Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (Windows)

Critic Score
100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
User Score
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  Cor 13 (174202)
Written on  :  Aug 05, 2002
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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Time to spice up office routine with murders and kinky sex

The Good

Puzzle of Flesh is Sierra's second foray into the world of mature-themed horror, following the controversial Phantasmagoria. It has a markedly different tone and ramped-up gameplay, but its overall intention is the same: shock the player with macabre mature themes within the frames of simplified, yet functional adventure mechanics.

The gameplay in Puzzle of Flesh is, in fact, better than in the original Phantasmagoria. It is more varied and dynamic, and it offers more interactivity. You'll encounter realistic computer-based tasks (such as getting a password, responding to an e-mail, etc.), and the last section of the game shines with tricky inventory-based puzzles. There are simpler tasks that follow common logic - using tools, having appointments, etc. There are many ways to interact with the characters as well: for example, conversation trees based solely on using an inventory object on a character pop out frequently.

Following a wonderful Sierra tradition, the game also lets you experiment. It treats you to unique FMV sequences even when you attempt to combine a wrong item with a wrong object. For instance, you won't be able to open something by using a screwdriver, but you may try it, and the game will consider this attempt logical and react with visual feedback. In general, Puzzle of Flesh lets you play more than the first game, where you basically roam about, hoping to encounter something of interest.

The game scores points for trying to be as realistic as possible in the way it treats its ordinary modern-day setting. The characters are surprisingly interesting, and Puzzle of Flesh should be commended for depicting all sorts of social and sexual behavior that are considered "taboo" in most games. In what other game will you find such a subtly and ambiguously presented relationship between two male friends, one of which is gay? What other game has its protagonist cheat on his girlfriend and then have a rather insane, psychologically suspicious relationship with a kinky colleague? The four main characters of the game are all convincingly portrayed and resemble real people more than average video game characters, and not only because they are acted by real people. Compared to the socially isolated and psychologically murky protagonist from the first Phantasmagoria, Curtis is shown in a real society, surrounded by real people, and having problems he reacts to adequately.

The acting is also surprisingly good, with a few exceptions. The quality of the FMV is high for its time, and generally the cinematic aspect of Puzzle of Flesh is better than some are willing to admit. Integration of video and gameplay is noticeably smoother than in the first game, with less artificial collisions between the live protagonist and the still backgrounds, and more accurate animations. Atmospheric music complements gameplay portions.

There are bright moments in the storytelling. The plot does rely too much on cheap thrills, can get tiresome after the murders begin to pile up, and the ultimate explanation is cheesy and hardly satisfying. However, the initial impact is strong, and what keeps the plot moving are details: you are curious to know how Curtis is going to deal with his troublesome love life, which character will be threatened next by the mysterious murderer, how exactly the protagonist's past has affected his current predicament, and so on. The story is anything but intellectual and mostly feels like a rather awkward amalgam of a horror B-movie and a television drama - but it rarely gets dull.

The Bad

While many of the game's puzzles are perfectly intuitive and natural actions, some of them are extremely illogical and feel totally out of place in this horror mystery. This includes the ridiculous wallet-retrieving task early in the game, as well as the overly obscure puzzle in the alien world in the last chapter, among others.

The game is also too fond of an annoying gameplay element seemingly taken out of a Japanese adventure: you must frequently perform certain actions to trigger completely unrelated events. Puzzle of Flesh can thus easily become frustrating without being challenging; you'll find yourself wandering from location to location, trying to make someone appear or something occur. This turns a sizable portion of the game into aimless and tedious walking and clicking on everything you can notice.

In terms of atmosphere and horror content, the game appears to be inferior to its gameplay-impaired, but genuinely scary and disturbing predecessor. It's not that the sequel is less horrifying than the first game; the problem is, rather, the amount of horror and the way it is distributed throughout the plot. In the first Phantasmagoria, the initial chapters were basically a preparation for the frightening scenes that would come relatively late. Suspense was growing slowly, gradually, breaking only during the dramatic last sequence. Here, the game practically starts with a horror scene, and they keep coming steadily. Each time you look at your mirror you might encounter another FMV showing something creepy. After a while these surprises begin to lose their emotional impact, and you start perceiving them with inappropriate nonchalance.

This is exacerbated by the direction the story eventually adopts. The first game was a stylistically coherent, traditional haunted mansion tale. The more ambitious plot of the sequel takes a strange, unnecessary turn into rather banal science fiction during its later stages, losing much of the credibility and tension it has accumulated up to that point. The disappointing ending sequence does little to alleviate this problem, despite the choice it offers to the player.

The Bottom Line

Puzzle of Flesh may not be as shocking and as artistically engaging as its predecessor, but it offers more gameplay, reaching roughly the same level of campy appeal. Far from being a stellar adventure, it is nevertheless an entertaining experience and an interesting example of "forbidden" topics finding their ways into a video game.