Phantasmagoria Review: What man hath wrought, let Roberta Williams tear asunder

First some facts:

  • The screenplay for Phantasmagoria was 550 pages long.
  • 200 people worked on the game.
  • It came on SEVEN disks.
  • It was delayed numerous times.
  • They started with a budget of $800,000. It ended up costing $4.5 million to make.

In 1995, it eventually shipped and sold like gangbusters. To the tune of $12 million. So it was a commercial success, but there’s more than a lurking horror under the surface of this particular Williams outing. So let’s take a bit of a look at what we have here.

Two weeks ago [because Easter happened and I had family over, so this review is about a week late] we looked at another game based in another house. Gone home is very much descended from Phantasmagoria and even occasionally uses one or two of the same scare tactics [though, as noted there, it’s not at all a horror game] to great effect, but it’s Phantasmagoria that helped the genre along. Aided and abetted by The Seventh Guest before it.

There were games before Phantasmagoria that tried this, of course, but they weren’t nearly as effective. Nor did they have the advertising muscle that Sierra had. But really, what crippled most of these games out the gate was the astronomical cost to film them. Sierra certainly had money to throw at the project, sandwiched as it was between Gabriel Knight 2 [a game in the same sort of vein] and Space Quest 6.

What it really didn’t have was know-how. And, unfortunately, it shows in lots of little ways.

One of the dastardly bad guys who feature in Phantasmagoria is the mansion's original owner Carno.  He delights in doing magic tricks and killing his wives.
Carno in all his glory! And yes, that black border is around every screenshot. Blame the way I was running the game.

The biggest problem is probably the acting, because it’s just…dry. Dry as a bone. The only guy who’s having any kind of fun is Carno. It’s very much the same issue Hell: A cyberpunk thriller had. Somehow, Dennis Hopper is in that game and somehow that sort of works. Carno is a lot like that, here. For most of the scenes he’s in, he’s over the top and completely goofy. Yeah, he’s killing women and sure, that’s despicable [and more on that in a moment] but he’s so zany and crazy that it’s almost [but not quite] funny.

The plot doesn’t really help matters much. While there’s an incredible amount of suspense [and more on that, later, too] – it readily and easily gets broken down by banalities. Sierra film everything. They wanted you to have a kind of window to the protagonist’s life. So whenever she stops to look into a mirror [and she does this a lot] you get a cut scene.

So, to the plot: Adrienne and her husband Don buy a rambling, old estate house for a song. He’s a photographer and she’s a novelist and they’re both kind of looking for inspiration. They don’t really do research, so they don’t know that the house they’re buying is mired in tragedy. Carno, a 19th century magician – lost four of his wives there and eventually came to ruin one night when he and his last wife got into a fight that ended in death.

As you play Phantasmagoria, you explore a rambling, vast mansion.  This is the main foyer from which you have access to almost every part of the rest of the house.
The mansion is rendered in exquisite detail, given the time.

Adrienne can’t really resist the allure of exploring the rambling mansion while her husband fixes it up and as she’s exploring, she finds all sorts of clues that something is very amiss here. Conversations with townsfolk allude to the fact that there’s a dark secret lurking just under the floorboards. They can’t say what it is, exactly, but it’s not at all good.

These little strands all come together at the end of day one when Adrienne finds a hidden spot in the house and sets free an evil that had lain dormant for a century.

This all sounds good, of course, but it is mired by the game built around it. Because Roberta Williams does adventure games, this is, in turn, an adventure game. But it is the barest level of adventure game you can possibly have strung between Full Motion Video sequences. Sure, there are puzzles, but most of them are pretty banal. Here’s a newspaper and a locked door. The key’s trapped on the other side. I can’t really imagine how I’m supposed to get the key, can you?

And take heed! It’s possible to get yourself into an unwinnable situation. I managed to do this on two separate occasions. [to be fair, occasion number two only seemed unwinnable. But there’s no clue as to how to proceed if it seems like you’ve somehow messed everything up.]

This design trend runs all the way through the game. Sometimes, like in the end sequence, it’s pretty clear what to do. But sometimes, the game just leaves you to your own devices, praying that you’ll go to the right room and do the right thing. And let’s not even discuss the hint-keeper. He doesn’t so much hint as outright state. Lost? Ask the hint keeper. He’ll flat out spoil the puzzle for you.

But that’s not all, oh no. There are conversations. Some LONG, dreary conversations. Early on, Adrienne meets a lady who knows a fair amount about the Carno estate. So she stops to quiz the lady. And you have to suffer through EVERY dialogue if you want the whole story. You can’t pick which dialogue to hear. You have to start at the first conversation and then wade your way through all of the topics she has at hand.

The mansion rambles and so does the game.  There's lots of "filler screens" where very little happens, but they're almost always beautiful.
A walk in the gardens. Let’s slow the pace down more!

All that aside, lots of people have trouble with the pacing. It’s too slow. I found it just right. The sense of horror builds slowly across the seven days you play, until, by day four and five, deaths start racking up and the music becomes quite ominous. These two things utterly salvage what could have been a really bad show. The music – all low thrums and slow plinks and plonks – really turns up the dread factor by just being present.

Of course, that dread is all basically undone by the gory nature of the deaths. Some of which are spectacularly horrific. The trouble for me – as an adult and twenty years along is that – apart from Carno’s clear insanity, none of these ladies needed to die. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong man. Most of them are basically minding their own business when, “Shazam!” Carno appears, is unhappy with them and summarily kills them.

That right there is probably my biggest problem with the game. Lots of what happens is needless: needless dialogue, needless exposition-y film footage and above all a lot of needless death. Yeah, it’s a horror game. And sure, you need scares for that.  But it all feels so…cheap. And a little tacky.

Should you play it? Like King’s Quest V before it, this is a grand experiment. It sets up full motion video games. It ends with a really iffy Quick Time Event sequence. It is a non-family-friendly game. There’s a lot of firsts going on here for Sierra, [but not the games industry as a whole] however, the experiment sometimes flounders. When it does, it’s a sad, sorry state of affairs. And that’s really what you’re playing: an attempt at greatness that never really pays off. [Or pays off in very small ways, like the excellent soundtrack – for the most part.]

If you’re looking for a Full Motion Video game to start with, I’d recommend Gabriel Knight 2, instead. Sierra learned a great deal from Phantasmagoria there and put it to wonderful use.