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Lora's Adventure Game Reviews: Phantasmagoria




Phantasmagoria (Game release date: 1995)
One of the earliest movie-style adventure games, fun in places but ultimately too flawed to overcome its datedness.


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Highlights: Played an important role in adventure game history Lowlights: Stupid plot, bad graphics, whimpery heroine, awful real-time endgame, horror scenes are gross rather than scary


Phantasmagoria was highly touted at the time of its release for its movie-like scope, graphics, and horror plot. There's no arguing with the scope: this is a 7-CD game with several hours worth of individual animations and dozens of involved areas to explore, and it raised the bar for the entire adventure-game genre. The graphics may also have raised the bar, but only in the way that bad first approximations usually do--ten years later the novelty of a 3D heroine has faded, but the choppy animation and pixel glare remain.

Even so, this would still be a great game today if it had managed to deliver on its third promise: an excellent, well-written plot. Unfortunately, the effort is uneven. Phantasmagoria may be movie-like, but it's a B movie. The heroine is blond, imperilled, and has no personality. The supernatural effects are sort of cheesy-looking. You learn in the first chapter that the villain killed five wives and one daughter and was ultimately murdered himself, and so the entire middle game centers around learning exactly how each victim died. There's no suspense to this exercise whatsoever. The pace is too slow and the plot too cliched to be truly effective as horror, and Phantasmagoria frequently stoops to the visual gross-out in an attempt to compensate. Perhaps worst of all, the game is linear, inflexible, and the player has next to no input into anything the main character does, even when it's something truly stupid. It's one thing to be sitting in the movie theater yelling "No! Don't go into the dark room!" at an idiotic victim-to-be; quite another to control the main character and be unable to take a sensible course of action. Phantasmagoria has its good moments--a few of the puzzles are very clever and one of the plot twists made me gasp. But in general, the storyline is uninspired, ponderous, and just doesn't scare. Phantasmagoria will mostly be enjoyable only to diehard fans of the adventure-game genre or those accustomed to playing older games.

Style: Phantasmagoria is a third-person puzzle-adventure game with a movie-style point-and-click interface. You control a single character. The plot is a dark thriller and there are supernatural and horror themes. The game has some timed elements including a realtime ending in which speed and dexterity is required. Combat and leveling are not elements.

Series: Phantasmagoria has had one sequel, Phantasmagoria 2 (A Puzzle of Flesh). They're similar in style and scope and are often bundled together for sale, but the main characters and plots are different and do not depend on one another, so it doesn't matter in which order you play them.

Finding Phantasmagoria: This is an older title and you can't usually find it in software stores, but it was popular in its day and you should have no problem finding a used copy online. Here it is at Amazon.com.

Getting Phantasmagoria to Work: There are a few bugs in Phantasmagoria, including some nasty CD-reading errors. Fortunately Sierra Online is still supporting this game. You can get a patch for it here, and they are available for technical support as well.

Hints For Phantasmagoria: I do not have a walkthrough page for Phantasmagoria myself (it is a very linear plot and would not benefit much from my low-spoiler treatment). There is a good hints page at UHS which reveals only one hint at a time, so you won't accidentally learn the answers to future puzzles while scanning for the one you're stuck on. Or you can buy a Phantasmagoria Hint Book, if you prefer.

Pitfalls In Phantasmagoria: There are several points in this game where you can get stuck and die (usually gruesomely) due to not having found an item in a previous chapter, necessitating a lengthy replay of much of the game. There is one very frustrating realtime sequence near the end of the game where you try to elude an enemy who is chasing you. Even more frustratingly, no matter what you do about it, he will always catch you in the end (it's part of the plot.) Finally, the endgame includes a long realtime sequence escaping from an angry demon, who kills you if you don't move quickly enough.

Game Length: 15 hours or less, short by the standards of modern graphic adventures with comparable scope.

Age-Appropriateness: This game is rated M (for 17 years old and up) due to sexuality, spousal abuse, violence, and gore, including an abusive sex scene and the murder of a child.

