Phlegethon Review (PS4) – Styx In The Mud
A retro inspired first-person-shooter, Phlegethon looks as though it was built for the PS1 and plays like it too. The Finger Guns Review.
Ah, RandomSpin-Games. The creators of games-that-are-barely-games but rather purchasable Platinum trophies like Tokyo Run, Funny Truck, Chickens on the Road and Road Bustle are back again. Something has changed for their latest title though. A retro inspired first person shooter, Phlegethon is the first game I’ve reviewed from them (of 5) that actually resembles a game at all. It’s not just trophy bait. There’s a real game here.
It’s just not a very good one.
According to Greek mythology, Phlegethon was one of the 5 rivers that ran across the underworld alongside Styx, Lethe, Cocytus, and Acheron. According to Plato, Phlegethon was “a stream of fire, which coils round the earth and flows into the depths of Tartarus”. In this game, it’s a hellish low-poly world full of zombies, cyclopes, vampires that have a hilariously theatrical run, giant frost people and, of course, Nazis. Because of course they’re in this.
The aim of each of the levels in this game is to reach the exit door. Standing between where you start and the path forward are the aforementioned cast of enemies. The enemy variety in this game is impressively large. A new enemy type is added in almost every new level you come up against. First it’s zombies that shuffle towards you slowly but can take some real punishment if not dealt directly to the dome. They’re joined by Nazis that shoot at you with either pistols or shotguns. Vampires creep up to you without making a footstep noise and take swipes at you. Then there’s a few more… imaginative enemies. These look like someone made them while high on mescaline. Cyclopes that look like rejected Quake enemies. Crystal headed robot things that look like a Ben-10 transformation. Big ghoul looking things with weird, goofy faces. It’s a wild rogues gallery for sure.
To fight back the threats in Phlegethon is an ever expanding arsenal of weaponry. Much like the enemies, a new weapon is introduced in almost every level which helps match the increase in threat. You start with a pistol which deals out headshots as good as any weapon (more on that in a second) but needs a mountain of shots to drop most enemies when hitting the body. Mini-guns, grenade launches, missile launchers, machine guns and even a chainsaw make up an array of 10 weapons you’ll unlock as you progress.
It’s a shame that almost everything else about Phlegethon feels half-baked or out of place. Let’s start with the level design. For the most part, this game is nothing but kill corridors. There’s no complexity to it at all. There’s the occasional forked path with enemies and/or dead end waiting in one of the directions. There’s a few wider sections of level too where you’ll be facing off against boss like enemies (which are almost always a bigger version of an existing enemy with a different colour scheme). Don’t expect environmental hazards beyond red barrels that explode when shot and don’t expect any door locking or smart, looping design like you’d find in the original Doom to prevent unnecessary back tracking. Phlegethon might look like to 90’s classics with their blurry textures and low-poly models but it didn’t learn any of the design lessons that those games laid out for future generations. It’s just so straightforward.
That wouldn’t be so bad but the AI in the game really compound this simplicity. It’s very obvious that each enemy has had an area designated where they can go by the designers and they won’t deviate from it. No matter the enemy, once you’re in range, they’ll either run in to attack or fire off their projectile in your direction. Back out of that area and the enemy will simply disengage and head back to their starting position. You can just cheese your way through some highly populated corridors simply by doing the Okie Cokie with them, backing away so they turn around before reaching you. It’d be sad if it wasn’t so funny to watch entire waves of enemies just turn and run from you as you retreat.
Then there’s physics in the game. This only really comes into play when you use an explosive type weapon like a grenade or missile launcher or you shoot a red barrel. When you do though, prepare to be bemused. Y’know how in most games, enemies are blown away from an explosion, like how you would in reality? That’s not true of Phlegethon. Instead, everything hit by an explosion, no matter how close or in what direction, is slammed to the left. It’s one of the weirdest physics bugs I’ve ever seen.
Which brings us to the poorest part of Phlegethon. The gun play. What should be one of the core tenets of a first person shooter shouldn’t feel this paper thin. Everything just feels… off. It feels like you’ve got to shoot above someone’s head to land a headshot rather than directly at their melon. I can’t decide whether it’s odd hit detection or a weird, unfamiliar bullet trajectory. Either way, it’s just poor.
What’s even funnier is that projectiles from enemies and you’re own gun can travel through solid objects. A bunch of Nazis hiding in a house? As soon as you get close, they’ll start firing on you, even if there’s no line of sight. You’ll see their bullet fire coming through the walls of buildings and through thick brick walls even before you’ve clapped eyes on them. It’s the same for every enemy type with a projectile in the game – and your own weapon. I’ve killed a few enemies myself by just shooting back through a wall where I’ve seen a fire ball come from.
To give it its dues, Phlegethon does manage to build up some decent atmosphere in some of its levels via the visuals and audio. The swamp based levels, of which there are a handful, come along with this very cool ambient noise and squelching footstep sounds. The first snowy level has an almost Chernobyl-in-winter like quality too it with fog obscuring buildings off in the distance. While I don’t think Phlegethon looks anywhere near as good as the PS1 First Person Shooter classics it’s trying to emulate like Doom, Quake, Lifeforce Tenka and many more, it certainly looks like a game from that era. The intention is clear here and it works to a degree. It just doesn’t work as well as the other retro inspired shooters that are carving their own niche in the market right now.
Despite a few positives, Phlegethon is a poor example of the retro inspired FPS genre and can’t hold a candle to the 90’s classics its attempting to emulate. This is a step in the right direction for Random-Spin Games as its certainly better than their previous titles but uninspired design, poor AI and half-baked mechanics mean this as an ‘also ran’ in a genre filling up with quality.
Phlegethon is available now on PS4 (review platform). A PC release is planned via Steam.
Developer: Random Spin
Publisher: Random Spin
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, a copy of the game was purchased. For our full review policy, please go here.
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