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.