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Phantasmagoria (PC) artwork

Phantasmagoria (PC) review

"Let me take you back to the past, the year 1996 to be more precise. At that time FMV games were all the rage, even if they took an absurd amount of space when compared to other games of the era. One in particular took space of biblical proportions, spanning over 7 CD's. "

Let me take you back to the past, the year 1996 to be more precise. At that time FMV games were all the rage, even if they took an absurd amount of space when compared to other games of the era. One in particular took space of biblical proportions, spanning over 7 CD's.

That game was Phantasmagoria

Long-time adventure pioneers, Sierra, finally decided to get their share of the FMV cake and what better way to do it then by hiring Roberta Williams, the power behind their most popular franchise, King's Quest. Armed with the big new fad and a game made entirely in front of the green screen, she decided nothing was scarier then horror with live (very bad) actors.

In Phantasmagoria you play as Adrienne Delaney, an aspiring young writer who, together with her husband, Don, a professional photographer, buys an old mansion that used to belong to a 19th century wizard called Zoltan with the hope that the gothic look of the mansion would inspire her towards the novel she was writing.

The couple move into the beautiful house, and Adrienne indeed manages to write a few paragraphs while exploring her new home, wandering around the beautiful garden, poking about the vast interior, while enjoying the better sides of married life with Don. Like every person when presented to a new surrounding, Adrienne wanted to know more about the house in which they settled.

As it turns out, this was not one of Adrienne's brightest ideas.

You see, it seems exploring gothic-looking mansions and opening various doors, especially those that seemingly lead to a chamber beneath a crucifix within the mansion's chapel is not the thing to do unless you want to unlock an ancient evil hidden within it's walls and let it soar happily out, gleefully corrupting all it comes in contact with. For no apparent reason whatsoever.

And this is a pretty odd thing with the game which can't seem to decide if it wants to be a subtle psychological horror or "SLAUGHTER IN THE MANSION: NOW WITH MORE XTREME BLOOOOOOODDDDDD! -- THE VIDEO GAME BY MICHAEL BAY". For instance, Adrienne receives odd, jumbled and slightly creepy messages on her laptop or, after discovering a certain object, she’s cursed with a vision of the previous owner. Turns out Zoltan was not a particularly nice man. At all.

And just as you’re getting into the game, thinking that the subtlety of the situation is pulled off pretty well, only highlighted by dribbles of gut-wrenching gore mixed in and helped along by the mansion‘s unravelling mysteries, you’re introduced to some new, "zany" characters, like Cyrus the lummox with the IQ of a lamp and similar acting skills and Harriet, his "keeper" and one obnoxiously bad character who get into various shenanigans around the house like getting stuck in a hole. Why? Screw you, that's why!

Or perhaps Don, who turns from loving husband to Chris Brown in the span of one day, because the game had a distinct lack of douche-bags until now.

And this is just one of the examples, where the game can't decide whether to be a bloodbath, a thriller or a very bad mix of the two.

The greatest problem with Phantasmagoria in the end is that it tries to sabotage itself. It's length for the amount of space it takes is as laughable today as it was when it first came out. Despite spanning seven CD's and given a budget of four million dollars to work with, the game can be finished in one reasonable sitting, even if the game stretches it out with inane actions and waste of time FMV-s like using the toilet (Adrienne closes the door, how nice of her) or looking at pointless FMV scenes of Adrienne trying to open various doors or apply makeup. It doesn’t help that the actual puzzles are almost insultingly easy which makes it all the more clear that the idea was to congratulate themselves with their new technology, throw in a pretty young girl splattered with liberal servings of gore and watch the money roll in. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been so insultingly obvious if the game contained some actual substance. Instead, effort was ploughed into a hint system inexpertly welded on top of a game already several shades too easy.

Maybe Sierra expected to find a completely new crowd, because this tactic completes a game they almost didn’t expect well-versed adventurers to bother with -- hints will literally spell out the next step, telling stuck gamers "Go to the shed" or "Something's different in the shed" rather then give them the chance to progress on their own, at their own speed.

It’s all the more a shame because Phantasmagoria is, at heart, not a horrendous game. Simple, perhaps, and far beneath its potential, but it still had some good ideas that were not often seen in adventure games of that time, like offering different solutions to some puzzles. For instance, to gain access to one area, you need to bring a sacred object. Here, you can opt for some rosary beads that you have easy access to, or perhaps travel into town to buy a cross which will serve just as well. The result is pretty much the same, but the idea of offering some semblance of freedom is nice.

Similarly, the quality of the FMV-s for that time is top notch. The action scenes, as well as the ones that happen in "every day life" are pulled off well, as long as the actors keep their mouth shut.

In the end, it depends. If you like FMV adventures and horror, you could do a lot worse then Phantasmagoria. While it doesn't deliver on its promises, at the very least you will spend a day laughing at poor actors and being surprised in the odd moment when the game absolutely nails something. These moments become more common as the game progresses -- the last chapter alone is enough to offer a cautious recommendation upon.

However, if you want a good Sierra FMV horror game that delivers on everything (while still having horrendous actors) try Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast within.


darketernal's avatar
Community review by darketernal (May 14, 2010)

Occasional reviewer of random stuff.

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If you enjoyed this Phantasmagoria review, you're encouraged to discuss it with the author and with other members of the site's community. If you don't already have an HonestGamers account, you can sign up for one in a snap. Thank you for reading!

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zippdementia posted May 14, 2010:

Hey, you're really finding your voice, DE! The last two reviews have been similarly funny and instructive!

I do think this one could've used a couple more examples from within the game. I was hoping that you would critique one of the FMVs or give us more examples of HOW those stupid characters are so stupid.
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darketernal posted May 15, 2010:

Time constraints will do that when you want to get the review done in time. It will probably be edited at some time in the future.
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sashanan posted May 18, 2010:

I was going through the review wondering if you'd at least give a mention to the considerably better final sequence compared to the game as a whole, but thankfully you did. And on top of it, you recommended the time Sierra *did* get this game format right, so it's all good.

Phantasmagoria was pretty creepy to me at the time, but this is nostalgia's brush. It was the first game I got to play on a PC majorly upgraded from the last family PC we had, so in gaming terms a completely new experience.

Mention of the music might have been good. The theme song (in which the Latin is actually authentic, and in fact a demon summoning) is among the creepiest VG music I know, and at least one person stops me immediately if I even hum it.
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darketernal posted May 19, 2010:

The music was actually mentioned, but my editor(read: EmP) cut it out for some reason or other. So all blames on that account go to him.

Though to be fair, I did play this game back in 1996 or 1997 so this review, like a lot of retro reviews was written mainly on the basis of memory and the gameplay experience. I for one completely forgot about the latin music(though it makes perfect sense considering the setting), but do remember how it changed to fit the mood pretty well.

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