Gaming History 101

Know Your Roots

Review: Phantasmagoria

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phant_boxPlatform: DOS/Windows PC, Sega Saturn (only in Japan as Phantasm with Japanese text/subtitles)
Released: 1995
Developer: Sierra
Publisher: Sierra
Digital Release? Yes, on Good Old Games (gog.com) for $9.99 (compatible with Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8 only)
Price: $7.50 (7 discs only), Complete not available, $20.49 (sealed) per Price Charting

phant_1In the mid 90s a change was afoot, especially on PCs: the compact disc (CD).  Once CD-ROM drives were introduced to gaming technology and the 1.44 MB floppy disk was replaced by the 650 MB CD, you could create massive experiences without so much as a care as to how big your code was.  In fact, developers cared so little that blatant wastes of space were created in the form of both full motion video (FMV) titles and multi-disc experiences that had voice integration and usually the first few hundred MB of each disc contained the same coding.  I can’t think of any bigger example of this than the point-and-click FMV title from Roberta Williams (she made King’s Quest), Phantasmagoria.  Weighing in at 7 full CDs (8 on the Japan-only Saturn version), you basically change discs at the end of each day in the game and the whole week tells a chilling tale not unlike Stephen King’s The Shining.  With full video laughably integrated into computer generated images, lackluster gameplay, and a the goriest scenes ever portrayed in a game at the time, Phantasmagoria is a sight to behold.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before.  A young writer moves into a spooky house with their spouse where strange occurrences happened in the past and someone becomes possessed and slowly goes insane with homicidal outcomes.  Phantasmagoria is that tale with a twist.  You play as Adrienne Delaney, a female paperback writer who’s rented the 19th Century house of a fabled magician, Zoltan Carnovasch (awesome name), who was also noted to be a serial killer and eventually taken out by his wife’s lover.  Your husband, Don, is a photographer that must be so good at the profession he can sell images from just about anywhere and make a profit because this guy spends all day in his dark room and snapping photos around the New England-esque town without a care in the world.  Naturally, as Adrienne you go exploring and eventually release the ghost of Zoltan, who promptly takes over your husband.  From then on is a series of events that convey your husband partaking in acts of aggression, brutality, and even sexual assault against his wife before a concluding in a predictable ending riddled with gruesome death scene fail states that you owe it to yourself to experience.

phant_2Honestly while Phantasmagoria has always received more praise and attention than it’s better sequel, it is a true testament to the time.  While Adrienne, Don, and the handful of other actors are live action, they are clearly captured on a green screen so everything looks like a bad SyFy channel movie.  You will never mistake the areas around the actors as anything but a computer image so the end result comes off a lot more Who Framed Roger Rabbit? than Jurassic Park – there’s this scene where Adrienne falls off a ledge, grabs the stones of the cliff, and lifts herself up and you won’t be able to contain yourself at how fake it looks to watch a live actress pretend she’s lifting herself when she’s really just dragging across a floor.  Not only do the graphics look like B-roll from Cool World but the point-and-click gameplay leaves much to be desired, especially when you consider this is part of one of the most hardcore genres that hass ever existed and led by one of the most notable progenitors of that genre.  You don’t get that degree of care that is custom of known Sierra titles of the time and instead receive puzzles that are either lazy or obtuse, none of which are fun to figure out.  There’s a Universal Hint System (UHS) that provides you with clues when you get stuck; on the first click it says something vague, on the second it gets rather specific, and on the third the skull flat out tells you what to do next with an annoyed voice.  This is a common system for point-and-click games and to be honest it’s rather effective for most titles, but Phantasmagoria is so bi-polar with the degree of its puzzles that it’s the “okay I give up” button you won’t soon forget to use on a regular basis.  Don’t get me wrong the puzzles aren’t very difficult but sometimes the manner in which you have to overcome them is, thus necessitating the UHS on a regular basis (feel free to just have a guide handy if you prefer).  By the end of the game you are trying to navigate the halls of the mansion in a chase scene, but the way it’s all presented is so disorienting that you’re basically guessing where to go next with a gruesome cutscene as your reward for the wrong answer.

phant_3

It’s really too bad because behind the hilarious visuals and wonky interface lies a compelling story.  The only thing that feels real about the entire game is Adrienne and Don, who appropriately make up a brunt of the content and come off as a believable couple.  This is core to buying into the scenario that someone you love and trust is changing before your very eyes and you are somewhat powerless to overcome it.  While it may be an off-color topic and hard for some to imagine being in a game, the rape scene is effective and justified on the basis that it unfolds exactly as it could in real life.  Don is the only person in the world to have Adrienne in the vulnerable position he does when it occurs and she is not denying of his physicality down to the fact that it begins as an apparent consensual lovemaking scene.  All of the awkward and aggressive interactions between the couple in this game are handled the same way, where it’s subtle but apparent behavior that doesn’t act like the person you love.  In addition there are scenarios that occur surrounding Adrienne’s investigation of Zoltan’s past that alert the audience to the presence of danger while Adrienne is left completely unaware.  The fact that we control her as she proceeds with her questioning only further enhances that dread that we know she’s in danger but are forced to play along as if we have no clue.  I also have to commend the bloody, brutal special effects that make up the later parts of the game and provide incredible rewards for splatter film fans that had never seen anything like that in a game before.  Night Trap may have been blamed for violent realistic content but it didn’t much exist before Phantasmagoria flat out nailed it a couple years later.

horror_adv_postPut it together and Phantasmagoriis an interesting story with the misfortune of being packaged as a game.  Most of your gameplay elements are obstacles that stand in the way of the progressing story, which has to be the carrot on the stick otherwise you have no reason to proceed forward.  Perhaps I am being a bit too harsh in that I don’t much care for classic point-and-click adventure, but those that do will be as turned off by the events and puzzles due to it trying too hard to play to the widest audience.  Still, I’m glad I can say I’ve played it before and although I consulted a guide more times than I care to admit, I equally enjoyed replaying it recently for this review.  There is something to be said and gained by the experience of Phantasmagoria, but don’t go in expecting it to live up to the hype because it’s nothing more than an interactive movie that disguises itself as a video game.

Final Score: 2 out of 5  (Review Policy)

Written by Fred Rojas

November 3, 2014 at 1:53 pm

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