Roberta Williams, a woman any fan of the point-and-click genre should be familiar with, had always planned to make a horror title with adventure style gameplay. However, this one was going to be massive! Its script was 550 pages long (about four times the script of a Hollywood screenplay), involved 200 people, and costed 4.5 million dollars to make. How they managed this with an original budget on 800.000 dollars, is beyond me. After spending four months, six days a week, and 12 hours each workday filming, I am curious to see if this game utilising live actors integrated with computer generated graphics holds up at all today.
“I wanted to explore games with a lot of substance and deep emotions”
After a trippy nightmare that is rather hilarious than terrifying, we meet the couple Adrienne and Don who have just purchased a mansion together. While Don is trying to make one of the rooms into a darkroom for his photography job, Adrienne decides to explore their new home and perhaps find inspirations for her next novel. Although, this will lead to her discovering more than she ever wished to. Despite that I do like how the intro showcases the couple’s nice chemistry, everything simply drags afterwards. Creating suspense through leaving things unexplained or allowing events to linger on can be strong ways to create tension, but neither are done well here due to awkward halting and drawn out scenes.
This tedious progression sadly goes on for the first four chapters. The beginning of this mystery title has you exploring a rather bland and huge establishment, and while there are subtle effects to imply that something is off about this place, you will get your answers before even starting the next chapter and it is as blatant as a brick to the face. Chapter two is dedicated to tons of lore that are worthless fluff and easily forgettable, with the third chapter introducing in the comic relief characters that are so incredibly cartoony, it becomes impossible to take this story seriously anymore.
Unfortunately, this leads to another thing Phantasmagoria stumbles terribly with: its tone and style. This game has a dreadful pace with little to nothing intriguing being elaborated upon as already pointed out, but when it tries to pick up by chapter four, it is a complete mess. This part alone includes a disturbing and triggering scene, before the comic relief characters come forth with some drab dialogues, and then we finally get some gore. Roberta said that she got the inspirations for this project from the works of Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and horror movies like Halloween. I can believe this, since the end result is a mix of all these different styles without any idea on how to combine them properly.
I will commend Phantasmagoria for chapter five and seven, as they include some entertaining gore that is both uncomfortable and impressive, but it is only here that I see any form of quality to this title. The dialogues are below average and never enhances the plot or gets you invested in the characters. In fact, not a single person in this story is memorable due to their limited range of personality, similar to what a horror victim usually has. At best, I recall only their annoying attempts at humour, which do not exactly help.
One strange element I did notice here compared to other adventure games, is that the main character never comments on the environment. Adrienne has no thoughts or insights to anything you interact with, unless she reads something out loud. This makes her hard to get attached to, especially when this title can go on for what feels like an eternity with nothing significant happening. There is a lot of silence and uninteresting scenery overall, destroying any atmosphere this project could have had.
The areas cannot even create any sense of culture or settings. There are only a few locations you can visit, with those being the area around and inside the mansion, and a small harbour town. Neither has anything to provide, as there are no designs or details to keep you invested. The only thing that is worse, are the cheap jump scares that are accompanied by loud music. They never come from good buildups and are just a forced way for this game to try to live up to its name.
All of this makes me wonder why the script was so big. The scenes drag on for too long, the plot is shallow and predictable, there is no good pace or tone throughout, and the storytelling is lacklustre with stereotypical characters and underwhelming moments. Some events are also treated as big reveals when they honestly do not tell anything of importance. I feel bad for being this harsh since the actors are clearly trying, but their admirable attempts cannot save this story. It is just boring.
Story Score: 1/10
Ignoring footsteps by cutting their legs off
I should clarify that I have an odd relationship with Sierra’s point-and-click titles. Most of their surreal puzzles I do find enjoyable, even if they go beyond requiring creative thinking or logic at times, and I have a huge respect for their King’s Quest series. That being said, I am also not a fan of how much a poorly timed save can make it impossible to see the end of a journey and how deaths can literally come out of nowhere. Being forced to restart a playthrough that took hours just because you made a mistake that you could have never foreseen, is not a fair penalty.
Phantasmagoria surprisingly does not fully follow the studio’s traditions. It is completely friendly to newcomers of this genre, by having clear objectives to figure out within small environments, and a skull in the corner that can hint you on what to do next and identify items for you. Being able to automatically interact, walk, and pick up items with the click of a button, further streamlines the mechanics nicely. With only eight slots for inventory and being able to take a closer look at them in 3D, it is hard to ever get lost on this adventure. This setup is not perfect though, as the tasks can come out of nowhere. Having the player suddenly go into a room just to pick up an item they could not before, is just padding.
Unfortunately, the issues do not stop there. Chapter one is all about exploring the mansion, and despite that this could have been a smart tactic for getting to know this place, it is a tiresome experience with so many rooms to search through. The next chapters are either dedicated to talking to people for a bunch of lore or for solving simple puzzles. These brainteasers are logical, but only two are well designed, since they require multiple steps and imaginative thinking. The solutions to the rest are rather blatant, with the exception of the hidden doors that are just irritating to look for, due to nothing in this game indicating there are such things within the couple’s home.
This is made even worse when it is hard to see where you can go, thanks to the terrible camera angles and unclear directions. The multiple uninteresting areas just extends how dull the exploration truly is. Although, the biggest problem Phantasmagoria has, is the lack of puzzles overall. There are barely any to speak of, because this title focuses instead on you having conversations with people and triggering events by walking to different places, which can feel random. When there is a puzzle, you can find yourself searching everywhere for an unrelated NPC or cutscene just to be able to use an item or environmental piece that you are already aware of.
