Devon-based developer Bubblehead Studios released its futuristic racer Phaseshift to Steam Early Access earlier this year, and the game has enjoyed a series of steady improvements since.
We’ve been spoiled in terms of indie racing games in recent times, with the likes of Formula Retro Racing, RaceLeague and Art of Rally all offering something different to fans of old-school, arcadey driving experiences, despite operating on a fraction of the budget of the big development and publishing studios.
“Phaseshift’s focus is on intense, unpredictable combat with the fun driving elements of wipE′out″, F-Zero and Extreme-G”, explained the brains behind Phaseshift – solo developer Josh Lyell – to Traxion.GG off the back of the game’s recent 0.2.7 update.
It’s a bold statement to compare your title to racing game behemoths such as the F-Zero and wipE′out″ series – especially as an indie developer. So suitably intrigued, we just had to try Phaseshift for ourselves.
Your first race in Phaseshift will go a little something like this: you’ll notice the game looks pretty; then you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the speed the action flies by at; then… FRAZZLE, WHOOSH, ZOOM, ZIP, BOOOOM! You’ve just been blown up by everyone else in the race.
It’s like Andy Neate-era BTCC racing, minus the laser cannons.
The racing is fast, frantic and downright dangerous, and although it’s overwhelming at first, you soon learn to understand the game’s pacing and combat mechanics to help you survive beyond lap one. The vehicles resemble the bikes of Extreme-G, eliciting memories of the Light Cycles from Tron.
Jeff Bridges won’t be trying to wall you in thankfully, so you’re free to enjoy the stable and grippy handling of four different vehicles, all of which are freely available from the outset.
As you’d expect, the bikes have different strengths and weaknesses, so you can make an informed choice based on the next race or track. You can also make cosmetic changes to your chosen bike: paint jobs, wheels and race numbers can all be amended.
More customisation options would be a welcome addition in my opinion, perhaps alongside the opportunity to buff your vehicle’s stats through earning XP.
In terms of combat, players have four abilities in their loadout to help in the fight against their opponents: Utility, Defence, Light weapons and Heavy weapons. All abilities can be upgraded and unlocked using credits and XP gained from racing. Mixing and matching complementary weapons seems to be a viable option at this stage, making combat a strategical challenge. Impressive.
Using an Xbox gamepad, the main four abilities are controlled by the face buttons (Y = Defence, X = Heavy, A = Light and B = Utility). It quickly becomes intuitive to fire off a salvo of Laser Cannon to deplete a rival’s shield by pressing B, then an X-press finishes the job, Seeker Missile-style.
And to run away to safety before your AI opponent respawns, hit LB to boost away with the reassurance that your defensive shield (Y button) will stave off any retaliation. The perfect crime.
Teamwork makes the dream w-explode
Another feature of Phaseshift is the ability to hire a teammate. When up to 15 AI opponents are firing Gatling guns and launching missiles at your face, it’s nice to know you have someone fighting your corner.
A teammate can be hired from the Pilot Roster menu. Cyberpunk-inspired trading cards with prospective teammates’ stats are displayed here, with the best teammates costing more credits than the worst ones. (Obviously!) It’s a nice touch.
Picking the right teammate for the right race is crucial too. Team Takedown Races are an all-out war on the racetrack, for example, so it’s comforting to know there’s a friendly AI watching your back.
Likewise, normal team races require the best possible finishing position, so a speedy co-driver should rack up the points and help you win the championship. It will be interesting to see how this game mechanic evolves in future builds of Phaseshift, and whether it will be possible to enhance your teammates’ stats.
“I wanted your fully customisable team to be the unique point [of Phaseshift]; you can select your loadout, bike, livery, colour, wheels and team mate.
“The loadout options offer tons of strategic options of gaining positions or taking opponents out during a race. I wanted to achieve an ‘F1 team on two-wheels with rockets’ style,” said Lyell.
It’s lights out and away we go… ka-boom
Phaseshift’s focus on customisation gives it an edge over most of its indie racer competition, but what about the actual race modes on offer?
There are four main types of race: Race, Takedown, Elimination and Pickup. Race is self-explanatory, while Takedown involves destroying as many opponents as possible within a race distance. Elimination races are a last-man-standing style event where the ship in last position is removed from proceedings at the end of a short countdown… Via a large explosion, naturally.
