After a week of horror movie goodness, we’ll start our gaming special week with FMV adventure game Phantasmagoria that is both creepy and gory.
(USA 1995, developer: Sierra On-Line (now defunct), publishers: Sierra On-Line (now defunct)/Activision, platform: PC)
Mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney and her photographer husband Don Gordon move into the mansion of the former owner Zoltan “Carno” Carnovasch, a magician whose five wives died under mysterious circumstances, and soon Adrienne starts to have terrible nightmares and visions, while her husband becomes more and more violent towards her.
Classic frights and gore
Mixing classic haunted mansion and possession horror, the game doesn’t tread particularly new ground, but as it’s often the case with scary movies, they don’t have to be original to be entertaining. While Phantasmagoria isn’t the most intense chiller, it still offers an unsettling atmosphere because of the mansion’s many rooms and the estate’s expansive surroundings which hide all kinds of dark secrets of the past. But it’s not only the isolation of the mansion or creepy places like a dark cellar or a crypt, it’s also how suspense is handled. The player often anticipates that something happens, but it doesn’t for a long time, before the jumpscares and shocks set in when they’re least expected.
Handmade splatter effects in many of the inventive death and murder sequences are also surprisingly vicious and certainly not for the faint of heart, as these usually depict torture and sadism. It’s all very gratuitous and exploitative, including some nudity for completion’s sake, but it succeeds to make the player almost forget that there isn’t much of a plot, because showing a husband who becomes insane has been seen many times before with greater success, as in the Amityville series or in the The Shining movie, although it has to be said that the mansion is very well-realized, often feeling like a living, breathing entity that makes it so interesting to explore.
Funny, insane, and clichéd characters
It’s not all subtle horror or gore, though, as there are also some comedy elements in the form of two vagrants, a woman who dabbles with hand-reading and the supernatural and her son who isn’t the most intelligent and rather clumsy. In a way, these are reminiscent of the American couple in The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery who also serve as comic relief as well as progressing the plot. Still, taking into account how serious and dark the game is, the attempt at adding some light entertainment doesn’t quite work. In general, the characters aren’t that interesting and pretty forgettable, as Adrienne herself isn’t very convincing, either. It’s difficult to see her as a serious writer if everything she does is walk around being more conscious about her hair and face without doing any writing (compared to Gabriel Knight), while her relationship with Don isn’t very believable, either, as his changing too early into a more violent version doesn’t give the player time to feel any emotional connection to them.
Visions, sounds, and writing from the past
Exploring the big mansion reveals all sorts of weird changes in the environment, or more accurately phantasms, i.e. illusions, the further one progresses in the story. Hearing distant cries or music playing in the next room, seeing ghostly shapes floating in the air, or warning messages left on Adrienne’s computer are all indications that something isn’t quite right and that a malevolent presence threatens the couple’s lives. Most of these sightings give the player a look into the past so that the mysteries surrounding the mansion are slowly revealed. However, finding these phantasms can be tiresome, as it’s not clear where and when they occur. One usually stumbles upon a sequence that is relevant to forward the story, while others that are optional but still important for understanding parts of the mansion’s past can easily be missed.
Of course reading letters and newspaper articles or talking to the nearby townspeople also brings Adrienne and the player closer to the truth behind the deaths of Carno’s wives and his own fate that is just as mysterious and gruesome. Still, with so many optional scenes providing additional background information that can be discovered if one has the patience to revisit every location in each new chapter, the story can be even thinner and obscure if one doesn’t. So piecing together all the information from documents and ghostly apparitions and sounds from the past might be even more of a challenge than the puzzles themselves.
Few puzzles and more puzzling where to go and what to do
The problem of not knowing where to go next can be mitigated by using a very good hint system, as clicking on a human skull in the inventory points the player in the right direction. Even if this might make true adventure players roll their eyes, it’s still better than checking each location multiple times in the hope that something has changed, even if it means that one will miss out on the additional content. However, as each chapter can be selected individually in the menu, one can do a bit more exploring later on if one wants to. Still, it’s recommended to do this after completing the game, as there’s a very annoying one-savegame-slot problem (more about this later). The few puzzles the game throws at the player aren’t worth mentioning, as the only difficulty is to find objects or points of interactions that can easily be overlooked. With only a limited number of items in the inventory and their usage being mostly logical, it doesn’t take too long even for beginners to go through the chapters.
Quick time dying and not much saving
However, it’s not all walking and puzzling around, as the final chapter becomes much more action-heavy, requiring fast reflexes to use the right action or object and choose the right path at the right time. This obviously results in frustrating trial and error moments which are made even more difficult by leaving the player clueless of what item he or she had to pick up before. The most aggravating problem is the save system, as there’s only one save slot, so if one decides to quit the game after failing a section, the only way to complete the game is to select the last chapter (a good thing this option is still available), but with all items collected before gone. It’s still possible to pick up the essential objects, but it feels as if one simply skipped every other chapter with a cheat code.
FMV with all its ups and downs in visuals and sounds
Being an old FMV game, one shouldn’t expect the best quality in video sequences, as these are of a very low resolution, often resulting in a pixel mess and slowdowns in the CGIs. But it’s not all bad, as the way how the actors and actresses are put into the virtual backgrounds is quite convincing, even though some actions could have been a bit less time-consuming. Watching Adrienne look into a mirror to see if her make-up or hair is okay for the umpteenth time and watching her sit down on every single piece of furniture with absolutely no purpose other than biding some time and making the player believe in more interactivity that doesn’t add anything to the story or the character are just some of the most prominent examples of how some videos could have been shorter or simply left out. Fortunately one can skip the sequences one has already watched.
The acting itself isn’t the best, as it’s often exaggerated and unintentionally funny, but it somehow adds to the cheesy charm of watching, or in this case, playing a B-movie. The music, however, fares much better, as the mix of foreboding midi tracks and piano tunes in the scary sections and some great build-up moments with full-blown orchestral set-pieces and choir parts in the more action-driven and gorier parts are very atmospheric to listen to.
An FMV game that’s too bad to be missed
Phantasmagoria might not be a good game or a good movie, as it doesn’t have much gameplay or many puzzles and doesn’t feature the most interesting plot or characters. But as with most B-movies, it’s still entertaining to play and watch, even if the main reason is finding out what weird things are happening around the next corner, how graphic the violence becomes, and what mysteries the mansion with its many hidden passages reveals to the inquisitive player. Despite the frustrating finale and the terrible savegame system, the mix of classic horror chills and gore kills still makes this a guilty pleasure to play through.
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