You get a fair idea of the difficulty of Pharaonic just by the title. It’s not that it’s particularly complex to pronounce, but it takes a few seconds to wrap your tongue around it and spit it out. Phara-o-nic. The game’s quite similar in that respect – at first, it seems near-insurmountable, but after a while you get a fair(o) grip on how to play effectively.
After a short preamble regarding the The Red Pharaoh – you know, the immortal, resurrecting kind of pharaoh that plagued ancient Egypt – you’re thrust into the game, playing as a slave who awakens in a dungeon having been chosen by the Gods. So it’s a ‘good-versus-evil’ game, because that theme hasn’t been done before. Anyway, that’s all just hooey, as is most of the story, which is told mostly by chatting to NPCs. The real drive is the tough-as-nails gameplay.
Its over-the-top art style lulls you into a false sense of security, because this isn’t your typical side-scrolling RPG actioner; this isn’t a game for your seven-year-old niece. The developer, Milkstone Studios, has taken vast amounts of inspiration from the Dark Souls trilogy. That means you’re going to die. A lot. And Pharaonic is none too generous when it comes to checkpoints, which come in the form of shrines you pray to. If you pop your clogs – or sandals – this is where you’ll respawn. Most of your equipment and XP will return, but then, so will the enemies. If you slay them and return to the shrine to obtain more life, they’ll just come back, so you’re forced to continue on to the next shrine or get caught in an endless loop of killing and healing.
Easing the burden, somewhat, are fountains where you can refill your water canteen. Much like real life, water replenishes your health, although you’re limited to just three drinks before you run out. So caution is advised – this ain’t Call of Duty. That makes sense, really, given the game’s emphasis on simple strategy and timing when it comes to combat.
You have two main attacks: RT for light strikes and RB for strong attacks. Once you gain a shield, you’ll also be able to parry and defend against the onslaught, with LT and LB. There’s also a directional dodge button, which is essentially your real defensive manoeuvre. What makes Pharaonic truly difficult, at least before you level up, is that literally every action you take drains stamina – and enough of it to make you think twice about your next move. Do you duck and roll or stagger your foe and aim for a barrage of blows before they have a chance to regain their footing? Environmental obstacles in the form of fiendish traps (like pressure-plate activated blades) add another reason to seriously consider your surroundings and plan of attack.
However, once you get down to it, there are only a few variations on the same attack pattern that enemies will take. Either they’re quick, strong, or can attack from long-range. After a while, you’ll soon be able to figure how best to adapt your style for each one, which doesn’t make it any easier, but at least gives you a fighting chance of progressing further.
Despite the fairly basic and repetitive attack patterns you’ll face, the game’s combat is incredibly strong. Each blow feels like it connects, and destroying opponents is truly satisfying as you carefully duel, die, and duel again until they’re defeated. But there are some real issues with it too. Mainly, the pace of most fights drags; rather than offer up the fluidity of, say, the Batman: Arkham games, Pharaonic seems intent on making even the most savage of fights an exercise in, at best, patience and, at worst, endurance – a symptom of the harsh punishment facing those who fall in battle, which means the most effective and successful course of action is one of waiting for an enemy to finish his attack before you have your go. Block, dodge, strike, rinse, repeat…
It’s not all fun and fighting though. Pharaonic also has an RPG element to it. We’re loathe to call it RPG-lite, but at times, that’s exactly how it feels. For starters, the character customisation is fairly basic – you’re not really creating an in-game avatar that truly represents you, the player. Ok, we didn’t expect to have total control over the character; given the Egyptian setting we’d hardly be expected to create a Geralt lookalike or an ancient version of Commander Shephard, but the limited options make us wonder whether there was any point to character creation in the first place.
Elsewhere the RPG aspects fare little better. As you level up, rather than choosing a selection of skills that best fits your character, you’re simply granted extended health and stamina – helpful, given the difficulty of the game, but hardly a revolutionary role-playing cornerstone. Even pick-ups – from shields to armour to weapons – are weakly implemented, offering the standard +10 Damage/-5 Weight and nothing more. Except maybe you’ll look a little cooler swinging that sword than the flaming torch that is your starting weapon. It’s possible to up certain stats by completing quests and earning skill point-like gems, but this feels like more of an afterthought than a key mechanic in the game. In short, Pharaonic’s RPG implementation is all G and no RP.
Overall, however, Pharaonic is rather enjoyable – if at times frustrating. The graphics are grand and the setting is neat, if faintly cliché (more historical facts could’ve really elevated the game). But if you’re prepared for a lighter version of Dark Souls, rather than the campy fun of Abe’s Oddysee, then there’s a whole lot here you’re going to love.
Pharaonic is available from the Xbox Store, priced £12.79.
A ludicrously challenging game that delights in seeing you die as often as possible.
Pros: Combat is solid and satisfying, with an element of strategy involved. Well-presented graphics gives it its own style.
Cons: Fighting can become tediously slow and repetitive. The story makes no impact and leaves no impression. RPG elements are poorly executed – like most of the slaves you run into.