Return of the Phantom flashback review
With the recent announcement of the return of MicroProse, the time seems right to revisit one of their games from the adventure genre’s golden age, particularly as it has just been relaunched digitally. The third-person point-and-click Return of the Phantom was easy to initially overlook among its many contemporaries in its day, but it’s fitting to look back at this blast from the past given its own time travelling nature from then-present-day 1993 to 1881, when the Phantom of the Opera was hiding in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera House. With its focus on story over puzzles, contributing to a short length and an easy playthrough, it’s a game that is excellent in its own right and surprisingly more suitable for today’s adventure landscape than when it was originally released.
Return of the Phantom begins in the Paris Opera House with a performance of Don Juan Triumphant, penned by Erik, the famed Phantom of the Opera. The show is interrupted as the great chandelier in the theatre breaks free, falling onto the patrons below. Detective Raoul Montand of the Sûreté (the local police force) is called in to investigate, and you control Raoul as he searches the opera house for clues to what happened. And what happened seems to be beyond belief: as you talk with the theatre performers and staff, it appears as though the long-dead Erik is back from the grave and is responsible for the night’s mishap.
As you continue to dig deeper, a murder occurs and without spoiling the exact sequence of events that follows, forces conspire to cause you to be transported back in time to 1881. There you are greeted by someone purporting to be your longtime friend, the opera house owner Monsieur Richard, as well as your fiancée Christine Daaé, who is a dead ringer for the modern-day prima donna Christine Florent. In the past, the detective is not known as Raoul Montand but rather Raoul de Chagny, patron of the arts. It turns out that the Phantom (or Opera Ghost as he styles himself on assorted notes he leaves scattered around) is already a problem at this point. He orders Monsieur Richard, by letter, to have Christine Daaé sing the lead in the upcoming performance, and demands a hefty annual payoff for not sabotaging productions and the exclusive use of one of the opera hall’s prime viewing boxes. As Raoul comes to grips with his new reality, he concludes that his only way back to the present is to find and stop the Phantom in the past.
In 1993, most adventures put a premium on how challenging their puzzles were. Difficulty equated to length and length equated to value per dollar. In defiance of this common doctrine, Return of the Phantom chose instead to focus on its story. For much of the investigation in both the present and the past, puzzles are few and far between. The ones that do exist, like figuring out how to get up on stage from the undercroft or breaking into Christine Daaé’s changing room when the Phantom arrives to abduct her, are quite straightforward and simple.
The main interactions here involve exploring the hall and talking to characters through standard dialog trees. When I first played this game upon its initial release, I must admit to being rather disappointed that I was able to complete it in a single sitting of three hours. However, given the tendency of many modern adventures to focus on narrative over puzzle complexity, this decision feels right at home with today’s releases and, in some ways, the end result surpasses them.
As is befitting of a title set in an opera hall, this one has a fine musical score, albeit a MIDI soundtrack instead of recorded instruments. As was typical for games of the time, music runs more or less continuously throughout the experience. Brighter tunes play while in the opera or when meeting friends of Raoul, but as the exploration takes you into the catacombs and the Phantom’s lair beneath the theatre, the music becomes darker and tenser, projecting an air of danger. I never found the musical loops to be annoying or tiresome, and indeed actually found myself humming a couple of them some time after playing.
While there are no more than a dozen or so characters in Return of the Phantom, the ones present are varied and interesting, from the stuck-up, harried stage manager Charles in present day to the mysterious psychic Madame Giry who watches over the boxes in the past, to both versions of Christine, and even a surprise appearance by famed painter (and ballerina stalker, apparently) Edgar Degas. Almost all of them are nicely voiced, although the recording quality hasn’t aged well, with a fair bit of static due to the low sampling rate used in games at the time. When looking around locations, unvoiced text descriptions are provided by an omniscient narrator the same way as in Sierra games.
Oddly, the one voice that feels out of place belongs to Christine Daaé/Florent. In both time periods she’s touted as a singer of incredible range and strength, and yet there’s an odd quaver in her speaking voice that makes it sound like she’s about to break into tears at any moment. The strongest performances belong to Raoul and the Phantom, whom you meet several times over the course of the adventure. Raoul possesses the strength of authority that you’d expect of a man who has earned his station in society, while the Phantom conveys a theatricality and edge that make it clear he is not to be trifled with. It should be noted that although events are set in Paris, the voice actors all sound American.
