Phantom Fury review

The history of Duke Nukem Forever is one aspect of video game history that’s curiously well documented. While playing this throwback first-person shooter, intended to recall the early noughties with its pixilated visuals and shlock sci-fi setting, I couldn’t shake the fact that part of DNF’s DNA was present here. Not in a derogatory sense, but rather that it resembles one of the earlier, unreleased, DNF builds in terms of style and features. This may not even be a coincidence, with 3D Realms publishing, and references to The Manhattan Project – although this was a real-life event, and not just a subtitle of a forgotten Duke Nukem spin-off.

This is a sequel to 2019’s acclaimed Ion Fury, only helmed by a different studio and with an engine upgrade, going from Build (which powered Duke Nukem 3D, incidentally) to Unreal Engine 4. We’re treated to richly detailed and sprawling maps, open outdoor environments, three-way battles, and realistic lighting. Yet, it still manages to resemble something from twenty years ago, which again isn’t derogatory – it’s intended to have a retro, low poly, aesthetic.

Phantom Fury review

Despite the futuristic sci-fi setting, it is set in a world trapped in the noughties, with chunky computer terminals hooked up to CRT monitors, billboards advertising trashy sci-fi movies, neon-lit arcades, and soda machines with typically ‘90s sugar filled drinks. Returning protagonist Shelly Harrison is quite the soda connoisseur, as it happens.

The plot sees Shelly, now equipped with a cybernetic arm that can punch through enemies and shift large objects, out to stop a terrorist group who’ve acquired a mysterious device and created a potentially world-threatening power source. What then ensues is a frantic road trip through various US states, clearing out and exploring labyrinth-like research facilities, while making the occasional pitstop. To give a reprise from the near-relentless shooting, ergo turning enemies into a red gooey mess, a few different vehicle-based sections feature. The most interactive of these involves a Halo-style armoured jeep mounted with a mini-gun. Later, you’ll get to partake in a fast-paced canyon-set aerial dogfight, in addition to piloting a slightly disorientating submarine. There’s also a fast-paced train battle mid-storyline, which is predictably linear but dramatic nevertheless.  

Phantom Fury review

The game world, again much like Duke Nukem 3D, is pleasingly interactive. There’s a Half-Life style physics engine in place, with Shelly able to grab and throw items. This is occasionally used in puzzle solving, requiring boxes to be stacked in order to leap over tall fences. The level of interactivity is highlighted early on, with Shelly heading to a dive bar with a playable pinball table, a couple of tiny pixel-art arcade games with scores to beat, and a dart board. It makes for a fun introduction, hammering home that Phantom Fury doesn’t take itself too seriously. These ideas aren’t overused either, not resurfacing again until several hours later after a shoot-out in a shopping mall arcade. It’s also possible to open dumpsters and scour environments fully, gaining a few extra ammo clips and upgrade tokens for your effort.

One thing that Phantom Fury perfects is the weapon assortment. Or to be more exact, the carnage the assortment can create. You’re up against soldiers intelligent enough to flank, drones that explode, zombie-like beings that grab and throw objects, and a wide range of heavily armoured units. There’s the occasional tank and helicopter, too. As such, Shelly’s arsenal is appropriately overpowered, with secondary modes to discover through upgrades. While I did find myself sticking to just two weapons in the final hours, for the most part, you’re encouraged to swap regularly, with each serving a purpose. The rocket launcher will take down large enemies and turrets easily but has too much splash damage to use indoors. The quad shotgun takes enemies down quickly but will eat into ammo reserves just as fast. The revolver packs a punch and can lock onto enemies automatically, while later a few surprise novelty weapons are introduced. Instead of grenades, there are bowling ball-style bombs to roll along the floor. Eventually, a biological alien weapon is added that’ll seek out foes – which is perhaps a tad too overpowered. It’s also possible to cause incremental damage with ice grenades and a foam cannon; frothing up an area before a wave of enemies can be largely beneficial. Indeed, if you’re dying too often, chances are you’ve overlooked a secondary mode.

Phantom Fury review

Dying often is a bit of a sticking point here. Phantom Fury is intended to be reasonably challenging, with ambushes, snipers, and battles that’ll see you scurrying for cover and backtracking for stashes. Ammo is generally readily available – and most weapons also have supersized clips – but health can be scarce. Coupled with the frequency of explosives, this can be troublesome. The save system is also worth mentioning, using checkpoints. While this does prevent anyone from accidentally saving while low on health, checkpoints can be ten minutes apart. I once spent ages clearing out a base, only to accidentally shoot an explosive barrel and lose all progress upon reloading. A few glitches also crept in, but nothing game-breaking; enemies may fail to react to your presence, or enemy dialogue repeats constantly. The physics engine can lead to objects irregularly bouncing around too.

More detrimental is the lack of hand-holding. There’s not much in the way of guidance, forcing you to work out what’s required to progress while exploring thoroughly. There’s no map, no waypoints, and mission objectives are vague. It’s difficult to say if this was an oversight, or because the developers believed this would keep it authentic to the era it’s trying to replicate. This can lead to some instances of aimless wandering. To begin with, there’s a good sense of logic in place as progression mostly boils down to locating terminals to open documents and acquire door codes, or scouring multifloored locations for coloured key cards. Later, however, objectives become far vaguer. I became stuck for over an hour after being told to ‘Survey the Observation Area’ in a large facility – eventually locating a button to push, not in the Observation Area itself, but located in an annexe in a different room entirely.

Phantom Fury review

In its final hours, the concept of locating key cards and terminals is ditched, becoming far more gung-ho. A change in pace is welcome, backed by a full arsenal of upgraded weapons. The level design here changes accordingly, going from indoor locations that have air vents to crawl through, optional side rooms, and the chance to disable turrets by locating terminals, to large outdoor battles with plenty of cover and gun turrets to dismount and carry.

When it’s at its best, Phantom Fury can match the standards set by Half-Life, Perfect Dark, and Halo all those years ago. It has the style of Perfect Dark, the physics-based puzzle elements of Half-Life, and the chaotic, unpredictable, battles of Halo 3. There’s an obvious appreciation and understanding of the classics. Visually, it’s also slick – entering a large area to see a battle raging below is quite the spectacle. Outdoor locations, with tall trees, rolling grass, and waterfalls, are a highlight. It’s surprising how quickly it is to forget that everything is coated in pixilated textures. But for all its delightfully messy gunfights, I can’t overlook the amount of times frustration crept in. Being killed instantly by a wayward explosive, losing 15 minutes of progress due to the checkpoint system, and the peculiar lack of a map or waypoint marker all resulted in minor aggravation. The majority of players will encounter all of these issues at some point, and that’s preventing it from scoring higher, which ultimately puts it in a peculiar place. It cribs from the best while baring modern tropes – by all accounts, it should be a winner – but odd design choices mar the experience.

I’m still willing to recommend Phantom Fury as it’s far slicker and more substantial than most retro-style shooters, but it comes with the caveat that it might make you curse more than the foul-mouthed protagonist. Perhaps the biggest frustration is how close it comes to being brilliant. A little bit of extra tinkering was all it needed.

 Slipgate Ironworks’ Phantom Fury is out 30th May on consoles. Published by 3D Realms. Also available on PC.