FMV horror adventure game Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh delivers more violence and sex, but is it a better movie or game than its predecessor and is atmospheric enough for Halloween despite its office setting?
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh (PC)
(USA 1996, developer: Sierra On-Line (now defunct), publishers: Sierra On-Line (now defunct)/Activision, platform: PC)
Office worker Curtis Craig is plagued by disturbing hallucinations and soon finds his co-workers at a pharmaceutical company killed in gruesome ways.
A cocktail of blood, guts, and various genres
Despite carrying the same name as the original and featuring a short reference to Adrienne’s work as a writer in a book reading advertisement, this isn’t a sequel, but a stand-alone game that is different in atmosphere and subject matter. While the first game presented a story that borrowed heavily from classic Gothic horror spruced up with gore, this one isn’t so easy to categorize, as psychological horror, thriller as well as sci-fi elements are all thrown together. Mature themes like child abuse and sadomasochism are tackled, too, and even if they’re not done in the most subtle way, they’re still important for the story. As sex is as much part of the story as violence, there are quite a few softcore scenes, but one can’t shake the feeling as if they’re just for controversial’s sake, which is also true for the gory sequences. It all adds to the sleazy entertainment feel, so if one expects a deep story, suspense or a thought-provoking sci-fi tale will be disappointed, as the storyline is just as difficult to identify with as the characters.
Character and story problems
The way how Curtis talks to his pet rat is as weird as his motivation to cheat on his girlfriend with another female co-worker who shows him the world of sadomasochism. While Curtis’ strange behavior towards women and his colleagues can be explained in the therapy sessions that feature the best writing, he still remains a character many players will have a problem sympathizing with. The rest of the cast doesn’t fare much better: While it’s commendable to have a gay co-worker as Curtis’ best friend, their constant small talks and bad jokes become very tiresome after a while and don’t add much to the story or character development. In general, there’s a lack of suspense, with the only incentive to continue playing to find out who is killed next and how far Curtis’ obsession with sadomachism goes. He only discovers much later that something isn’t right with the company he works for, and that his hallucinations are connected to his own past and a secret company project. As most of this is presented in documents one has to read through, it’s not the most exciting way to be immersed in the story, though.
The office atmosphere is captured perfectly and is more immersive if one decides to read every email and go through every document. Some are crucial for plot progression, but most emails are optional and add to immersion, as it’s possible to choose different replies (straight, funny, or sarcastic) that again result in corresponding reactions from the recipients. Unfortunately, this doesn’t have any impact on the story or the way other people behave towards Curtis. There are two different and twisted endings, but these only rely on a final decision, so the illusion that the player has any freedom to change Curtis’ behavior is on a very superficial level and doesn’t add up to what the emails could imply.
The office setting might be a refreshing departure from the well-known haunted mansion backdrop of the first game, but as in real life, it still remains a rather dull place to explore. If Curtis doesn’t bother his colleagues at work or hangs around at home, he meets his friend and girlfriend at a restaurant or goes to an S&M club and to his psychotherapist, so these places aren’t the most memorable or fun places. It’s certainly a different atmosphere, as except for the final part of the game, these are all real locations without any computer images used for the backgrounds.
Despite mostly taking place at the office, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t any shocking scenes or scary moments. The most effective ones aren’t necessarily the murder sequences in all their gory details. The real horror can be found in the emails Curtis receives, as the more one progresses in the game, the more disturbing they become. So it’s not surprising to read messages from killed colleagues, his dead parents or Curtis himself, which adds to the illusion of slowly losing one’s grip on reality. With words appearing and disappearing from the computer screen, one will constantly doubt Curtis’ sanity. There are of course other hallucinations, some actually quite funny or disgusting, e.g. Curtis’ rat talking back at him or a zombie-like Curtis image commenting on his strange behavior lately while eating human flesh or chewing on an eye.
Lost in the office and everyday life space
A problem Phantasmagoria had is even more prominent this time: no clear directions of where to go or what to do. Clicking from one screen to the next and going from one location to another in the hope to trigger an event or discuss something with someone only to progress the plot isn’t a lot of fun. Without any helpful clues or a hint system, it soon becomes very frustrating to do this daily routine. One also doesn’t have a sense of time, so that it’s impossible to know if something has changed in one of the various places, e.g. if someone is ready to talk about a new subject, if the bar is open, if Curtis’ appointment with his psychotherapist is due, etc.. It doesn’t help that navigating through the workplace with all its cubicles is a nightmare. As strange as it sounds with such a confined space, but everything looks the same and one often has to turn in different directions until one finally gets to the workplace or person one wants to go.
Puzzling frustration and quick reflexes with insanity
There are many more puzzles to solve this time around, but unfortunately they’re all pretty bad, i.e. they either feel completely illogical or too obscure to figure out on one’s own, not even taking into account how items are indistinguishable from the background, e.g. a small hairpin to pick up or a photo to look at. Just to give a few examples: In order to get his wallet from under the sofa, Curtis doesn’t simply move it, but sends his rat. As the furry animal doesn’t return, he uses a cereal bar to retrieve both. Sometimes puzzles also feel out of place, as if the designers wanted to please adventure game fans with more interactivity, e.g. solving a sliding puzzle to get through a door in the S&M bar. Then there are way too many passwords to figure out, which certainly makes sense with the office setting, but seeing letters rearranging themselves on the computer screen without any clue what word they should create, perusing a walkthrough doesn’t only become the last resort but also common practice.
However, the most irritating and frustrating puzzles rear their ugly heads at the end, e.g. a machine that requires connecting wires and pressing buttons in the correct order, again with no instructions. As if trial and error wasn’t bad enough, system crashes occur if one doesn’t do in the appropriate sequence it was designed for. In addition to this frustration, there is a bonkers finale that again relies on quick-time-events, resulting in many deaths and restarts. Fortunately, there isn’t just one save game, so one doesn’t have to restart the whole game as in Phantasmagoria.
The good and bad FMV acting, looks and sounds
Thanks to a higher video resolution despite scanlines, the quality of the videos is much better, although compared to today’s HD and 4K technology, it’s obvious that it’s not a perfect presentation. Acting has also been much improved. While it’s not Oscar material, most actors and actresses do a good job, even if it doesn’t save the story from being trash, but that’s mostly because of the cheap special effects and some even cheaper make-up effects. Despite having more interactive elements, there are still a few video sequences that are unnecessary, so having Curtis look into the mirror every day or having a drink at the office water dispenser are a few of those sequences one could have done without. The music isn’t particularly memorable, as it mostly stays in the background, with only a few rock and techno music parts in the club being of note, although even these are rather forgettable.
A wild mix of genres doesn’t make a good game or movie
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh offers more sex and violence than its predecessor, but is lacking in suspense. The mix of thriller, horror, and sci-fi elements is interesting and the setting is original, but as it all ends up to be a convoluted narrative mess that is only an excuse for controversial scenes one would find in any other B-movie anyway, it’s all a bit pointless. As none of the characters are very likable, the player couldn’t care less about the bonkers resolution of the story, anyway. However, what is even worse than the thin storyline, the uninteresting characters, and cheap special effects is the terrible puzzle design that makes the player walk around aimlessly to trigger something or solve a conundrum with the trial-and-error method. It’s really a shame, because the acting isn’t too bad, some of the psychotherapy dialogues are actually quite good, and the sheer insanity of the gory hallucinations still makes the game a guilty-pleasure recommendation.
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