After how disappointed I was with Phantasmagoria, I needed my cheesy fix. My original plan was to just replay Gabriel Knight 2: The Beast Within, but I got too curious about Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh to pass it up. This one apparently has nothing to do with its predecessor, to the point of even having a different designer and writer altogether. Here enters Lorelei Shannon, who was somewhat of a hidden gem at Sierra. She helped out with the writing for King’s Quest 7 and The Dagger of Amon Ra, worked as a technical documenter, director, voice actress, and much more. With the same budget of 4.5 million dollars, could this sequel be better than the first instalment? Honestly, that is not hard a hard accomplishment, so I am staying positive.
Psychological horror in the flesh
In a small apartment, we meet the game’s protagonist; Curtis Craig. He is an introverted man, suffering from mental health issues, and was even at one point hospitalised. Now, he is trying to simply live his life by working at a pharmaceutical company and slowly taking each day as they come. Having good friends, even one he dates, and despite one bully of a co-worker being a downside, Curtis’s life seems normal. However, he soon begins to notice surreal events and images with no idea of what to make of them.
This is a mystery story done superb, as you are never certain of what is going on. Things escalate slowly, with doubts starting to pile up about the work environment, the people around you, and even Curtis himself, creating wonderful tension. It is truly beautiful how this plot always spoon feeds you minor details and throws curveballs at you that are hard to predict, but make sense. Because of how well the secrets are kept with all being subtly hinted at you throughout, this plot easily grabs your attention and makes sure you want to see it all the way to the end.
What especially helps to keep you hooked, are the psychological aspects Phantasmagoria 2 presents. Curtis has had a lot of difficulties and tries to understand them himself, and when the story dives more into his mind, you are provided with fascinating topics that are discussed properly. There are certain parts I wish were more elaborated upon, but everything offers enough info to at least give you the possibility to create solid theories on what is going on. The bigger elements are also clearly explained to make this story feel fulfilling, but more insights to the smaller details could have painted a bigger picture of it all.
Regardless, it is impressive to see that Lorelei made a believable psychological horror that is not afraid of going deep! There are even some interesting talks about BDSM in a mature manner, which is truly commendable to witness. Through all of these conversations, we get to know Curtis more as a character and what his world is like. His relationships, what he is like as a person, and his darkest desires, are all intriguing and relatable. This is all conveyed through strong dialogues with colourful, yet down to earth characters, with comments being small showcases for his personality without any of them feeling forced. A favourite example of mine, is when he looks at his bookshelf and says “I have read all of these books twice”, relating to him being an introvert.
Because of this, I never missed the amount of commentaries one would get by looking at objects or characters in a traditional point-and-click, as we get to know Curtis through his actions and cutscenes in general. It is easy to accept that he is a quiet man, due to how he talks and is somewhat reluctant of anything he comes across. In fact, this eerie silence enhances the uncanny atmosphere to make the players themselves always feel uncomfortable, as they do not quite fit in despite the everyday places to visit. Like what Curtis himself is clearly experiencing.
There is constantly something off, yet familiar in every scene and I admire Phantasmagoria 2 for being so consistent with its tone. This is strengthened further by a cast that gave all they had to make this character study inviting. Paul Morgan Stetler makes Curtis’s emotions shine through, Paul Mitri is perhaps the only time I thought a 90’s gay character was done well, and Monique Parent definitely deserves more credit than “ The Thinking Man’s Sex Symbol”. All of the actors do a great job by having good directions and acting overall. What is even better though, is how cheesy it all still is.
I am not sure if this was done to have a more colourful cast or to add to the strange settings, but everyone has so much charisma and embraces their traits, that I was always having a smile on my face. They might not be the most diverse in terms of personalities, but the focus is on Curtis and every character helps to highlight him, with nobody becoming a bore. For example, you get from Jocylin that Curtis has troubles with relationships, but also sees how this affects her. This form of connection is shown with every relationship he has, making everyone memorable and important on a personal level.
That is not to say that this project cannot get awkward at times, because it sure can. The story is still deep, which is impressive for an old FMV game, but there are some strange sentences and personalities within. I find it odd how it should be either sexy or threatening to be called a poptart, and the flashbacks Curtis has from his childhood, sadly feature a mother that is too stereotypical and over the top to be taken seriously. These only take me slightly out of the experience though, as the rest is fantastic as stated above. About 20% of the playthrough can feel off, but those are nonetheless unintentionally enjoyable.
What also supports the storytelling, is how it is paced. The first day is to simply get you introduced to Curtis and his world, and the insanity starts right after this. Nothing lingers on unnecessarily, and every cutscene is entertaining or interesting. It is also nice that the gore and sex are put into good use, as they are utilised both as visual thrills and as reflections on Curtis and the overall plot. The horror elements mainly come from the gore and violence, and these scenes are disturbing and terrifying for all the right reasons. I will not spoil them, but the practical effects are amazing and really makes me uncomfortable, with only two bizarre events being rather hilarious ones.
I had a blast with this title, despite that it did stumble a bit. There are clearly some overacting and weird dialogues included, but those are just a few funny moments in the overall adventure. The entire story is phenomenal, as Phantasmagoria 2 feels thoroughly planned out and inviting with an incredible cast of characters, exciting mystery, engaging horror, and mature insights to psychology. With even the two possible endings being both worthwhile to see, this is probably one of the best horror novels I have ever played.
