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Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria (DOS)

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100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (171551)
Written on  :  Nov 02, 2004
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Full of flaws, but atmospheric and overall very impressive

The Good

"Phantasmagoria", "Phantasmagoria"... I bought a German version of it three years ago. It was the first game using cut scenes with live actors I had ever seen, and also the first "interactive movie". I played it, I enjoyed it enormously because it really stunned me in many ways: real people instead of graphic characters, amazing background graphics, its spooky story and horrifying atmosphere. No, to say enjoy is not enough. Playing "Phantasmagoria" was one of the most unforgettable gaming sessions I've had. I was shocked. Shocked in a good way, that is. I was sucked into the game. I watched the videos all over again, placing the chair far away from the computer screen to enjoy the movie-like experience. I was genuinely scared and I savored every moment of this totally new gaming experience.

Shortly afterwards, I bought the incredible Beast Within, and I saw the difference. The story was, of course, much better, and so was the much more versatile and involving gameplay, and I understood FMVs weren't a sole property of "Phantasmagoria". This discovery made me sell this game. But some weeks ago, I suddenly understood I missed the game... I tried to convince myself my feeling was irrational. How on earth could I miss a game with such a silly (although scary) story, with such unrealistic character behavior, with such a shallow gameplay? But the feeling was too strong, and the temptation of having the original English version prevailed. So I bought it again, installed it, and played it again. My opinion didn't really changed, and I was somewhat disappointed, but this nostalgic re-play helped me to focus on the game's good sides.

What is the appeal of "Phantasmagoria"? Its gameplay is weak and poor like a fasting vegetarian cat. Its story is trivial, to say the least, and it seems ridiculous when compared to any Gabriel Knight game. What the game really has to offer is atmosphere. That was the moment when I understood great atmosphere can save even such an awfully unbalanced game like "Phantasmagoria".

The way the treats the horror aspect deserves to be praised. Actually, how can a game (or a book, or a movie) really scare somebody? By throwing in it thousands of monsters? By showing blood everywhere? Not quite. What really makes a piece of art "creepy" is the suspense. It's not "what is happening" which matters, it's "what is going to happen". The true horror must come after loads of suspense, if not, it won't be accepted as horror. What horrifies us is the strange, the unusual. If you've read Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, which I personally consider more scary (more poetically scary, so to say) than most "hardcore" horror stuff out there, you'll understand what I mean. What is scary in "Phantasmagoria" is not all the violence shown in it, but the constant waiting, the tension that is broken only in the very last chapter. By the way, this is also the reason why I could never really get into survival horror genre: because most of those games aren't really scary due to constant encounters with the unusual. I admire Alone in the Dark, and yes, I admit I didn't feel that comfortable in the very beginning of it, when a zombie in a nice violet robe opened a trap door and slowly walked out of it, moving the piano aside. But after hacking to pieces a dozen of those zombies, I stopped getting nervous. I actually even started liking those cute arm-stretching fellows. Mainly because there were so many of them, and since I knew they could appear any time, I was prepared for them, and they didn't scare me any more.

In "Phantasmagoria", the "survival" genre is presented only in the last chapter, while the first six are "horror only". You move Adrianne around and have the feeling something awful is going to happen... but what? You don't know, and you try to live as if everything were in order: talk to neighbors, go shopping to the town, quarrel with the husband etc. But the feeling of the inevitable comes closer and closer, and the more you play, the more is revealed to you... You don't need to play "Phantasmagoria" with the lights off in order to get scared.

"Phantasmagoria" is all about this. All the elements that might distract you from feeling the horror are eliminated. "Phantasmagoria" was often severely criticized for its lack of coherent puzzles. I tried to imagine "Phantasmagoria" with typical inventory-based puzzles of the time, and understood why there were so few of them. "Phantasmagoria" with Day of Tentacle kind of puzzles? Please! Just to quote Chris, our well-known contributor: "Who needs puzzles in an adventure game?!"

The game slowly paces until Chapter Seven, where the gameplay drastically changes and a furious survival sequence begins. Now this chapter is a reward for the game's lack of interactivity that has been dominating until now. Not only you have to think here, you have to think quickly. The suspenseful action sequence makes a great climax. One thing is sure: they knew how to end a game properly.

