Impressions: Phantasmaburbia

By Alec Meer on November 2nd, 2012 at 6:00 pm.

Phantasmaburbia isn’t just a word with far too many syllables in it – it’s also the title of an indie RPG that’s perhaps best described as suburban Final Fantasy. Or teenage Ghostbusters. Or squad-based Poltergeist.

It’s a lot more focused and less self-regarding than the more infamous JRPG stereotypes, starring as it does a bunch of teens living in homogeneous nowheresville and playfully finding self-respect and adventure by battling an army of ghosts.

Right off the bat, it evokes Double Fine’s charming Costume Quest – turn-based battles, monsters in suburbia and a youthful cast who are by turns disbelieving, frightened and exhilarated by the fantastical drama they’ve become a part of. These are late teens, though, so they’re all internetty and gothy and carefully-displayed action figurey rather than babbling pre-schoolers.

Accompanying them are assorted apparently friendly ghosts from a spectrum of cultures’ spiritual beliefs – the Native American shamanic figure, the ancient Japanese, honour-fixated spirit and then more contemporary ghost stories such as the lost child and the depressed housewife. These provide plenty of Basil Exposition as well as special attacks during the turn-based battles and environment-affecting abilities in overworld (which flits between suburbia and a spirit world constructed of floating, forested platforms).

You fight stuff, you level up, you gain bonus abilities, you try to stop the end of the world (or at least your little corner of it). Everday objects, such as headphones and dog collars, provide stat buffs, while multiple characters can combine special abilities for mega-damage. The ghost-derive special abilities, incidentally, activate assorted quick-time event mini-games, such as frantically swiping the mouse up and down to power up a samuari sword, mousing over spectral bubbles, whack-a-mole style, for a dual knife attack – that sort of thing. It is faintly annoying, especially as you need to do similar to neutralise some enemies’ special moves, but after a soft, gentle start before too long these attacks were too necessary to victory to ignore.

This is Impressions rather than Wot I think because Phantasmaburbia wasn’t quite working for me even though I admire it in many ways and thus I’ve not finished it, but I’m well aware that others take to JRPG-style games with far greater abandon than I do. That said, what put me off the game somewhat was not that aspect of the game – which is also analogous to the Penny Arcade Adventures – but the navigational puzzles in the spirit world. The concepts of travelling around a landscape split into floating fragements are strong – one character can swap places with animals on adjacent islands, another can possess said animals and walk them onto switches which activate bridges, another offers TK control of certain objects… – but the practice is.. well, I already said ‘faintly annoying’, didn’t I?

These sections are a little too long, a little too regular and a little too fiddly, and on top of that they’re perhaps too much of a distraction from the lizard-brain hunger for levelling up and following plot beats. They certainly show design ambition, and keep this well clear of any ‘Final Fantasy but with people like me’ accusations, but I do wonder if they’d be better off as the core of another game rather than combined with the RPG element.

Far more positive is the cast of eight impressively distinct main characters (four human, four ex-human) and a smattering of good gags and an economy of chatter despite a generally sombre tone. The somewhat nebulous nature of the major villain of the piece isn’t quite as well-handled, and I felt robbed a darkly dramatic moment of its potential power, but rather more importantly is that it’s got a strong, solid combat system with imaginative abilities. The look is perhaps a little too spartan and, well, Gamemakery, but hell, half the time you’re only in it for the numbers anyway.

It’s always something of a pleasure to see an RPG with a non-conventional setting, and while Phantasmaburbia might be a long way off the kind of slickness and complexity of an indie RPG like Avernum it’s a solid wee thing.

Phantasmaburbia is out now, available direct from the dev for $10.

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21 Comments »

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  1. Lanfranc says:

    “Phantasmaburbia isn’t just a word with far too many syllables in it…”

    Man up, Alec, it’s just six syllables. It won’t hurt you if you just look it straight in the a’s and make it understand who’s the alpha between you.

    • The Random One says:

      Well, it’s the trailer song’s fault for trying to squeeze it in a line written for a word with half as many syllables.

    • Crazy Horse says:

      Ghost Wankers.

  2. The Random One says:

    They have ghosts which actually are sheet ghosts, I think that’s an instant buy.

    I also think I already saw this game before, not sure how I got wind of it though. Maybe a G-G-G-G-G-GHOOOOOOOST?

  3. 1Life0Continues says:

    “I heard that Alec…”

    Sorry…possibly obscure reference here on RPS.
    But I doubt it.

  4. psysal says:

    I am about 4 hours in– Phantasmaburbia is great! Really I think the environmental puzzles are actually one of the strong points, basically your four ghosts have the ability to:

    – Posess an animal
    – Swap places with an animal
    – Move around/telekinect (sorry) something hollow
    – Reveal invisible platforms

    So far for me these puzzles are a really great combination of these abilities, with lots of interesting ideas playing themselves out: e.g., by needing to possess animals, walk them to the correct switches, etc. It’s often non-obvious what the solution is, but in a good way– I really do think the puzzle design is first-class.

    I also really liked the special events in battles, where you have to e.g., click on vines or drag powerups to charge. It’s a nice offset to the purely stat-based attacks. Overall the battle system, attacks and enemies are all also really well-designed and interesting.

    That said this type of game really *is* my cup of tea exactly and so I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time– actually I sort of started stalking the dev when he announced it and now we friends so full disclosure etc.– not claiming to be unbiased. But anyhow I’m happy to say that Phantasmaburbia really is an awesome, lovingly-crafted gem! =) And yeah, sheet ghosts hehehe…

  5. Slinkyboy says:

    Played an older build long ago. Loved it! Thanks for reminding us about it ;)

  6. Premium User Badge

    JiminyJickers says:

    I thought it said something else, giggle giggle.

  7. PatrickSwayze says:

    Ugh, looks like Costume Quest with HORRENDOUS ART. No thanks.

    • belgand says:

      Costume Quest was briefly mentioned, but I feel like in the realm of Halloween-inspired JRPG you really need to devote more space to the issue. How do they compare beyond the superficial level?

  8. Mattrex says:

    Even in indie games, aesthetics are important, and unfortunately this game… lacks them. It looks like something made in VERGE (remember that?). I understand that finding and recruiting a talented pixel artist may be difficult and expensive, but cutting corners will ultimately result in an inferior product, one that looks like a slapdash project no matter how much time was put into it.

  9. Jockie says:

    Earthbound Vibes

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  11. Xzi says:

    At first glance I read that as “Phantasmasturbatia.” Gogo repressed sexual tension.

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  13. Branthog says:

    It’s worth mentioning that this was also a successful Kickstarter project. I was glad to back it. Part of it was that it looked cute and different from the other RPG stuff on Kickstarter at the moment and part of it was that it was made by a young guy (twenty, I think?) who had been making games since he was thirteen or something. It was just the kind of thing I thought it’d be worth chipping a few bucks into — as opposed to all the “we need millions and have a full team of experienced professionals” (which is fine, too).

    I haven’t had a chance to play it, yet, but I’m hoping to record a non-voiced play-through soon.

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