in mid-air. All of these combat mini-games are ultimately pretty mundane, but they do a nice job of spicing things up and giving you something more active to do during combat, instead of just clicking things in a menu.

Turn-based combat in Phantasmaburbia.

Boss battles feature a couple of unique mechanics as well. Instead of just being just a stronger version of a straightforward fight, the bosses have some kind of distinct behavior pattern that you have to figure out how to take advantage of. In one fight, the boss forms four mirror images of itself, with only the real boss taking actual damage. The mirror images change positions constantly, so you have to keep track of the real one -- if you miss and hit the wrong one, it damages your party member. In another fight, the boss will replicate whatever move you use on him if his turn is ready, so you have to time your attacks and use weak attacks when he'll use them back on you, and save your big attacks for when he's charging his attack meter.

The combat has a couple of small issues, however. The main problem I have with it is that most of the game is just too easy. Save points are placed pretty frequently across the map, and they completely replenish your health and spirit power (basically, magic points), so you can easily abuse those things so that you're basically never in any danger of dying. It might have been nice if save points in dungeons didn't completely recuperate your party, and if the game had a slightly more elaborate system for maintaining your party status. Besides that, there were times when I really wanted a pause button in combat, so that I could look for inventory items and switch selected characters more easily.

I also ran into a fair amount of crashes and glitches that managed to disrupt the experience. During one boss fight, the game failed on me for two different reasons -- once during a crash-to-desktop saying it failed to draw some sprite, and once when one of my party members randomly went off-screen during his attack, and stayed off-screen while nothing else happened. At one point I was possessing a rabbit, but got stuck and unable to move, unable even to exit the possession. Another time the game just froze up with the music and sound effects stuck in a loud, obnoxious stutter.

Exploring the central spirit tunnel.

So Phantasmaburbia has a few superficial flaws, but its core essence is definitely worth experiencing. The gameplay and story are both really engaging, thanks to a couple of unique mechanical and narrative twists in the typical formula, and the atmosphere (courtesy of the visual effects and the charming soundtrack) helps draw you into the experience. I enjoyed it so much I bought copies for a couple of friends, and plan to look into some of the creator's other games.

Phantasmaburbia can be purchased for $15 on the official site and on Desura. It's also currently available in Kyttaro Games' Cerebral Bundle in a Box for a minimum $1.99 purchase. You can vote for it on the Steam Greenlight as well.

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