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Game Night: I’m Not Sure If ‘Phantom Fury’ Is Actually Kidding

It’s interesting how nostalgia comes in layers. The concept of the “boomer shooter” started with games that were deliberate throwbacks to the golden age of the FPS, which stretches from roughly 1993 (the first Doom) to 2001 (Halo: Combat Evolved).

Now the incessant passage of time has led to the emergence of a new type of nostalgic FPS, which are based on all the post-Halo, post-Half-Life shooters that came out on sixth-generation consoles. They’ve got big, blocky graphics; their levels are split up into digestible linear chunks; their worlds are built around the 1990s’ concept of the future, where there are colonies on other planets but nobody has a flatscreen monitor; and they’re based on the assumption that you’re trying to play an FPS on a controller, so there’s usually some baked-in aim assistance. If I felt like being an asshole, I could call these games “zoomer shooters.”

That’s 3D Realms and Slipgate Ironworks’ Phantom Fury. It’s a throwback to the 2000s that can proudly stand alongside classics like Mace Griffin: Bounty Hunter, Cold Winter, Urban Chaos, and Project: Snowblind. Three people are amused by that sentence and I’m satisfied with those numbers. Moving on.

In 2101, Shelly “Bombshell” Harrison wakes up in an off-books medical facility with a new cybernetic arm. Within minutes, a rogue element in her PMC tries to kill her. After Shelly escapes, her commanding officer sends her to New Mexico, to find and retrieve an artifact called the Demon Core before that rogue element can get it.

Up front: I would not call Phantom Fury (PF) a traditionally good game. The physics are janky, it’s got a couple of glaring holes in its arsenal, the story’s wafer-thin, and most glaringly, none of the guns have any sense of impact when fired. Some of the later weapons are nice and weird, particularly the one that shoots clouds of alien bile, but none of them have the necessary kinetic force that I need from guns in an FPS. Shelly apparently custom-loads all her shotgun shells with pixie dust.

In its defense, PF also has a few fun levels, a couple of clever puzzles, and plays out at a good pace. Most importantly, it’s got great gore effects, which is always a crucial ingredient in this sort of shooter. Shelly can punch a guy so hard that he turns to soup, and that has to count for something.

Ordinarily, I’d have written this off as a middle-of-the-road shooter – the word I keep wanting to use is “inoffensive” – which doesn’t usually give you much to talk about. The further I got into it, though, the more interested I was in how it’s built. It’s not simply that PF is a throwback shooter, but that it’s the throwback shooter.

It plays out like it’s checking items off a list of game design tropes of the 2000s: vehicle sections, two sewer levels, the protagonist complaining about having to go through the sewer levels, a PMC with more money and manpower than the European Union, a couple of mandatory stealth segments that don’t work very well, ventilation shafts you could use as a parking space, zombies out of nowhere, a “start to crate” of less than 30 seconds, the phrase “there’s no time to explain,” building a tower out of shipping containers with a crane, taking time out during a firefight to play an arcade racer, multiple NPC betrayals (one of which is spoiled by the list of achievements), dual-wielding, turrets you can rip off their mount and take with you, and occasionally, regenerating health. There’s a Dopefish cameo, the first door code is 0451, and at one point, the game goes full Ravenholm for about an hour. If PF had an escort mission and human shields, it’d hit the royal flush.

This attention to detail extends to Shelly, who’s a gender-flipped version of the stereotypical 2000s action game protagonist. She has one personality trait for most of the game and it’s contemptuous rage. There’s a setting in the options for how often you want Shelly to drop a combat one-liner, and all of them are about how much she loves violence.

It’s all carried out with a straight face, but the way that PF insists on playing all the hits makes me think it might be intended as deliberate camp. That in turn turns it into a weird sort of parody, especially for someone like me who played a lot of these games back in the 2000s.

I do have to note that somebody at 3D Realms is officially trying too hard to put Shelly over. This is her third spin as a protagonist, after 2016’s Bombshell and 2019’s Ion Fury, and if they’re going to keep doing this, she has to develop an actual personality at some point. Phantom Fury tries to give Shelly some extra depth at the last minute, but she still comes off like an anger disorder with feet. As we saw with the 2016 Doom, even a little irony would go a long way here.

That aside, Phantom Fury is a nostalgia project, but it’s focused on an odd window in time. I didn’t think much of it for the first couple of levels, but the further in I went, the more I recognized, until it ended up being funny. There probably isn’t much here for anyone who’s either too old or too young for the era it’s based on, but it’s good for a couple of evenings’ entertainment.

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