As a kid in the late 80s/early 90s, if you wanted to play Sierra's adventure games on a PC without a hard drive (at a time when the maximum size was about 20 MB and even that cost a few hundred dollars), a fact of life you had to resign yourself to was disk-switching. I think the biggest one I had was Quest For Glory 2, which came on nine 3.5" floppies (or sixteen 5.25"s!), and initially loading a saved game usually involved somewhere between 3 to 6 disk swaps by itself.

The era of large-capacity, affordable hard drives, and the CD-ROM drive, were supposed to put an end to all that in the PC gaming world. At least, until the FMV craze in the mid-90s came along. Phantasmagoria was one of the more egregious bloat offenders, at seven CDs mostly devoted to video character animations and cut scenes. The game was perhaps a little too grand in its vision for the time, and may well have been better served waiting for the DVD era. It does look impressive, though - it plays like a standard Sierra adventure game, where you view the character from the third person as they move about a series of rooms, but the characters are all completely filmed and rendered in video. And it was a sales success, apparently turning a decent profit in spite of a $4 million budget. It ended up being a success, however, by targeting a more mainstream audience than most PC games of the time - "casual" gamers who didn't want to deal with a typical complex adventure game interface, and slasher-horror fans who prefer buckets o' guts to something psychological and cerebral. As such, it's one of those games that was popular inverse to how deeply the person playing it actually was into gaming - critical reviews tend to range from mediocre to bad, and fan sentiment toward it in the adventure game community tends to be marginal at best.

Thank you, pervy Thing!

Let's start with what's good about the game, however. The most impressive aspect, to me, is how the video capture was integrated with the static backgrounds to actually make it seem reasonably lifelike. Main character Adrianne has a whole slew of idle animations, is able to sit on chairs and lie on beds and interact in detail with things that are completely unnecessary to the game, and transitions from idleness to motion in a fairly smooth way. The backgrounds tend to be somewhat lacking in animation and life, and I don't think there were ever more than two animated characters on-screen at any given time, but everything looks good and I buy the house and surrounding grounds as a real environment. Apparently several months were spent just filming the animations of all the characters, and it shows.

The price you pay for all of this is an interface simplified to the point where the game is almost an automated click-through. The standard Sierra menu of different commands is distilled down to a "context cursor" that just turns red when you hover it over something you can interact with. Adrianne has no dialogue whatsoever outside of cut-scene conversations, and there's no in-game narrator allowing you to look at things and get a detailed description of them. This necessarily simplifies the puzzles to where they're obvious and easy, unless there's pixel-hunting for some obscure or hidden item involved. While I like the level of detail in allowing Adrianne to stretch out on just about anything and play with her hair, I wonder if that space couldn't have been devoted instead to a narration system, a proper menu of commands, and more complex interaction with the environment.

Purely as an adventure game, it's not that great. Aside from the problem of there basically being no challenge, with the exception of tedious combing of environments to see if new items have appeared that you can click on, there's a "hint system" where you click on Soup Head to have him blurt out the solution to anything you might be stuck on. I like the idea of a hint system, but could we get some graduated levels of hints, please? You can't get a nudge in the right direction, you have to be led by the hand every time. There's no penalty or limit to using it either, and you'll likely start abusing it, as it's preferable to roaming about aimlessly for minutes on end trying to stumble across the next new item that's appeared in an old room.

As a horror experience, well ... it's better, but still not that great either. The writing often seems amateurish, and the limitations of technology lead to some silly immersion-breakers, like Adrianne wearing the same outfit for days in a row. Also, I'm guessing not a lot of that $4 million budget went to the actors. The acting here ranges from "passably competent" to "oh lawd." Fortunately Adrianne, who you spend by far the most time with, is firmly in the "passably competent" contingent. Unfortunately, Adrianne's husband Don, who becomes the main villain of the peice by way of being possessed by the spirit of an ancient evil juggalo, is at the forefront of the "oh lawd" ensemble. He gets a lot of screen time but is usually just too unbearably over-the-top and hammy to really take seriously.

A bit should be said about the "adult content." The game got a bit of a reputation for containing a "rape scene", but honestly, it's the silliest rape scene ever. First off, there's no nudity. There's a bit of clumsy breast fondling, then the actual rape consists of some growly dry-humping. There's a very short consensual sex scene in the introduction to the game where you see a bit of side-boob, but it flashed by so quickly I wasn't even sure if I saw 1/10 of a nipple or not. I might of. There are a few fairly gruesome death scenes, but these are few and far between. Adrianne can't die until nearly the end of the game, and the other handful of killings consist of flashbacks to the past that are actually pretty gory, but there's also very few of them. On the whole, the game is not that bad relative to other horror games, let alone cinema.

Aside from a legitimately tense final chase scene in the seventh chapter (which is something like a live-action FMV version of Clock Tower), however, the game is kind of a tedious and obvious plod punctuated only by hammy and silly cut-scenes and the occasional Troma-esque paper mache head exploding, with little in the way of replay value. It's an interesting technological feat, and adventure game fans who can get a used copy on the cheap might want to give it a go just to say they have, but it's not worth going out of your way for, and really one of those games that it's almost the same experience to watch an LP of it on Youtube as to actually play it.

Links :

* Phantasmagoria Memorial

Videos :

* Gameplay Video

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