Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh review
A threatening clock is ticking. A bleak hospital room, full of strange and dark machinery. An empty corridor, filled with a calm that anticipates the storm. Then, suddenly, a scream, a loud bang of doors smashed open and a stretcher wheeled through the hallway, a man tied up with security belts accompanied by a well-dressed doctor with a huge syringe in his hands and a confident look in his eyes. As the nurses prepare the screaming man for electroshock, a woman with a distraught expression approaches and crazily shouts out: ”Freak!”. When the electrodes touch the man’s temples, he yells shrilly. The clock isn’t ticking anymore.
This, in a nutshell, is the appalling opening sequence of Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh, the follow-up to Roberta Williams’ adult thriller which in 1995 shocked gamers around the world, raising nothing less than a moralistic crusade against it from parents’ associations and concerned publishers. All the media coverage about its explicit graphic content and its (in)famous rape scene helped make the game a huge hit, so obviously Sierra ordered a sequel at once, hoping to repeat the success. This time, Roberta Williams stepped out of the project and passed it to Lorelei Shannon, who in 1995 co-designed King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride. Citing Edgar Allan Poe and Clive Barker as her major influences during the writing of the game, Shannon choose to start from scratch; not comfortable with the more subtle and elegant kind of horror of the first Phantasmagoria, she created a whole new storyline (except for a little in-joke suggesting a continuity), with a new full contemporary mood and an original character, far away from Adrienne Delaney and her desperate quest to save her husband’s soul from the horrors of Carnovash’s mansion.
In this pseudo-sequel, the player acts as Curtis Craig, an employee of the computer company Wyntech Corporation. Curtis has a history of mental illness, hinted in the introduction, but presently is quite content with his job, except for his boss and his nerdy colleague Bob, and his life in general. He has a relationship with a co-worker of his, the lovely Jocilyn, and his best friend Trevor adds a bit of sarcastic relief to this quite charming picture. Nevertheless, Curtis starts to hear strange voices inside his head and to see things even more unusual: suddenly, his past comes back to haunt him, with memories of his unfortunate childhood – his mother tortured him and eventually hung herself – and disturbing nightmares of flesh and madness. When one of his colleagues is brutally murdered in his own cubicle, Curtis starts to see visions of a twisted doppelgänger that revels in fleshy and gory pleasures. Fearing that he might be the culprit and sifting through his boss’ office in search of clues to the murder, he stumbles upon a Wyntech document about a secret project that may hold the key to his whole troubled life.
Let’s make one thing clear right away: this game is not for the faint of heart (or stomach). In its five chapters, Phantasmagoria 2 manages to show torture, child abuse, extreme sexual habits, gruesome deaths, both male and female nudity, and disgusting details of blood and offal. Many of these design choices are unnecessary, while the constant sexual innuendo becomes rapidly redundant and the explicit graphical violence often appears meaningless. While some of the disturbing scenes may actually succeed in shocking and frightening the player thanks to the high quality of the FMV presentation, others appear to be there only to heighten the anticipated scandal sorrounding the game. The storyline, which for the most part is suitable for an enjoyably camp horror B-movie, in the end devolves into a laughable mess which indulges in tacky particulars to hide its other faults and lack of depth. Furthermore, the script, while fitting when dealing with the most repulsive aspects of the game, becomes a bit cheesy when dealing with emotions, relationships and character development. Even so, the story still manages to be fun and entertaining, if one is favourably disposed towards raunchy horror movies like Society or Hellraiser. In addition, the game – whilst petty and often dull when dealing with mature themes such as ruined childhood, internal struggle and mental illness – was ahead of its time in at least one regard: the hinted bisexuality of the main character and the fact that not only is Trevor gay but also that his friendship with Curtis is portrayed as natural and genuine make this game a rarity even today, considering how many games still show gay characters as exaggerated clichés.
