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Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (Windows)

100 point score based on reviews from various critics.
5 point score based on user ratings.
Written by  :  אולג 小奥 (168985)
Written on  :  Aug 05, 2002
Platform  :  Windows
Rating  :  4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars4 Stars

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An interesting horror title, despite the heavy criticisms

The Good

Sometimes those "professional" review sites make me angry. Years upon years (okay, I might be slightly exaggerating here) was I trying to check the game "Phantasmagoria 2: Puzzle of Flesh", and each time I was on the threshold (ahem...) of deciding to buy it, I was brutally driven back by the almost humiliating reviews of this game I encountered on pretty much every "professional" review site. How about 3 out of 10, given to this game at one of the most known and respectable game review and information site? But it was not the only one. Virtually all other sites claimed this game to be: a disaster, a disgrace to Sierra, a disgrace to the adventure (or interactive movie) genre, a cheap B-rated movie-like collection of full-motion videos without any gameplay at all. And since I was (and still am) aware of all the flaws of the original "Phantasmagoria", I was pretty sure the sequel just contained all the bad things the original game had in abundance, without maintaining what made the first "Phantasmagoria" a memorable experience. Well, luckily, we have MobyGames. Seeing Mat's and Tomer's reviews to the game, that were both very positive, I realized this game couldn't be so bad after all, if two reviewers with such different tastes were both able to appreciate it. So I got it and I played it. And indeed, it was far from being bad.

Let's compare it first to the original "Phantasmagoria". It appears this game beats the first one in many aspects, the most important of it being the story. The first "Phantasmagoria" had a particularly cheesy and unoriginal story. This one offers us a quite unusual horror mystery, a solid plot with a logical development, and an interesting psychological background. The characters are surprisingly interesting, and the game should be commended for depicting kinds of social and sexual behavior that is considered "taboo" in most games. In what other game will you find such a subtle and convincing relationship between two male friends, one of which is homosexual? In what other game will you be able to cheat on your girlfriend and then to have a rather insane relationship with a kinky colleague? The four main characters of the game are all very convincingly portrayed (maybe with the exception of Jocelyn... but she wasn't there for character development, was she?). Finally, you have an opportunity to encounter in a video game such realistic issues as betrayal, lust, friendship, and so on. Alone for that the game deserves to be praised instead of being rejected with a puritan arrogance. Compared to the isolated Adrianne from the first game, who was absolutely deprived of a normal relationship (there was nothing convincing in the way the game showed her relationship with her husband), Curtis is shown in a real society, surrounded by real people. And he is also a finely portrayed character. Trust me on this one: you'll feel sympathy for him like for few other computer game protagonists. Probably because he is shown not only from outside, but also from inside. Maybe also because the actor who played Curtis did a really good job. Same goes to his best friend Trevor. Generally, the acting in the game is of a really high quality and better than in most other game featuring live actors. Only Jocelyn was kind of disappointing. I heard this actress was an erotic star. Well, those parts were actually quite okay...

So: good story, interesting characters, above-average acting. Three things that would be actually enough to make this game good. But this is not all. One thing that I never expected to be good was significantly improved over the first game - the gameplay. The professional review sites mixed "Puzzle of Flesh" with dirt, claiming it was just a bunch of videos, a game where all you have to do is to click on everything, hoping something will produce a FMV and to let you proceed with the story. Well, this is pure crap, 'scuse my language. The gameplay in "Puzzle of Flesh" is much better than in the original "Phantasmagoria". You'll encounter a lot of very realistic computer-based tasks (such as getting a password, responding to an e-mail, etc.), and the last section of the game shines with good old inventory-combining based puzzles, worthy of any classic Sierra title. This they call "no gameplay"? Not to mention the many ways of interacting with other characters. You have many dialogue lines which are based solely on using an inventory object on a character. There are also many very logical puzzles, like, for example, opening a box with certain tools. The game also lets you experiment: it treats you to a FMV sequence which shows Curtis combining 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 as logical, showing you a FMV. Some puzzles are really elegant, those involving fiddling around with passwords and secret documents. You play in this game much more than in the first one, where you basically roam around, hoping to meet something of interest. Don't trust those who say this game has a bad gameplay.

The quality of FMV sequences is way better than in the first "Phantasmagoria", and even better than in The Beast Within. The animations are very realistic, just look at the small videos which appear each time your character stands still. They really look natural. The locations are also very nicely designed, including the spooky last location of the game. As for the music, it is definitely a great score, maybe not as impressive as the amazing choir music of the first game, but a more than solid background for a horror title.

I really enjoyed the mature content of the game. It is about time people realize video games are not only children toys. A video game is potentially a piece of art, and a good game must be nothing less serious and thought-provoking than a good movie. Not many realize that, and the creators of "Phantasmagoria 2" have done one hell of a job by trying to make a game which would reflect the more complex and perhaps less appealing sides of a human being. And they did it in a very fine, subtle way, without using too many clichés, convincingly and realistically.

The Bad

Alas, not all is good in this game. Like in many other games (particularly Western ones), the story starts out strong and has a lot of suspense until it reaches the final stage. At that point, the story took a strange and in my opinion unnecessary turn into the most banal sci-fi direction, and lots nearly all the credibility and the tension it had accumulated until then. The ending is unsatisfying and much too confusing to make up for all the trouble we've had trying to figure out the mystery. And what can be said about a story which is ruined by the ending? Only that it wasn't such a great story after all.

The gameplay also has its problems. Adventure games by Sierra, in spite of their undeniable charm, are notorious for having uneven puzzle design: often there are too many overly simple and too many impossibly tough puzzles in the same game, only rarely they strike a fine balance. Unfortunately, "Puzzle of Flesh" was also unable to avoid this problem. 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. It's not that they are so complex; on the contrary, most of those strange puzzles are simple tasks which become so hard because of total lack of hints. This includes the infamous computer password puzzle, which can hardly be deducted from anything and which is nothing but incredibly frustrating guessing without any clues.

The game is also full of "triggering", which is in fact not very common in Western adventure games and which seems to be taken out of a Japanese adventure, where you must do certain things to trigger totally unrelated events. "Puzzle of Flesh" can easily become frustrating without being challenging; you'll find yourself wandering from location to location, trying to make someone appear, or something to happen, knowing this something will happen only if you do something entirely different, with a different person or object, in a different place. This makes a large portion of "Puzzle of Flesh" nothing but aimless walking and clicking without any clear objective in mind.

One thing that really disappointed in the game, and was even of lower quality than in the first "Phantasmagoria", is the horror content. It is not that this game is less horrifying than the first one. The problem is rather - there's too much of horror, and it is all presented too equally. In the first game, the first chapters were basically a preparation for the horror that would come relatively late. It was kept in good proportions: the suspense was growing slowly, gradually, and broke 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. Well, the thing is, it stops being creepy after having appeared for so many times. At first, I was scared, but near the end of the game, I was playing it with the same comfortable feeling I'd have playing, let's say, a Monkey Island title. The horror is just too easily shown and soon becomes too cheap. That way, in terms of atmosphere, this game is a step back compared to the original "Phantasmagoria".

The Bottom Line

"Puzzle of Flesh" is quite an interesting game, better than the first "Phantasmagoria" in most aspects, and decidedly much better than some so-called "professional" reviewers make it appear. However, some incoherent gameplay, confusing story and unnecessary horror scenes prevent this title from being a truly first-class mystery adventure. Still, "Puzzle of Flesh" has a lot going for it. It is an important testimony of the epoch, and it should be praised for letting some "forbidden" topics into the stories of video games.