As good as the voice-overs generally are, they are surpassed by the quality of animation displayed here. This game was produced when adventures were the AAA titles of the time and it definitely shows in the animation department. There are grand cinematics such as when Raoul and the Phantom grapple with each other, and when the Phantom descends from the rafters to abduct Christine Daaé in a puff of smoke. However, smaller moments are also well-represented. When Raoul is about to interview several of the theatre performers and staff, he doesn’t just maintain his normal pose. Instead, he’s invited to make himself comfortable and seats himself in a nice subtle touch of animation that is seldom seen in adventures then or now.
The background art doesn’t fare quite so well, though there are positives to appreciate here too. Locations look to be hand-painted and scanned in, as was the prevalent technique at the time. Even though the action is confined to the opera hall, there is sufficient variety of places to see, including the ornate, cavernous space within the hall itself, the slightly rundown backstage areas, a well-appointed library, the eerie sewer-like catacombs beneath the opera house, and the macabre, skull-adorned abode of the Phantom himself.
The problem is that although many of the backgrounds incorporate vibrant colours, such as the deep blue marble in the entry hall and the saturated reds of the theatre seats, there’s something that just looks muted and muddy about the backdrops. While the game is presented in classic 320x200 pixel resolution, when compared to its contemporaries the backgrounds are a little blurrier than most, making it sometimes difficult to tell what is being depicted. This is aggravated by the fact that the interface defaults to Standard mode, which means that hotspots do not have labels displayed when hovered over with the cursor. However, a simple change of setting to Easy provides this much-needed feedback by displaying the name of hotspots in a sentence bar similar to those seen in LucasArts games.
Indeed, this game borrows heavily from the familiar SCUMM-style verb system. All the usual options for pushing, pulling, opening, closing, taking, etc. are here, although in practice few of these are actually employed. These actions are selected from a list in the bottom left of the screen with a left-click of the mouse, while right-clicking is reserved as a shortcut for looking at hotspots. One area that offers a bit more differentiation is the game’s inventory, where additional options are displayed for specific items selected. For example, when selecting a large hook in the inventory, the option to “attach” it to another item is presented to aid in the construction of a grappling hook.
A rarity in adventures past or present, Return of the Phantom provides two different difficulty settings, Novice and Challenging, which are chosen between upon starting a new game. It’s an interesting concept, but it only impacts one particular section of the game: the catacombs. Eventually Raoul makes his way into the tunnel ossuaries beneath the Paris Opera House. On the easier difficulty setting, this maze is smaller and more logical, by which I mean that if you exit north from one room you'll usually enter from the south in the next, and there are very few parts of the maze that loop back on themselves. On the harder setting, the maze is significantly larger and requires much more careful mapping and paying attention to details present (like skulls, rat nests, and puddles) to track where you are. In either case, you will be able to collect a number of items before entering the maze that can be dropped along the way to use as breadcrumbs to indicate when you’ve circled back to a room you were in before. Save for a couple of puzzles near the very end of the maze, which are present on either difficulty setting, there is nothing to do in the maze except for navigating through it, making it feel like filler meant to pad out the otherwise short playing time.
At various points during the adventure, tension rises as Raoul closes in on the Phantom. During some of these segments, it is possible to die if the correct actions aren’t performed or if too much time is taken, although the few timed sequences are always very generous. Here again Return of the Phantom demonstrates a lot of forward thinking for its day, as dying does not cause you to lose unsaved progress the way Sierra titles were (in)famous for. Instead the game automatically backs up to a point just before the life-threatening section begins to try again. As a result, there’s no worry about saving early and often, although the game can be saved freely anyway at any time outside of cinematics. Interestingly, in another example of ahead-of-its-time thinking, when quitting the game an automatic save is performed, which allows you to immediately resume where you left off via a handy button on the main menu when the game is next started. Autosaving and manual saving – the best of both worlds (and something that developers of today would do well to take note of).
It may have been largely lost in the shadow of its major competitors in 1993, but Return of the Phantom not only holds up very well, it is even more fascinating to play now given modern adventure sensibilities. At the time of its release, its lack of challenge and short play time would have definitely been seen as drawbacks. Fast forward almost thirty years and the design decisions made here fit in remarkably well with the current gaming landscape, even if the audio and video presentation inevitably reflects the actual age of the game. With a fine story, engaging characters, and evident attention paid to a whole host of details, were this game released today, I’d certainly be advocating for its consideration for several year-end awards. The new incarnation of MicroProse hasn’t yet turned its attention to adventure games, but this Phantom from the acclaimed studio’s past is certainly still well worth a look.
Return of the Phantom presents an intriguing encounter with the Phantom of the Opera, and is fascinating to experience with modern sensibilities nearly thirty years after its debut.