Unfortunately, this bravery in character depiction wasn’t accompanied by an equal effort in terms of production, although it does make some key improvements over the original. Phantasmagoria 2 plays like a typical FMV adventure, but suffers from fewer pixelation problems than its progenitor. The film clips run very smoothly and a recently released fan patch also eliminates the interlaced black lines in cutscenes making the videos even more impressive. The cinematic direction by Andy Hoyos is also better than Peter Maris’ in the first Phantasmagoria, but inferior to Will Binder’s from The Beast Within, and the same can be said for the casting and acting. Paul Mitri (Trevor) and Monique Parent (Jocylin) offer some nice performances, as does Ragna Sigrun in the role of the S&M addict Therese, but Paul Morgan Statler is quite unbelievable as Curtis and gives a cheap, below-average performance. He is joined in this mediocrity by most of the actors, particularly the unbearable V. Joy Lee (whom returning players will recognize as Harriet in the first Phantasmagoria). However, honorable mention is due the cinematography of Matthew Jensen, who managed to make the limited environments credible (even with such impossible colors as violet, green and maroon) with proper lighting: Curtis’ home is scarcely illuminated to emphasize the unsettling mood, while the fetish club Borderline, with its crimson drapes, black sofa and vivid red light, creates the right lustful atmosphere. Particularly when Curtis enters his psychiatrist’s office for the first time, I was hugely impressed by the solid and bright quality of the sunset light coming through the window – it feels like a comfortable, safe place to be, whereas the other locations maintain an unnerving, menacing look.
The interface of the game is very similar to the one seen in the first installment. The inventory is always displayed at the bottom of the screen, and each object can be examined in detail by dragging it onto the onscreen eye icon. Except for a few close-ups from Curtis’ point of view, the game plays in a third-person perspective; when the cursor turns into an arrow, it shows the direction in which Curtis will be moving, and although every location has only a few screens to explore, you can also choose to use the map icon which will instantly move your character to the appointed location. Like the first game, there are a few timed sequences and it’s possible to die. There’s a “Try Again” feature, but it’s quite buggy, so it’s always a good idea to save often, especially in the later chapters.
Unfortunately, while having both strengths and weaknesses in plot and cinematic production, the game has far more problems as an interactive adventure. First of all, the game is very brief: a seasoned player may pass through its five CDs in less than six or seven hours, and a good share of them will be spent watching the videos rather than actually playing. Besides its short length, the game is very easy and never really challenging. Apart from an early puzzle, involving a lost wallet and a pet rat, which is insanely stupid and feels forced and unrealistic, and the last one, which is insanely hard (and solvable only by trial and error), the gameplay exhausts itself largely by talking repeatedly with the various characters, and the occasional diversion offered by inventory puzzles is just as simple and painless. I’m not a puzzle fiend and I’m actually a fan of interactive movies, but this game isn’t even very interactive. You just have to sit in front of your monitor and watch the abundant videos; your brain won’t ever be bothered because every problem’s solution is right in front of your eyes, just a click or two away with your mouse, and you’ll never have to think creatively to solve the situations, since the answer is always the most obvious.
Despite its simplicity and other flaws, Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is still enjoyable and entertaining on a certain level. The story doesn’t distinguish itself for its depth or originality, but the twisted plot will certainly entangle the player from the beginning to the very end (there are actually two ends, and the choice is totally free). If you’re a completist, the game also has a huge number of easter eggs, and after the credits you’ll be shown how many of them have you found. Although not relevant to the plot, this feature adds a degree of replayability to a game that’s otherwise too short. Ultimately, though not as groundbreaking as its predecessor, this game is intended for horror and splatter fans and for those who can enjoy a good B-movie regardless of what it lacks in gameplay and storytelling. If you don’t expect a serious, enthralling and deep game experience, you’ll have a hell of lot of fun.
If you can overcome the substantial lack of actual gameplay and you’re a fan of raunchy horror movies, this game will be a lot a fun. If not, this isn’t the game for you.