In a stock suburban home, my brother, my partner and I rummaged around the second-floor bedrooms, pointing a laser thermometer into every corner looking for the telltale chilly temperatures that tell you a ghost is inhabiting a room.
It’s our job to find out what kind of ghost it is by collecting evidence like freezing temperatures, ghost writing, spirit orbs, disturbances to electromagnetic frequencies or ghostly fingerprints with a variety of gadgets, and if we’re lucky — or perhaps unlucky — a picture of the ghost itself.
That’s the typical gameplay loop for “Phasmophobia,” a cooperative ghost-hunting game that has become a smash hit since it released in mid-September in early access on Steam. The game is still in development, released as a preview to generate interest and revenue for the developer, but it already has such an impressive base and unique gameplay that it’s already worth the $14 price of admission.
What sets “Phasmophobia” apart from other ghostly games is its use of the microphone. The game — and its ghostly apparitions — are always listening for vocal clues from the players in order to move the gameplay along and potentially reveal clues for your investigation.
Ask the ghost to give you a sign and the lights might flicker or a book may go flying. While you’re holding a spirit box — basically a radio jumping around the frequencies — you may get a response from the ghost.
“Where are you?” you’ll ask, and a menacing “BEHIND” might cut through the static of the spirit box. Use the ghost’s name too much, and you risk the ghost appearing in the room.
It’s a truly eerie experience, even after the 20 or so hours we’ve put into the game.
Each investigation will start from the safety of a brightly lit van parked outside that has all the gadgets you loaded up with for the investigation of the location — a variety of suburban homes, log cabins and large abandoned buildings. You’ll be hunting around mostly by flashlight, but stay in the dark too long and your sanity will start to drop, making it easier for the ghost to find you.
Your priority is to find the ghost’s favorite room, which is where the thermometer comes in particularly handy. Once you find a room that’s colder than the rest of the house, you’ll head back to load up on cameras and other equipment to look for clues about the ghost’s nature. You’ll need three clues to positively identify the ghost and you’ll need to keep an eye out for secondary objectives.
Some types of ghosts are shy while others are aggressive.
Your talking, investigating and presence can be enough to send the ghost into a murderous rage where it will lock all the doors, cause the lights to flicker and hunt down terrified players. Get caught, and you risk losing your equipment.
“Phasmophobia” is clearly still in early development. Its animations and locations leave a lot to be desired, but all of that lends itself well to the spooky, uncertain nature of ghost-hunting. You’re never quite sure how anything works, if it’s supposed to work like that, if it’s the ghost or if it’s just a little unpolished.
Each investigation is unique and presents a new challenge for your team to explore as you race against the ghost and your dwindling sanity.
“Did you close that door?” my partner asks, knowing that I’ve become prone to trying to prank the other players into thinking the ghost is hunting.
“No, not this time. I promise,” I say back.
The lights flicker, the handheld electromagnetic frequency sensor peaks into the red and our breath creates clouds in the air. My brother says he’s heading back to the van and we follow, me trailing to make sure the camera is set up just right.
Then as we approach the door, the our flashlights flicker as they make it out the front door into the safety of the night, and the front door — just feet away from me — slams shut.
Another set of footsteps approaches as the spirit box radio crackles with static.
Matt Buxton is a freelance writer and gamer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If You Play
Rating: 4 out of 5
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2020
Internet required for multiplayer