In Pickup races, defensive and offensive abilities are procured via weapon icon pickups on track, making these races less hectic than the standard fare (think along the lines of a Mario Kart race, except instead of banana peels you have proximity mines). There are also team variations of Takedown and Race, as well as the de rigueur Time Trial mode.
Handily, custom races can also be set up, where you can adjust the race distance, difficulty and even raise the bike count to 16. The racing itself is fast-paced and hectic, although some of the bright neon lighting can make pathfinding difficult at first. Naturally, this becomes easier after a lap or two of acclimatisation.
Getting a good race start is very important in terms of avoiding trouble when weapons are enabled, and Phaseshift has a neat start line mechanic to help. If you hit the correct amount of revs as the race goes green you’ll get the optimal getaway off the line. Too much or too little revs will result in wheelspin.
Ideally, I’d like to see a qualifying feature in future, as your bike always starts last (except in a custom race, where you can randomise the grid). By the time weapons are enabled mid-way through the first lap (a bit like how the DRS is enabled two laps into a Formula 1 race), you’re slap bang in the middle of the baying pack – a complete missile magnet.
I felt helpless at times – even with a highly-rated teammate watching my back – as although my bike has an incoming missile warning system (an absolute god send), the sheer ferocity and number of attacks you face can be overwhelming. The ensuing chaos does look pretty, however.
On the harder difficulty settings, it can be a tad frustrating being blown to bits with little chance of fighting off multiple attackers. Fortunately, however, there is a race restart option available at any point. It may also be the case that I’ve yet to ‘git gud’.
Vakoda City limits
Phaseshift has five environments to choose from, ranging from the neon-lit Bladerunner-style Vakoda City, to the snowy wastes of Nuziri Peaks. There are 25 layouts to sample but to me they lack a little variety.
Many of the courses feel quite flat and featureless, albeit with the odd obstacle thrown in. Because of the overall quality of the production, small issues like this betray the game’s indie origins.
A title like F-Zero X kept players on their toes thanks to huge jumps, cylindrical tracks (also seen in the recent indie racer Gravity Chase) and tunnels that can be traversed through 360 degrees. Phaseshift feels like it’s missing a little pizazz in this department, something that Lyell acknowledges and is already working on:
“The current tracks of Phaseshift still need some more work with additional landscapes, track layouts and visuals. I also have planned a new environment with a completely different track layout philosophy – more verticality!”
This may be a hint of upcoming loop-de-loop style tracks, an addition that is sure to work very well with Phaseshift’s already well-sorted handling model.
At the moment though, the tight confines of Vakoda City can be a frustrating exercise – it’s nearly impossible to match the speed of AI competitors through its sharpest turns. Your bike handles well generally, but in tight spots the brake and drift functions are difficult to master.
Some of the AI movements are also a little haphazard, lapsing into jerkiness at times. I also experienced a fair amount of slowdown and frame drops during my playthroughs, especially when the action ahead got all explode-y (This was mostly resolved when I switched from my gaming laptop to my gaming PC, however).
What wasn’t jerky was the smooth-sounding soundtrack. The availability of quality music-producing software, coupled to talented musicianship, means indie developers can hold their own against their better-funded rivals.
Phaseshift’s soundtrack contains a diverse blend of chilled synth and electronic drum and bass – it’s very, very good. The bike and weapon noises are also well done, with the odd disappointment thrown in (the Gatling gun sounds like a peashooter).
The next phase
These minor quibbles shouldn’t detract from the overall Phaseshift experience, however, as the game – even in its current Early Access state – is a huge achievement for a one-man development team.
The big question is: what are Lyell’s plans for the v1.0 release of Phaseshift?
“[The] main aims for v1.0 are online multiplayer, local split screen, and more environments and tracks. I’m planning to add a more in-depth career mode with team research and development points and driver relationships; much like you would see in your modern F1 game,” explained the game’s creator.
It’s an intriguing prospect. The core mechanics are there – the bike physics feel right; the combat and weapons upgrading system is satisfying; and the team aspect adds a whole new dimension to the racing.
With a few tweaks, a keen focus on customisation and the prospect of local and online multiplayer, Phaseshift is undoubtedly an indie game fans of F-Zero and wipE′out″ should be paying very close attention to.
Phaseshift is available to buy now for PC via the Steam Store in Early Acces, priced at £9.99/$12.99/€10.79.