Story Score: 8/10
Occasionally keeping your brain active
It is hard to talk about this adventure game, as it focuses heavily on telling a story first and foremost. Because of this, there are very few puzzles to take on, but those that are implemented are solid. Before we get to that, this point-and-click thankfully neglects Sierra’s fascination for destroying a playthrough due to ill placed saves or wrong moves you could never have foreseen. You can save at any time in this title, but should you die due to poor timing or incorrect actions, you will be given the choice to restart before the death. Mercy at last!
The mouse cursor will highlight any intractable objects or people, which Curtis will automatically talk to, pick up or utilise when clicked on. Your cursor will also change to an arrow if you can move to another screen and a helpful map icon is always available for travelling between locations. Everything is simplified to make the exploration and puzzles approachable, which even extends to your inventory. It is always available at the bottom of the screen, with descriptions being provided if you hover the cursor over an item. There is even the option to take a closer look at a trinket, should you believe there is more to it.
As for the puzzles themselves, they are quite neat! Most are about finding the right codes or using the correct items in order to progress, with none being too obscure to figure out. I can only recall one brain-teaser being far too easy, making it just a waste of time, but the rest of them challenge your ability to search around or your logical thinking. This also includes tense sections where you need to react quickly, but you should always be able to understand what these situations require you to do. If not, Phantasmagoria 2 is forgiving as mentioned.
This title is always great at hinting the player on how to get further, making it a comfortable ride that never gets dull. The only exception is the beginning where you will have to talk to everyone multiple times, which can be tiresome to do. Unfortunately, what really damages this game, is by how little interactivity there is. 60% of the playthrough will be spent on just clicking on stuff to activate the next conversation option and it can eventually feel like watching a movie with a strange play button. An engaging one for sure, but one that does not utilise its media to its fullest capabilities.
Despite this flaw, all of the puzzles are exciting and clever, with only one being underwhelming. There are even well implemented moon logic ones that work thanks to the setting they are in and by being placed within a small environment, making them easy to decipher from their surreal setups. There could have been more interactivity, but what is here will keep you entertained until the next story segment. Just be sure to bring some popcorn with you.
Gameplay Score: 6/10
Phantasmagoria 2 minimises its use of blue screen and digitised effects compared to its predecessor, and instead takes scenes from real places or actual sets, all done in FMV. This was a great move as it creates believable locations that integrate with the character models nicely. A perhaps unintentional move, is how this also adds to the novel storytelling. There are only a few places to visit with each being memorable with intriguing set pieces, such as the different offices reflecting the employers’ personalities and enjoyments.
It all works to give a sense of a familiar modern day life set in a city. This contrasts beautifully to the abnormal circumstances appearing throughout, all being unnatural and uncanny through their designs. It is here where it is easy to see that this sequel understands how to mix practical and digitised effects for the best outcomes. The practical ones are used for the disturbing scenes, such as the flashbacks or the grotesque executions, while the CG takes are only kept to the bizarre setups that are meant to be alien. Because of this, these old graphical effects never takes you out of the experience and instead add to the overall charm of this product.
All of these are fantastic in their own rights, as well. The uncomfortable kills and terrifying scenarios are all done with creative setups, giving everything a realistic yet unnatural feel that should be satisfying to any gorehound. While the CG has aged, due to how appropriately it is used for strange visions and to create surreal constructions, this is one of the best utilisation of it. There are even minor visual effects that are easy to miss, like changes on the computer screen at the office that are subtle and quick. It is an especially lovely one since you will interact directly with this game’s version of a PC, adding to the immersion.
The only thing that is off, are the still frames whenever Curtis is moving to another screen, as he is clearly put there by a blue screen. It is not too distracting since this is only done for a handful of locations, and the effects are solid in general due to shooting him and the other characters when they are truly within the environments, with some animations added in. I wonder if this was the fault of a short production time or not, but it is still a small visual issue.
Every cutscene is shot with good camera angles to let you see the world from Curtis’s perspective, and never goes too far to seem like a movie, which I am all for. Had it been shot similar to a film, it could have easily taken the player out of the experience of this interactive media. All of the scenes are engaging, which is helped by the wonderful actors. I will admit that there are two that overact, which I am not sure if can solely be blamed on the directions, but they are at least enjoyable for all the wrong reasons.
The other cast members are outstanding as each of them adds spices of personalities to their characters without ever going overboard. Paul M. Setler does a spectacular job at playing the struggling protagonist, Warren Burton is adorably cheesy while still seeming like a dangerous threat, and even smaller characters like Don Berg’s gets enough screen time to become unforgettable. I really have nothing but praises for all their contributions, and those that miss the mark are still entertaining. There are also some scenes that clearly show that while Phantasmagoria 2 wants to tell a deep story, it also wants to be humorous.
The music adds to this uncanny setting with a great variety to it, such as the calm yet eerie piano inside Curtis’s apartment, the strange vibes of the offices or the 90s techno in the club downtown. All of them give this world a sense of uncertainty, while highlighting each area you are in through their tones, making the immersion strong. I also love how the tracks evolve by each chapter and are slightly different, signifying something is going on. They can be repetitive, but work to set distinct atmospheres and you are never in one area for too long to make the melodies become unappealing.
Presentation Score: 8/10
Phantasmagoria 2 fixed every issue I had with the first instalment, making it worth a visit for those seeking a short psychological horror novel, with a hint of sci-fi, cheese, and surrealism that fans of Stephen King would enjoy. It has its flaws with few puzzles and over the top scenes, but everything it offers is exciting, if not perfect. A light interactive experience that is much more than meets the eye.