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Written by  :  Mumm-Ra (410)
Written on  :  Mar 11, 2003
Platform  :  DOS
Rating  :  4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars4.83 Stars

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The stereotype of an interactive movie - much more movie than interactive.

The Good

Phantasmagoria is maybe one of the most controversial games ever released. Not because of its subject, but because of its purposes. First of all, it came on 7 CDs, consuming over 3 GB. It was a lot. Games were (and still are) much smaller those days. The also celebrated Full Throttle and The Dig (both from Lucas Arts, released that same year) had only one CD-ROM each. The two largest games before (in number of CDs) were Under A Killing Moon and Wing Commander 3, both occupying 4 CD-ROMs each. But Phantasmagoria had 7. It was amazing. Can you remember of another game consuming so many CDs?

It was an interactive movie. Interactive movies are all the rage those times, mainly because of Phantasmagoria, The 7th Guest, Under A Killing Moon and other impressive titles. And Phantasmagoria was the main representative of the style that year.

Well, game companies do not produce interactive movies anymore. Why? Well, Phantasmagoria is probably one of the reasons why interactive movies became so popular and also because they lose popularity. Let me explain.

Multimedia kits were very popular those days (kits with a CD-ROM drive and a sound card, remember? - not so long ago, although it may look like ages). Double-speed CD-ROM drives and 16-bit sound cards made full-motion video possible and people wanted to see videos on their computers. They wanted to feel the technological improvement brought by that equipment. They had heard a single CD could contain 650 MB of memory and they wanted to take advantage of it. Games should look very beautiful and sound terrific. What about a game with 7 CDs and 3 GB? Wow! Nobody could even think of that a few years before.

Well, Phantasmagoria had everything multimedia newcomers were expecting. It was a multimedia showcase.

Phantasmagoria graphics were out of this world. Although they had only 256 colors, no one payed much attention to it. They were displayed in 640x480 Super VGA resolution, which made the pixels much smaller than in traditional 320x200 VGA games. And the graphics were all filmed and digitalised, just like a movie. You could play with a real person, you interacted with real persons, you could walk through real places. Well, almost, as the actors were filmed in front of a blue screen and the backgrounds all were produced and rendered in computers. But they were very well done. They looked like reality. And they looked tridimensional. You didn't have to interact with drawings. And that was amazing.

Realism was added by alien elements which were not part of the game, like people eventually walking on the streets. The lack of realism of other adventure games were present, though. The main character, Adrienne, doesn't change her clothes the whole game.

And there were the videos. The whole game looked like a big movie, but one could easily identify the video sequences. They were very frequent in the game and during their appearance there was no possibility of interacting with the characters. But they were so great! They were very well done and sometimes looked like a real movie.

Chapter 7 (meaning CD 7) was unique. It featured a real interactive movie. In the last part of the game, your role is to control Adrienne through a movie sequence (or something which really looks like a movie sequence).

Sound quality was outrageous. Music was just perfect, really nice, played by an orchestra and executed beautifully since you had a 16-bit sound card. The song from the presentation itself (played in latin?) was great! Could have been taken from an opera.

Dilogues featured the crystal-clear voices of actors. Sound effects quality was equally superb.

The controls of the game were very easy to handle. The game was very comfortable to play and the interface was very nice and pleasant. Very similar to any other top-notch 3rd person-perspective adventure game.

The story was very nice, really elaborated. Phantasmagoria had over 100 pages of script. It was indeed a real movie. The story was about a couple who bought and old mansion. But strange, supernatural things had happened there before and they began to realise that. The suspense is kept to be delivered homeopatically until the end, when terror reveals itself without masks. There are 7 CDs of a terrific story-telling.

Roberta Williams managed to create a great horror tale. In order to do that, she used lots of videos, showed strange things happening without a reason, then showed ghostly appearances, then blood and finally the source of evil. That's phsycological terror and the most efficient type. It is much more terrifying than seeing monsters from the beginning, like in most terror games. That makes Phantasmagoria really scary, a really piece of art.

Yes, there are lots of violent scenes. Then, what? They contribute to create a great atmosphere. If you don't want to see violence, don't play an horror game, in which violence is more than expected. And there's also a lighter Phantasmagoria version, without the strongest parts, which is recommended for those who are not prepared to such disturbing scenes.

Graphics, sound and a great story make the game really involving. They create a good ambience most adventures (including interactive movies) fail to develop. And the fact that you see the character you're playing with (third person perspective) may contribute to make the game more involving.

Well, that's why Phantasmagoria became popular.

The Bad

And why did it become unpopular? Many players critics realise quickly that the game had lots of problems. In fact.

First of all, it's an interactive movie. Interactive movies may be beautiful and may create a good atmosphere, but they are not so interactive as they should be. Players cannot interfere in dialogs, as many of them are in full-motion video. And the character does many things by herself, also because players don't have control when videos are been played.

Second, the game is too easy. Yes, it's easy. It doesn't require sophisticated thinking and the puzzles are not hard. They are very easy indeed. Most of them are solved just by exploring the house, going to the garden or back to the bedroom. Something ridiculous if you think of those intrincated, elaborated and creative Monkey Island puzzles. Nothing like that here. Piece of cake.

And there's also a red skull in the menu which gives away clues as you click on it. It makes the game even easier, as it contains its own walkthrough.

Third, the game is too short. You read it right. Although it spreads over 7 CDs, it is short. Very short. That's in part because of the lack of interactiveness. The video sequences may be long (maybe not long enough for 3 GB, I should admit; some video compression would be fine), but the game is really short. You spend half an hour watching a video, then you have to get out of a situation or solve a puzzle and then you have another half an hour of video. It is really annoying. When you realise, a whole CD is gone and had just solved three easy puzzles. Gameplay is not fluent at all.

If you concentrate all your actions, they would be so few you'd think "Why does this game has 7 CDs? It should have half!". Indeed. It's ridiculous. And even if it had 20 CDs it would still be short.

And that's why Phantasmagoria also became unpopular.

But there are a few other things that could be better in this game, in comparison to other interactive movies. Technical ones, I mean.

First, graphics are great, but they have only 256 colors. Other interactive movies had astonishing 16 million color graphics. That would make the game impossible to run on a 486 processor, but would improve the atmosphere.

And there was no real full-motion video. Video was also very nice, but it was displayed in 10 frames per second. Full-motion video means 30 fps (frames per second), just like in television. The 11th Hour (also released in 1995) and other interactive movies had real full-motion (30 fps) video, but Phantasmagoria didn't. And the video compression was so crap they had to use 7 discs.

Just another little thing: the background in the mansion was perfectly done, but the background in the city was not. It looked totally artificial.

As you can see, nobody can be perfect, even on the technical side.

The Bottom Line

Phantasmagoria may provide an incredible atmosphere and a captivating suspense story, but it lacks gameplay. It's worth a try if you know what to expect.