My reviews usually begin one of two ways: I either have a very specific joke or remark in mind to begin, or I stare at the screen until I think of one…or give up and just go with something basic. In the case of Pharaonic, I stared at the screen and gave up, but not because I couldn’t think of something clever…although for the record, I couldn’t. Actually, I’ve been contemplating why I spent most of my time playing the game more frustrated than having fun, and how that should alter my score, if it should at all. Pharaonic bills itself as an “unforgiving” action RPG inspired by Dark Souls, and after dying more often than Super Mario under the control of your grandmother “playing Nintendo” for the first time, I absolutely believe the developer when they claim that.
Let’s do what I usually do in my second paragraph and go back a few steps, though. Pharaonic is instantly unique in that it is a (3D modeled) action RPG that functionally plays on a single 2D plane only. Movement into the background and foreground only occurs for the purpose of navigating into different hallways and rooms in the various dungeons. There is no leaping, only dodging and ducking for the purposes of the combat system. The combat is also very deliberate, rather than a hack-n-slash-fest like many other games of its ilk. You (and the baddies) have light and heavy attacks, blocks (with a shield), parries, ducking, rolling, and back-stepping. There is a huge variety of weapons, each with different attack speeds and ranges and attack animations. There’s quite a great deal of variety available for just how you approach an enemy encounter. This is all good and all very positive, but it is also very…demanding.
What I mean by that is, to me at least, Pharaonic was very demanding of my attention. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t paying attention or that I don’t pay attention when I’m playing a game, but that enemy encounters demanded my absolute focus. I couldn’t just zone out in a fight while I considered which areas I had explored and mapped out where I needed to go, because more often than not when I did that, it ended up getting me killed. Enemies will wait for you to strike, try to block you, sometimes parry you, duck under your attacks, roll past you, and if they hit you, they will take a decent chunk of your health out with that strike. It means that nearly every single time you get into a fight, you’d better be prepared to pay attention and treat it like a real fight – end it quickly and before you take too much (ideally, any) damage.
Death sneaks up on you. One second I would be fine, then a second and a mistimed dodge later and I was dead and respawning at my last save point. The game is gracious enough to allow you to keep any “progress” you made before you died, thankfully. You retain your inventory and only take a hit to your experience points which you can – like in the Souls games – reclaim by going back to the spot of your death to collect your “memories.”
The inventory is similarly quite robust, as well. There is a full set of armor and weapon slots for you to equip, as well as some enchantment items for extra stat boosts or special abilities, like in the case of your backpacks (which allow you to use magic). You can sell and buy new equipment at the vendors spread throughout the game, and you’ll need them and whatever gear you can get your hands on, too, because navigating a dungeon can be punishing. While you may do well and vanquish the enemies you encounter along the way, you can quite suddenly find yourself in a special encounter where you’re surrounded at all sides by a rather troubling mix of enemies. Expect to fight bigger, harder hitting enemies, faster enemies, and enemies with spears instead of just swords, all keeping you on your toes and forcing you to react to a different attack each time you roll out of the way of the attack that came before. “Punishing” definitely feels like an appropriate word to use here.
Accompanying the inventory is a skill system that corresponds to the various equipment you can…well…equip. With special gems and a trainer, you can improve the level of your competency with weapons and armor, removing penalties and making your combat experience a lot easier (or at least removing any penalties to your stamina that heavier gear may have with them). As a feature, it definitely gives you incentive to explore, as you’ll want to find those gems to trade for training.
The game uses an interesting enemy spawning mechanic for its exploration. Any area you enter is going to be initially populated with a fixed number of enemies. Each enemy you kill stays dead as you explore. No matter how far in the dungeon you go, if you backtrack, the enemies you killed stay killed. If you die, however, or if you use a save point, all of the enemies are instantly respawned. Killing them again gives you experience points to contribute to your leveling up (and thus increasing your health and stamina and so forth), but you have to weigh how far you’ve explored against what may be around the corner to decide when you want to save and when you think you can risk it.
Again, dying doesn’t have any real penalty aside from your experience, so it may not be that much of an issue for you, but when I did die (the many times I did) it meant slogging through from the start to where I died and trying to get there in better health than when I first arrived to recover my experience and keep progressing. Pharaonic uses a water flash for its sole healing item, which has three charges and can be refilled at fountains spread throughout the dungeon, or restored at save points. This, too, plays into how you choose to explore the dungeon ahead of you.
The graphics are very basic, with a nice, unique style that eschews realism for the sake of its artistic direction. I’ve mentioned before that I definitely can appreciate that, especially when a more elaborate art style wouldn’t really service the game and its intention to be a game and not a film or anything else. Similarly, there’s no real voice acting at all, and the music is simply there, ambient sound for the background. The sound effects are serviceable, but Pharaonic seems content to be a very mechanically sound video game and only a video game. There is a story, but it’s mostly there as flavor text for your adventure. I did find the conversations with the NPCs somewhat interesting, but they rarely did more than provide another quest or item to help you along the way. Again, it’s all very old school and very much “like a video game” with no apologies, and there’s nothing at all wrong with that.
What is wrong, however, is not having a button defaulted to pull up the map instantly, and instead forcing me to open the inventory, scroll to items, then scroll to the map every time I wanted to check where I was going until I dug around in the settings to find an unmapped “area map” option (I’d recommend mapping it to R3). That’s downright criminal, and while less egregious than the painfully slow MapQuest feature, I did find the combat somewhat slow as well. I understand why the combat is slow, and I wouldn’t even call its speed (or lack thereof) a negative, but it did jump out at me with just how slow it felt.
All in all, you should get between 8-10 hours out of Pharaonic, depending on your personal penchant for exploration and…you know…how often you die. For me, I died a lot. Like a lot. I definitely got better the more I played (and pro-tip: watch out for traps, they freaking hurt) but I still saw quite a few deaths playing through the game. As I said at the start of my review, while I definitely had fun, I felt more drawn to explore the dungeons than fight, and so the combat being so unforgiving frustrated me more often than enthralled me. There aren’t many games that give you a chance to roam about ancient Egypt, a decision that I feel the developer absolutely should be commended for. At the end of the day, I would definitely give the game a recommendation, but only provided that consumers know what they’re getting into with the difficulty and the style of action RPG that comes with their purchase.
Score – 7/10
Review code supplied by Microsoft Xbox.