Roberta Williams' Phantasmagoria: Pray It's Only A Nightmare
- MS-DOS, Windows 3.1
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Set of 7 CD-ROM's, Horror themed - computer game, similar to "The Shining". It's a rather large adventure game from Sierra. The game placed heavy emphasis on full motion video for exposition and cutscenes at various junctures to advance storyline. If you get stuck in the game, there is a talking skull icon who identifies himself as the hintkeeper. Just click on him to get out of a puzzle jam.
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They are pretty pictures, too. I have a feeling I'd have been a lot more blown away by the graphics in 1995 when I first saw this game rather than last week when I finally got around to playing it, but they still hold up in a charming way. They're a bit pixelated, certainly, but you can still tell what everything is and the digitized actors move fluidly.
I feel a bit bad calling Phantasmagoria a short game, though it's true. I feel bad because I know it took a long time to make what's there; Victoria Morsell, the lead actress, went through a year's worth of shooting in front of a green screen. Plus writing, editing, etc. for Roberta Williams, the writer/director/designer...lots of work went into the 5 or so hours in which I played through this. I don't want to make it sound like it isn't fun to unravel the mystery in this one because it is. The acting was roundly criticized, as a lot of the FMV stuff was, but I thought it was pretty passable on the whole (David Homb's Don character gets a little campy after Day 2, but it still makes sense). Victoria Morsell herself does quite well, and the player wants to identify with her. Without watching the movies (which is the point of the game, but still), a speedrun through the entire game takes fewer than 10 minutes.
Frustration quickly sets in over the lack of narration, though. If you try to open a door in most point-and-click adventures, the character will spit out a quick "It's locked" and you can try something else. In Phantasmagoria, you've got to watch Morsell's Adrienne walking toward the door, cut away to her walking up to the door, watch her try to turn the knob about 7 or 8 times, mutter "What the hell?," then walk back to where she started. You can skip sections of animation...but you might end up skipping more than you meant to. It's just an added frustration that doesn't exist in other adventure games.
Speaking of frustrations, the pacing of the last chapter is different than the rest of the game. You have to do everything in a certain order, and it erases your save. If you want to try something else you can rewind from a scene or two back, but that's it. It gives you the option of restarting the chapter if you goofed it, but that feels like cheating! I'd prefer to be able to save and go back to different spots within the path I took, and here you just can't.
There's a hint feature if you don't feel like wandering around lost. Sometimes the hint will be to just do what you're already trying to do, and sometimes it'll give a whole puzzle away when you just want to know what room you're supposed to be in. Lot of items and events randomly appearing and occurring in places that were empty before. It's doable, but it'd be a whole lot more doable if the mansion were easier to navigate.
On the whole, it's fun, but it's short and it feels more like an average movie than a game.
The story has the mystery writer Adrienne Delaney and her new husband Don Gordon moving into a large but deserted island mansion originally built by Carno, a famous but enigmatic illusionist. Soon after they arrive, Adrienne starts hearing things and strange apparitions begin to haunt her. Meanwhile, Don starts behaving weird and even violently towards his lovely bride. Exploring her new home provides Adrienne with flashbacks of murders that happened long ago and if she does not solve the mystery and save herself, she is going to end up strapped down to a chair and have a giant razor open up the top of her head. I am not kidding, and that is why you should know this game is not for kiddies. There is an option for switching to the censored version of the came, in which some scenes are edited to screen out adult content, but if you have to do that then what is the point of playing this particular game?
The "Phantasmagoria" interface is based on a single cursor that you use to explore and interact with the game world. The key is to collect inventory objects, examine them, and find the right time and place to use them. The instruction book talks you through Adrienne's first investigations of the kitchen, pantry, the dinning room & reception hall, and the basement and then you can proceed on your own. If you have played any adventure games you know to collect and try everything (it was the Christmas tree ornament in this one that taught me the logic of the puzzles in these games does not have to make anything approaching obvious sense to anyone living in the real world).
The music is quite effective for setting the appropriate mood throughout the game and a nice touch is the Hintkeeper Icon, a red skull that you can click on when you need a tip on how to proceed. One of my main memories of playing this game the first time was when I had finally found the drain cleaner I needed to find and it took me three days to get to the next part of the game. I would click on the Hintkeeper who would intone: "Find Don. Give him what he needs." The problem was I could not remember where to find Don in that big house. So checked all the floors, then started roaming the grounds before going back to town, back to the house, back to the grounds, and through the house again and again until I finally found Brad and (you guessed it) gave him what he needed. Unlike later adventure games there is nothing here too confusing until you get to the end game, where you get a nice little lesson is how the only way to win the game is to lose.
The player can enter the game at the begging of any of the seven chapters and be magically equipped with all of the inventory items needed to continue gameplay. So if you want to replay a favorite scene or you accidentally delete your saved game you are not totally toast. This matters for the final chapter, because you are going to play this a whole bunch of times, not only because you are trying to figure out how to save Adrienne's life (and failing, repeatedly) but because there are a lot of options to explore here (hint: pretty much every inventory item left can only be used in a particular location to try and save her).
When this game came out a decade ago it was to be the first of a horror adventure trilogy from Sierra On-Line (we only got to "Phantsmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh") and represented the company's attempt to develop a full-blown, live action, multimedia interactive adventure extravaganza. Using professional actors with real sets and Full Motion Video (FMV), it was intended to take the reality of computer adventure gaming to a new level. Obviously, in retrospect that has become essentially a dead end among game developers who have largely abandoned mixing in live action videos in stories and gameplay. So what you see here might strike you as rather quaint by contemporary standards, but overall I think it still holds up enough for new players to enjoy this old game. Just remember it is best to play this one late at night...