Developer(s) – Sierra On-Line
Publisher(s) – Sierra On-Line
Director(s) – Peter Maris
Producer(s) – Mark Seibert, J Mark Hood & Roberta Williams
ESRB – M for Mature
Released in 1995 to resound commercial success, in fact going on to become Sierra On-Line’s best-selling game overall, Phantasmagoria is a point-and-click adventure horror game making use of digitized character sprites, similar to Night Trap, and sold as well as it did despite a mixed reaction from critics at the time. Roberta Williams even went on record to call it the greatest achievement throughout her career, despite her work on the King’s Quest series along with her husband Ken Williams.
This is a game that had piqued my interest for a long time, and one that I’d wanted to play and review ever since, given the lasting impression that it’s had on the industry ever since its release. While it’s certainly not a great game (nor even a good one), and I ultimately cite its shock factor as the reason why it sold so well, it does have one or two positive points, and it wasn’t quite as bad as what I was led to believe.
Graphics – 5/10
The first thing that gamers will be drawn to is the game’s graphics. It uses digitally imposed actors and actresses as character sprites, and everything else, including objects and settings, are conventionally rendered to around early sixth-generation quality. So the problems I have with it can be summed up in that last sentence ostensibly; because of the disparity between the graphical quality of the character sprites and the settings, it renders the entire thing very hard to either look at or take seriously; especially nowadays. Back then it would have simply looked inconsistent, but now, it looks inconsistent and horribly dated. The conceptual design, like many other things about this game, ranges from average to passable, being set in an isolated haunted house. There’s not much else I can say about it apart from that, since the haunted house has been the setting for many horror films and games that came before this, and there’s not a great deal that separates this setting from the many others it’s kind that came before it.
Gameplay – 5/10
Phantasmagoria relies on finding interactive items and solving puzzles in order to progress, typical of most point-and-click adventure titles. The issue is that nowhere near as much thought went into the gameplay as what went into many other great games of the genre, such as Broken Sword and Grim Fandango; and I put this down to the fact that most emphases seemed to go on storytelling and artistic direction; despite the fact that not much went into it in that respect either. The best thing about the gameplay is that sometimes, particularly toward the end, the player is challenged to think on their toes in order to progress as fast as possible in order to prevent death; this adds a welcome bit of tension to the experience.
Controls – 10/10
The game’s controls work just as well as any other point-and-click adventure game, and this is one aspect the developers mercifully got right. The HUD is straightforward to interact with, and nothing is made overly complicated.
Lifespan – 5/10
The lifespan of Phantasmagoria can range between around 3 to 4 hours, which as is documented, is far longer than the average lifespan of a film, which in truth this game was mainly marketed as, it was nowhere near the average lifespan of a blockbuster game, even for the time, and certainly doesn’t hold up today. A point that I frequently raise whilst writing reviews is that if more depth was added to the gameplay, they could’ve made it last longer than the time it already does having used up the budget on making it last as long as it does through other means, such as extended scripts and screenplays.
Storyline – 6/10
The story of Phantasmagoria follows mystery novelist Adrienne Delaney and her husband, photographer Don Gordon, as they purchase a remote mansion previously owned by a famous magician known as Carno. Adrienne gradually learns of the mansion’s sadistic past, as she learns of an evil demon that possesses the house’s residents, and drives them insane making them do evil and twisted things. The story was heavily inspired by the novels of Stephen King down to the main character being a writer, but the quality of story-telling, however, doesn’t even come close to being on the same level as King. Many plot elements are not particularly distinguishable from the stories that it drew inspiration from, and the only thing the plot has going for it are the few shocking moments there are in it (one scene, in particular, going much too far for my liking). In terms of the acting, if looking at this as a film, it again ranges from average to passable. I think the only actor who put in a passable performance was Robert Miano, who played the magician Carno. He definitely brought the right amount of maniacal zeal to the character without overdoing it. Everyone else either overacts or underacts as far as I’m concerned.
Originality – 3/10
As I’ve alluded to several times throughout this review, there is very little going for this game in terms of uniqueness. Its influences are far too evident, and where it does stand out, it stands out for the wrong reasons, including how inconsistent the graphics and the acting are. The developers clearly neglected the gameplay as well, which should’ve been the main focus, and as a consequence of that, it makes it stand out even less.
Phantasmagoria, whilst having those few little plus points, is a fairly disappointing experience in my opinion. The areas in which the developers concentrated most were not handled particularly well, and the areas they chose not to concentrate on, were handled even more haphazardly, making it ultimately a regrettably bad gaming experience.