Lora's Phantasmagoria Review: (Flawed)

Plot and Quests: The plot is simple and rather cliched, with a few interesting twists and turns and several glaring plot holes. (The one I can reveal without giving anything away: the villain's wives died extremely unusual violent deaths, which would have given any policeman in the country no choice but to classify them as homicides. How in the hell did they keep getting declared accidents? These aren't women being pushed down the stairs, here, this is Hannibal Lector sort of stuff!) Like most graphical adventures, Phantasmagoria also suffers from its inflexibility. There is only one way to complete each quest; no alternate endings, no choices to be made. The storyline isn't bad per se, but it isn't compelling either, and the player's lack of input into it doesn't help.
Puzzles and Mental Challenges: Primarily inventory puzzles (of the "what could I give this dog to get him to leave me alone?" sort) and maze puzzles ("how can I get from room A to room B quickly before a bad guy catches me?") The former are fun, the latter less so. Very few challenges in this one.
Characters: You only get one PC in Phantasmagoria, and you cannot customize or develop her at all. You don't even have the choice of conversational options to help you feel ownership of her personality. The NPCs are two-dimensional and badly acted. There's little to like here characterwise; a big step backwards from Planetfall.
Gameworld: The creepy haunted mansion is internally consistent and makes a good setting. The main problem with the gameworld is actually that there's too much of it. The heroine leaves the mansion repeatedly in her automobile to go to town. There's nothing wrong with this town, per se, but it can't help but remind you that the game is set in modern-day Maine and there is no practical reason that this woman couldn't contact the police, buy a gun, go to the House of Ruth, or at least drop her obviously doomed kitty cat off at the vet's while she grapples with the mansion's evil. Setting up the gameworld so that these things are so feasible just makes the main character look stupid for not thinking of them.
Gameplay: Like most modern graphical adventures, Phantasmagoria is really just your standard Infocom game with graphics and sound appended. That isn't inherently a bad thing--I loved those old Infocom games--but this genre really has not advanced much since the '80's where gameplay is concerned, and the addition of a glacially paced 3D heroine really does not help with what was supposed to be a suspenseful atmosphere. Adrienne walks through the living room she's seen twenty times with the same tentative, wide-eyed creep she uses in a secret passage beneath the mansion, pausing to look dramatically from side to side every few seconds. You wind up tapping your nails on your desk, watching her creep across six empty screens on her way to the kitchen and longing for the days of just typing E,E,N,U,W into a text console.
Interface: The interface is point-and-click, okay but not great. Fine maneuverings of the heroine are rather difficult, particularly during the timed segments. There's some pixel-hunting involved, and movement is much too slow.
Ambience (Graphics, Sound, etc.): The environment looks good, and the character looks good, but they sure don't look too good together. The animation is choppy, repetitive, and unnatural-looking, and the blue-screening of the heroine onto the virtual background is glaring and amateurish by today's standards (Steve on "Blue's Clues" looks better than this). The sound effects are pretty good, but the acting is horrible, particularly the voices. Far too much of the game is spent in watching long movie sequences over which you have no control at all.

Other notes: I have already had two people ask me whether or not there was a rape scene in Phantasmagoria. I'm a little surprised by the interest in this question, but so as not to spoil any of the plot here, I have put the answer on a separate page: Does Phantasmagoria Have A Rape Scene In It?

Lora's Recommendations: Phantasmagoria isn't a bad game, but it isn't a good one, either--modern 3rd-person adventures run rings around it in terms of plot, character interactions, and graphics. There are more aggravating elements in this game than interesting ones, and more ideas about weird and disgusting ways to kill someone than moments of true fear. If you're looking for a really good horror game, I recommend Sanitarium or The Black Mirror instead.

If You Loved Phantasmagoria: You might also like its sequel, A Puzzle of Flesh. If you love the horror genre, I'd definitely recommend the surreal psychological thriller Sanitarium and the dark horror mystery The Black Mirror. If you haven't yet played the Gabriel Knight games, those were directly inspired by Phantasmagoria and are much scarier. Finally, you might enjoy a game also intended for an adult audience but outside the horror-adventure genre, such as the mystical adventure epic The Longest Journey or the brooding, gothic CRPG Planescape Torment.

For a more detailed critique of Phantasmagoria involving spoilers, please see my Backseat Game Designer page. Happy gaming!



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