Review: Phantom Fury

22 Apr 2024

You know what I love? A convoluted backstory of development. And boy howdy, does Phantom Fury deliver on that front.

Back in 2016, a game was released titled Bombshell, which had originally been a Duke Nukem game but was retooled to be about Shelley “Bombshell” Harrison who had originally been a supporting character in the planned game. The game got pretty mixed reviews, but it then got a prequel made by developer Voidpoint, Ion Fury, which was actually made in the Build engine and is a game I am remarkably familiar with through other means, not least of which being a controversy regarding Voidpoint being transphobic and… look, there are a lot of weeds there.

Now it’s 2024, and Phantom Fury is a sequel to Ion Fury being made by Slipgate Ironworks again that also seems to be doing its best to distance itself from Ion Fury in weird ways, so it’s a prequel to the first game but a sequel to the first prequel! And none of the Ion Fury nonsense really needs to be litigated here, so I shan’t. The question is simple: Is Phantom Fury actually worth the time of day?

Ghost Anger

The introduction we receive to Shelley “Bombshell” Harrison is at once perfunctory and straightforward. She wakes up on an operating table with a robot arm and is promptly informed that she’s been hurt, she got a new arm, the Global Defense Force has been infiltrated by some malicious force, and she needs to get herself out of the facility she’s in and also probably solve that infiltration thing. Based on the genre, Harrison spends exactly zero seconds caring about any of this and revolves to pick up every gun she can and shoot her way out of problems.

I talk a lot about plots when it comes to games, the implications and impacts of same, and just the general feel of a game’s plot. Phantom Fury is definitely an interesting test case for that. On the one hand, Harrison is very clearly a Duke Nukem expy aside from being a woman. On the one hand, that means all the stupid one-liners, deadpan bravado, and ridiculous interpretation of human emotional responses has a very different character. Instead of feeling like an 80s ur-protagonist that never was, she’s the sort of protagonist we never got, Ellen Ripley sanded down into a generic badass lady who’s only feminine by a quirk of genetics.

At the same time, the whole Duke Nukem schtick itself hasn’t aged great, in part because it’s all too easy to forget that the joke about the old cliches only holds up so long as you’re actually doing something with the material. And at the same time… well, y’know, I’m a little strapped for time so we’re just going to skip ahead past several levels to point out that there are loads and loads of metatextual analyses to dive into when it comes to Harrison and whether or not she’s really compelling as a protagonist or whether or not “make the protagonist a lady” really does much to subvert the retrograde machismo the plot is shot through with.

None of that, to be clear, is actually in the text of the game itself. The game does not feel like writing through this. The game’s plot was clearly written by people who decided to write an Edgy 90s Action Movie Plot where your protagonist is a woman with a robot arm who kicks ass. If you asked the writer to talk about the greater implications you’d get a blank stare until you left the room. This ain’t that kind of game, fella. This is pure “strap on your six-gun and start shooting the bad guys” storytelling, and hopefully the fact that the person shooting people is a lady is doing it for you. That’s about it. But that’s also about where it’s aiming for to start with.

Specter Rage

So the plot is dumb, but this is very much in the boomer shooter mold. What’s the gameplay? Well… it’s Half-Life. That’s basically it. “What if Half-Life but instead of a subtle plot we just had action movie nonsense?”

I don’t mean that it is literally a carbon copy of Half-Life. It’s more nuanced than that. Harrison has health (which depletes as she’s hurt) and armor, which takes damage before her health. If her health rises over 100, it slowly lowers even without taking damage. She has an arsenal of different weapons she cycles through, from her melee stun prod to more ornate weapons like rolling bombs. As she picks up more weapons she shoots her way through enemies, many of whom drop the ammo they’re using after dying.

Most weapons also have an alternate fire mode, like her signature “Loverboy” pistol that can line up multiple automatic headshots or the muzzle flash of a shotgun blinding enemies. In addition, Harrison has her robot arm, which can deal an amazingly powerful punch to move objects, smash certain obstacles, or even reduce her enemies into bloody gibs with one tap. But it does have a cooldown, so she can’t just run up to melt everyone into chunky salsa. On the plus side, you can reduce that cooldown as well as enhance your weapons through various upgrade systems.

The comparison to Half-Life isn’t coincidental in terms of structure, either. The game is given a very open flow of objectives, and while it is pretty much split into levels you wind up feeling like it’s a constant movement from scene to scene. There are a bunch of setpieces and challenges that require you to think inventively. For example, early on there’s a locked door, a stationary turret located next to that locked door on the other side, and a lower door you can enter. You can’t destroy the turret. What do you do? You slide to avoid the turret’s gunfire, shoot an explosive barrel by the locked door, slide back out, head up the stairs, and then shoot out the power box for the turret. A simple sequence, but when you put it all together it feels intensely satisfying, a bespoke action movie sequence much more pleasing than just tanking the damage.

While you can interact with a lot of the environment, most of it’s pretty perfunctory, sadly, and I don’t feel like the game would be that much worse if most of it was cut. A lot of moments in the game feel like they’re bulked up and given way more interactivity than necessary when most of it doesn’t matter. You can pick up everything, but throwing most of it is pointless. That’s the real shame, in some ways. It’s not that Phantom Fury’s shooting gameplay is bad, but the opposite – the more time it spends on other things, the more the game winds up feeling like it has stretches of unnecessary padding.

Shade Invective

Graphically, the game goes for a deliberately low-poly and pixelated texture look that is its own sort of charm. It makes Phantom Fury feel like it’s supposed to, a forgotten game from the late 90s or early aughts that just happened to not come out until now. The environment is also very good at being readable despite that; I never felt lost or like my objectives or important items were unclear, everything was always well-established. It’s an excellent example of using archaic graphics with a modern design sensibility.

The music, unfortunately, is highly muted and forgettable. I don’t know why this keeps happening with games I play recently, but it depresses me. (Did reviewing Rebirth sentence me to hearing bland music all year? Is it all downhill from here? Oh no, I think it might be. Save me, Dawntrail.)

Full credit to the voice acting and sound effects, though. I might have criticisms of the music, but the voice actors all understood the assignment, and the weapons all have satisfying sounds that mean quite a lot. Sure, it’s not exactly a game-changer to have a shotgun and robot punch that turns enemies into blood splatters, but when each hit has a very comfortable sense of chunky impact? It just hits right.

Phantom Flurries

I’ll be the first to say that Voidpoint being awful definitely leaves a bad taste in my mouth regarding this franchise, so I’m kind of glad that Slipgate even seems to be distancing themselves from Ion Fury in odd half-measures. Heck, I wouldn’t even blame someone for being less enthusiastic about this game because of that, and to be fair, this is a very different sort of game. This is a bit slower, a bit more contemplative (to its detriment), and generally just a different animal.

However, if you like to march through corridors, blow through your enemies, and maybe get a few one-liners in along the way? Phantom Fury is going to be a good time. It’s a legacy throwback that has done its homework, and while it didn’t delight me it also never made me want to throw the dang thing in the garbage. It’s some good lightweight fun. Let’s just hope that this time around the title avoids becoming the main character of controversy, hmm?

~ Final Score: 7/10 ~

Steam copy provided by 3D Realms for PC. All screenshots courtesy of 3D Realms.