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SummaryYikes! You scared the meaning out of my gameplay!..
The GoodWhen CDs started flooding the market in the first few years of the 1990's, many people thought the future of video games lied in interactive movies. The veteran adventure game designer Sierra became affected by this craze for a short while, and presented its own take on the new fashion: Phantasmagoria, a seven-disc extravagant monstrosity complete with live footage, digitized graphics, and stylized medieval-sounding choirs.
If getting scared is the only thing you look for in a horror game, then Phantasmagoria might not be as disappointing as it turned out to be for those who expected good adventure gameplay. Roberta Williams apparently had enough of innocent fairy tale storytelling in her King's Quest series and unleashed what must have been the darkest images concocted by her imagination onto this title. The game contains some of the most disturbing, unsettling scenes in the history of the medium - but that's not what makes it horrifying. Rather, it is the perpetual building of suspense, the long stretches of wandering preceding the brutality, during which not much is happening, but many things are foreshadowed, resulting in a convincingly ominous atmosphere.
All this is further enhanced by technology. The superbly detailed graphics are all digitized images, looking strikingly real and immersing you into the nauseating opulence of a haunted castle. The much-hyped video sequences may be too numerous and pointless in many cases, but they create a peculiar bond between you and the protagonist, as you watch her react to everything she notices in photorealistic detail. Those videos of the heroine adjusting her hair or curiously poking suspicious household items may be mundane, but that is exactly what makes the ensuing horror effects more prominent and long-lasting.
Exploration is accompanied by cozy MIDI music, but the movies boast symphonic soundtrack with occasional choir. The music that plays when you first load the game is singularly impressive: it is a real cantata written in over-saturated late 19th century style, which itself took some cues from medieval church music. The amalgamation of video, music, and interactivity are best displayed in the game's final chapter, which is the only one actually having what is commonly called interactive movie gameplay: you have to make the right choices while watching a tensely scripted sequence unfold.
The BadThe guys from Sierra must have been too busy orchestrating the music score, filming the main actress opening drawers, and researching cases of psychotic behavior, because they seem to have forgotten all about the most important component of game design: the gameplay.
Indeed, stripped of its shiny appearance, Phantasmagoria turns out to be an impoverished, rudimentary adventure game, weak and pitiful like a fasting vegetarian cat. Suffice to say that the first King's Quest, produced eleven years prior by the same designer, is a more advanced and more interactive game. It is as if all progress in the genre achieved by Sierra and other developers in all those years has been negated.
Phantasmagoria is woefully easy. It has only a handful of what could be considered puzzles if they weren't trivially obvious item manipulations along the lines of "use key on door". The rest of the game is pretty much all aimless wandering. Like a Japanese adventure, Phantasmagoria is full of annoyingly awkward, ridiculously artificial scripting constituting the main obstacle in your path: if you knew exactly which particular room will magically trigger the next event, you'd be able to finish the entire game in a matter of minutes. All you do in the game during six chapters out of seven is wander around and click on things without any apparent reason, knowing that one of those meaningless actions will let you proceed.
Remember how endearingly fulfilling it was to try out stuff in adventure games and witness the game commenting it in the form of text descriptions? Well, there is nothing like that in Phantasmagoria. Instead of well-written commentaries the only feedback you'll get here are nondescript short movies. Even worse is the fact that nearly nothing in that lush, degenerate scenery can be interacted with. You enter a room full of furniture and trinkets, but the game only allows you to click on one or two spots. To put it simply, you hardly ever play Phantasmagoria; you watch it.
Unfortunately, even as a movie Phantasmagoria is not very good. There are interesting elements in the story, but otherwise the whole thing makes next to no sense. Adrianne, the main protagonist, prefers to stand coquettishly in front of a mirror and comb her hair instead of running the hell out of a house where bloody visions pop out of fireplaces and a tender pony-tailed husband can become an overacting homicidal maniac at any moment. Described as an intellectual, Adrienne nevertheless exhibits behavior traits of an insultingly submissive and oftentimes plainly stupid individual, neither displaying believable emotional or mental damages caused by the unspeakable horrors she witnesses, nor showing any traces of logic and willpower, walking from room to room like a zombie even when it becomes perfectly clear that the place is haunted.
Also, I found the amount of sickening scenes of torture and murder in the second half of the game excessive. The story would have been much more convincing if there were only one particular criminal act to investigate, with more background and evidence than we eventually receive for the several victims depicted in the game. The horror becomes grotesque and, inadvertently, almost cartoony as we begin to feel emotional numbness caused by the proliferation of violence.