Very funny and inventive, but not without flaws
By the mid-1990s, Al Lowe had already made several Leisure Suit Larry games and was known for the silly sense of satire that he lent to games. A relatively new kid on the block by the name of Josh Mandel was making the scene at Sierra, however; he had made a niche as a documentation writer, writing the fake publications that Sierra tended to ship with their games (like the Space Piston magazine that shipped with Space Quest 4). Freddy Pharkas was the first game that allowed Mandel's talent to really shine: Where Al Lowe tends to go for sight gags, Josh Mandel's talent lies in brilliantly understated puns and in-jokes woven into dialog. Mix these two comedic talents together, and you get a game that has the chance to be among the funniest computer games ever made.
And indeed it was, and still is today. If you play Freddy Pharkas right, you can play through the game and never stop laughing for very long. Almost every game object will yield some funny message if you look at it or try to operate it. Of course, this sometimes leads to the feeling that the designers are trying too hard to make the game funny, and sometimes the overall effect is lame, but more often the game actually succeeds at being as funny as it thinks it is. For a game like this, that's no small achievement.
This game also fills the Western niche in adventure games. The over-emphasis on either Medieval or science-fiction settings was prevalent in the gaming industry even in 1993, and Freddy Pharkas is a breath of fresh air in the sense that it provides an entirely different setting for adventurers. Cowboys, six-shooters, ten-gallon hats... It's all here, and brought to life with vibrant graphics and sound effects (or what passed as vibrant in those times). This game also tosses in well-balanced bits of absurdity that aren't traditional Western elements, but which blend in well with the setting, like an improbably-accented Irish/Italian barber and a dangerous stampede of snails. (Yes, really.)
One other element worth mentioning is the scope of the game: Literally the entire game takes place in the small town of Coarsegold, California. By the end of the game, the town starts to grow on you, but I'll talk more about this element of the game in the "Bad" section.
For all it has going for it, Freddy Pharkas has a few design quirks that can seriously impede folks' enjoyment of this gaming experience. The first one that pops up is the annoying copy-protection scheme: Back in those times, it was still standard practice for adventure games to incorporate manual-check copy protection, which required the gamer to have the manual that shipped with the game (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) to get through the game. In Freddy Pharkas, this "doc check" takes the form of the various medications that Freddy must mix up in his pharmacy lab. While the lab provides an interesting little side activity to distract from the more mainline adventure gameplay, working in the lab can also be frustrating and annoying, because when you come right down to it, all you're really trying to do is follow recipes given in "The Modern Day Book Of Health And Hygiene", the fake medical book that comes with the game (which is also funny reading, by the way). You'll basically be doing stuff along the lines of "Take 20 mg of ingredient X, mix with 15 ml of ingredient Y..." It might be a little more transparent than "Enter the fifth word on page 17 of the manual", but it's still annoying.
A much more serious design problem is the shift that the game's plot takes after the first act: Once the second act starts, you're suddenly under a timer to get a task done before you die. While the timer isn't incredibly short (you're given several minutes to do what needs to be done), time limits are generally a bad thing in adventure games. The gamer is, presumably, trying to work out a solution to a puzzle, and restricting how much time they have to do so doesn't really enhance the enjoyment of the game at all.
If you play the game like many people do today--with the intent to simply play the game from beginning to end, as if playing the game were an assignment to be completed--then you might get turned off by this aspect of the game. The right way to play Freddy Pharkas is to immerse yourself in the game's world right from the get-go. When the game begins, you are under no time limit; you can take as long as you want to advance the plot. People who have the fondest memories of Freddy Pharkas are the ones who spent the start of the game actually exploring the town, finding all the little places, objects, and people that populated the gameworld, and laughing themselves silly. If you do this, then you'll start to appreciate the game for what it is. This is important, because as I mentioned before, the entire game takes place in one town, and that town collectively gives you maybe two dozen screens to work with. This is not a grand adventure where you go journeying over the mountains or the ocean or even the forest; it's a game in which you stay in the same town all the way through. What this means is that you'll have to make that town your home, and enjoy all the little quirks that make it what it is. If you start thinking "This town is a hole, and I can't wait to get out," then you'll be waiting the whole game, because you never do get out. So accept that, and explore the natural charm of Coarsegold. The game's plot will wait for you; it'll wait as long as you want. If you want the kind of adventure where you explore distant lands and travel vast expanses, this isn't your game at all.
Many people also critique the game's puzzles. Although I don't find them to be worse than the fare from most mid-90s adventure games, some of the puzzles in this game can be tricky. Still, any veteran of Sierra's "Quest" games should find the puzzles here agreeable.
Finally, many people point out that the game is too short. This is true, but the length of the game is actually just about right to tell the story. Unlike adventures where "put the water in the jar" passes for plot development, Freddy Pharkas contains a real story of the Old West that continually develops, and to make the game artificially longer by tacking on stupid puzzles that don't relate to the plot would be worse than making a game that's a bit on the short side, which this game is.
The Bottom Line
Serious adventure gamers with a sense of humor should find this game to be a treat. Play it slow and take it all in rather than simply playing to win, and it'll reward you. If you're the kind of adventurer who wants to travel, or you don't like puzzles, this is not the one for you.