Image: ZTEK Studio

Panicore early impressions review

The sound of strategy and screaming.

PANICORE is a co-op survival horror game by ZTEK Studio that uses audio technology to adapt the behavior of its terrifying entities to the level of noise the player is making — both in-game and in real life. Despite being petrified of my own shadow at the best of times, the thought of being able to scream at a monster and cause it to sprint up to my friend and eat them (sorry, Anyka!) was intriguing enough to dive into the equally horrific and hilarious experience.

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Developed entirely by two horror-loving brothers fresh to the industry, PANICORE is a low-budget but engrossing take on the co-op survival horror genre. Players take on the role of an explorer drawn to the mystery of abandoned buildings, which is, conveniently, where all host monsters (dubbed “entities”) are trapped within. With only a flashlight in hand, players must work together to find the necessary materials to repair or create an escape all while the entity can hear your every move.

A sound strategy

PANICORE automatically uses your PC’s default microphone to monitor any sounds you make, even if you decide not to use its in-game voice chat. Noise is a double-edged sword, which can be used to strategically lure or distract the entity, while uncontrolled noise — be that screams or deliberate sabotage attempts from your friends — can lead to pure chaos and, generally, death.

Panicore Hospital Entity
Image: ZTEK Studio

In addition to the sounds you and your teammates make in real life, various actions in the game also produce varying levels of noise. Players must choose opportune moments to perform tasks such as cutting wood to build a ladder or repairing an elevator. One of my favorite moments during my playthroughs was standing at the door with a brick in hand, ready to distract the blind entity from my teammate sawing behind me — only to be devoured due to a terrible throw on my part.

While the noise mechanic typically works well, there were moments when the entities reacted strangely and, at times, seemed far too sensitive to noise. This particularly became a problem in the game’s third and final map, which (without spoiling) features an entity with far fewer limitations than the others.

Hide and seek

Aside from a speedy rundown on the radio at the beginning of each map, PANICORE offers very little handholding. Every location has two possible exits, each requiring a different collection of items randomly hidden throughout the building.

How To Survive All Monsters In Panicore School
Screenshot: PC Invasion

The randomization of items in PANICORE is both a blessing and a curse. It adds a thrilling element of unpredictability, making each run feel different and forcing players to adapt based on what they find. However, the low number of item spawns and the sheer size of two out of three of PANICORE’s maps can also be incredibly frustrating. There were often times when matches went on for far too long, with neither my teammate nor I able to find what we needed to escape.

Panicore Wood
Image: ZTEK Studio

While periodically frustrating and tedious, this challenge adds to the game’s replay value and keeps the excitement high. Learning what every item does and mapping layouts in your head feels rewarding when randomization allows it. Escaping buildings in half or even a quarter of the time truly inspires the feeling that you’ve conquered an entity that previously terrified the living daylights out of you.

Fun and frights with friends

Coop Panicore
Screenshot: PC Invasion

PANICORE can be played alone or with up to four other players online via invite or server browsing. Co-op is undoubtedly its focus, however, with solo play proving incredibly difficult beyond the first map. Whether more frequent spawns or fewer necessary items is the answer to these issues, PANICORE could do with a few tweaks regarding difficulty and match length. Thankfully, the developers are incredibly open to feedback and active within their Discord community, taking the thoughts and opinions of every player into consideration.

Aside from the problems mentioned above, which I believe will be appropriately tweaked in the future, Panicore is a blast to play with friends. Whether it’s the feeling of successfully baiting the entity away and witnessing a plan come to fruition or shouting at it to come and eat your friend as you run for your life, PANICORE is the type of game that will have you crying of both laughter and fear in its first few hours. While the game can drag on over time, for the price of a Subway footlong, the silliness and victories you can have with friends are worth it.

The setting and identity of PANICORE

What PANICORE does suffer from, however, is a lack of identity. The core gameplay is typically fun and has a solid foundation for ZTEK to build upon, but horror fans looking for a deep narrative or environmental storytelling won’t find it here.

Players can find files randomly hidden throughout each map, though you can only read them once they have been collected in a single run, which isn’t an easy task. Even with all the collectibles, the story is remarkably flat and feels like an afterthought, written in basic language and with little substance.

Panicore School Screenshot
Image: ZTEK Studio

Additionally, there are elements of PANICORE that feel out of place given the premise of being explorers. The lobby is presented as a safe house in an apocalypse, with zombies behind a gate, newspaper clippings, conspiracy boards, and elements that appear to be environmental clues but seemingly have no place in the game’s narrative. The same can be said for the radio speech at the beginning, which mentions an experiment and contradicts the story being told elsewhere in the game.

PANICORE, despite its identity struggles, is still an entertaining game to play with your buddies or stream for a few hours. It’s a horror game where you escape from a monster, with no rhyme or reason as to why. If you’re looking for a few quick matches to play with your buddies or stream for a few hours, this isn’t a problem, but it does leave something to be desired for those of us hungry to explore deeper.

A tale of two brothers

While PANICORE might not boast the polish of a AAA title, it’s important to remember that the game is the result of a two-man team. While their lack of experience can be evident in certain aspects, such as clunky animations and models, stock assets, basic UI, and a handful of bugs, it doesn’t diminish the impressive feat they’ve accomplished. Considering the game’s low price point ($4.99) and the developers’ limitations, ZTEK has managed to craft a surprisingly fun and engaging experience with a brilliantly unnerving atmosphere.

The core mechanics of PANICORE, particularly the innovative use of noise and teamwork, make for equally terrifying and hilarious moments perfect for game nights with friends or streamers looking to shake things up. PANICORE is a testament to what dedicated up-and-coming developers can achieve, and I can’t wait to see what’s being cooked up for the game’s (and the studio’s) future.

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Thomas Cunliffe
Thomas has been a writer in the games industry since 2021 and considers himself a connoisseur of all things Nintendo, Blizzard, and Marvel. Since amassing 152,000+ followers on a Facebook page about Diddy Kong with a backward hat, Thomas has become a trusted voice in the gaming community across publications such as PC Invasion, AOTF, and Gfinity. His greatest achievements include catching every Pokémon, completing (almost) every quest in World of Warcraft, and naming his dog 'Mass Effect 3.' Thomas is extraordinarily passionate about the video game industry and its community. He enjoys writing about a wide variety topics, including popular games like Destiny 2, Fortnite, and WoW, as well as the latest Indie titles.