All of this turns this project into a bad interactive movie. You are blindly guided to do as this title commands, with only a couple of moments trying to test your brain. If anything, I can say that I almost liked the last chapter, as it demanded quick reactions and coming up with ideas on the spot. This is also the only part where you can die to my knowledge and if you do so, you will have to retry from the beginning of it, which is fine as this segment is short.
Unfortunately, there is one time you can outright destroy a save file in this point-and-click. If you did not do everything right in a specific chapter, it will make picking up a crucial item for progression impossible and force you to restart with a new save. This frustrates me on so many levels and it is the only time this game does something like this, making it hard for players to figure out what they did wrong in the first place. I suppose it is hard for Sierra to leave the past fully behind.
I can say that I am happy Phantasmagoria does not bring in the worst tropes of this genre, like pixel hunting or moon logic, but that does not negate how monotonous this adventure is. There are too few puzzles and only a handful are above poor. The rest of the playthrough is spent chatting with people, walking to destinations, and watching cutscenes. I ended up checking my progress bar constantly just to see if I was ever getting closer to finishing a chapter, including the first one. While this is not a long mystery and clocks in about five hours, it felt like 50.
Gameplay Score: 2/10
You cannot just blame the technology on this one
Even if the use of blue screen was a fascinating move, this is an ugly game to look at due to how the fake backgrounds clash with the real life actors. The underwhelming 3D models, lifeless locations, and JPEG pictures, all of these are in different shapes and formats, breaking the immersion in half. Objects feel randomly placed in general as well, with some rooms being huge and empty, while others are cluttered with furniture. Despite how neat it is that Phantasmagoria features over 1000 backgrounds in comparison to the 80 – 100 that was the standard at the time, this does not mean a bloody thing when the scenes are just different angles of one another.
This leads me to the creativity of the areas to visit, and none are inviting or interesting. They are either bland with giant and open spaces, too generic and simplistic to be memorable or a total mess. I suppose there is one room that I found intriguing, but that is literally one of a hundred. The presentation really is more about the quantity than quality overall. The designer and co-writer of this title, Andy Hoyos, said that he drew inspirations from films of Tim Burton, as well as tried to emulate the lighting, sets, and imaginative edge of Batman. I honestly do not see this at all.
It is also sad that the technical aspects are too shallow to be admirable. There seems to be coloured filters over everything when it gets dark, since the lighting is not what can be called dynamic. It does not help that the effects are generally lazy with unfinished digitised scenery and objects, with characters clipping through the environments all the time. Although, it would not have been so awful if Phantasmagoria was at least consistent. As mentioned, it struggles to find a clear tone or a way to combine all of them, which can definitely be seen with the actors and the scenes they are in.
Every single sequence dedicated to the story drags on with too much exposition or motions that are just as awkward. It is hard to not see that the actors are trying to convince themselves of the places they are in and clearly give all they got. Sadly, everyone overacts with too much body language, instead of relying on insightful or strong dialogues. In other words: the actors’ directions are terrible. It is made much worse by their costumes being either unremarkable or obvious representations of stereotypes, like the big dumb oaf, the sleazy real estate manager or the strict housekeeper. However, their performances can be cute and I really love Douglas Seale’s solid acting.
If there is anything I truly enjoy when it comes to the visuals, it is the gory scenes done by practical effects. These are wonderfully grotesque and imaginative, with terrifying sound effects complementing them. In fact, I believe a greater focus on physical elements would have made this project visually appealing, as The Character Shop did an impressive amount of work on these scenes. Getting to the gore requires you to be almost done with this adventure, which is regrettably a hard sell, even if it is magnificent. However, I do wonder why there is a password for censoring the beautiful mayhem and not the other way around.
The audio is on a similarly low level as the visuals. There are tons of stock effects that are reused constantly, to the point that it becomes incredibly blatant how unrefined they are. The environmental sounds make the areas feel more empty than real, and the actors have not been helped by the editors. It is quite obvious that this was all filmed in a closed studio, when you hear how harsh the echoes are. The loud noises that also occur whenever there is a jump scare is just as cheap.
This last part is thanks to Mark Seibert and Jay User using what they called “stingers” to emphasise scary moments, but when they are utilised for jumpy cats and Don saying hi, they become tedious. The rest of the soundtrack is simply bad. The melodies are repetitive with minimalistic notes that try to create uncomfortable settings, but due to the shots being in daylight and some of these tracks containing old synthesised instruments that are grating on the ears, I instead end up reaching for the mute button.
I bet some are already thinking of the Gregorian chant at the intro and it is outstanding, but barely present. Most of the actual scores are used for the cutscenes, and when they are so small and underwhelming in variety and rhythm, then they add nothing to the atmosphere. It genuinely seems like Phantasmagoria relishes in how much it contains and the technical leaps it made, that it forgets to be creative and personal with its presentation. Just because it was on seven discs, does not mean it was worth it.
Presentation Score: 2/10
I will admit that I was not sure what to expect, but I at least hoped that I would have fun with it similar to Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within or be intrigued by what it could have been with more polish like I was with Beneath a Steel Sky. This point-and-click just bored me and there is nothing here I can really praise. I cannot even say watching a longplay on YouTube is worth considering, as everything goes on and is dreary. How this one made a profit, is shocking to me. I would rather recommend Jane Jensen’s work or perhaps a good gorehouse title. Splatterhouse anyone?