Graphics and music in "Phantasmagoria" are top quality, to say the least. The graphics are, plainly said, spectacular. The house is wonderfully decorated with all kinds of detailed graphical beauties. And, instead of hand-drawn graphics or pixelated 3D there are digitized pictures of real things! How cool is that?.. As for the music, it is eerie, spooky, scary, creepy, and I don't know what other words exist in the English language to describe it. The gorgeous audio track of choir singing a menacing medieval kind of a church choral is one of the most impressive ones to be found in a video game. The music was almost as scary as the horror scenes themselves.

The Bad

The flaws of "Phantasmagoria" are, by careful count, countless. There is no way to ignore them, they are obvious and they become even more obvious because the game strives to be "for real" and every flaw appears as if it were viewed with a magnifying lens. Starting with the disappointing gameplay and ending with silly mistakes, such as Adrianne not changing her clothes for a week (then again, neither did Grace in "The Beast Within", until she really had to, since she was going to an opera. Was their budget so low that they couldn't afford some more clothes for the poor actresses?). Much has been said about the uninteresting puzzles, about the lack of interactivity, about the easiness of the game. Let's say it wasn't the game's biggest flaw. I'm not against solving tough puzzles when playing a shrewd investigator or a hilarious comedy figure, but here, I control a helpless woman, which is terrified anyway, so there's no need to terrify her even more. But the puzzles are not only too easy - they are plainly uninteresting, in most cases involving finding a trivial inventory item and using it on a trivial object. I honestly can't recall even one more or less attractive puzzle in "Phantasmagoria" (except the seventh chapter, where there was a series of puzzles that could be solved in various ways).

The story is actually not that good. It is nicely formed, it has a good tempo, but there's nothing extraordinary about it. Too much horror clichés, too little psychology. The characters are not that interesting, and are anything but realistic. Neither is the behavior of Adrianne, who still prefers to stand coquettishly in front of a mirror and to comb her hair rather than running the hell out of the house where bloody vision pop out of fireplaces and the tender pony-tailed husband becomes a maniac possessed by a big blue horny demon.

A word about the gameplay in "Phantasmagoria" and why it is so that many people hate it. It's not that the game is too easy, it's just that you don't play that much in this game. What you do is wander from room to room, occasionally clicking on the skull Charlie who keeps telling you with a fake voice where you should go in order to find some changes. Events are triggered without much logic. Things happen because you did something you were supposed to do, even if this something has nothing to do with the event it triggered. "Phantasmagoria" has a lot in common with Japanese adventures. Not that it's a bad thing per se, but this is one side of Japanese adventures I don't particularly like. There's really too little activity here. For instance, the whole 2nd chapter (and that's the 2nd CD) contains only one puzzle, and this puzzle is less a puzzle than another "trigger". A whole CD with one puzzle!!! Do you imagine that?

My personal gripe is the abundance of violent scenes in the game. I have nothing against seeing violence in a piece of art, whether it is a movie, a book or a game, but here the violent scenes were clearly added to make the horror even more dense. What for? We are scared enough just by the sight of the haunted mansion, why do we need to see in details (and with live actors!) sickening scenes of torture and murder? Luckily, there's a violence filter in the game, and you are not obliged to watch most of those scenes, because you can finish the game without having performed the actions necessary to watch them.

The Bottom Line

"Phantasmagoria" is one game that really depends on your personal preferences, on how you like your games. Care for great atmosphere, like to be immersed by stunning appearance and slowly growing horror? Then this one is a must. Want a classic adventure with puzzles, intricate story, interesting characters? You'll find none of those here. I personally find Puzzle of Flesh, the other "adult" horror game by Sierra, more rewarding as a game and more fascinating as a story. But I have a weakness for this first "Phantasmagoria". It was a memorable experience for me, it was a step in my development as a gamer. Somehow I still think it is a classic. Although it was good mostly in peripheral areas and disappointed where it mattered most, I appreciate the effort.