Platform: DOS; Windows; Maxc; SEGA Saturn
Never before has Roberta Williams, or rather any game designer, integrated horror and humour to such monumental proportions. Of course, the humour derives itself from the George Lucas-type dialogue and poor acting, and much of the horror comes from the realization you had spent quite a bit of money to play this mess.
One of the first, if not the first, computer games to have full motion video sequences with live actors, the potential and expectations for Phantasmagoria were through the roof when the game was released. In reaction to that, many reviews absolutely thrashed the game when the results were seen. So when I played the game eight years afterwards, I had low expectations.
Adrienne and her husband, Don Gordon (played by David Homb), have just bought a haunted house several miles from the nearest town which is in the middle of Nowhere, New England. Don’s a successful photographer, and this is the ideal place for his practice. Adrienne is a successful suspense novelist. We begin the game on their first full day, and Adrienne has to explore every nook and cranny until she releases the horrors of the house.
Over the next few days, Don becomes less like the loving husband he portrays at the beginning and more like Jack Torrance from The Shining. But instead of spewing out memorable and haunting lines like “Here’s Johnny!” the best Don can come up with is “The body is a wonderful thing. But the head is useless!” And then Don ends just about every sentence with “Muahahahaha!” Trust me, they can’t teach stuff like this at comedy school.
In fact, David Homb horribly overacts at every opportunity. Even when he’s gentle and loving at the beginning, ending every sentence with “sweetheart,” he looks like he could just up and commit genocide at the flip of a switch. Not that he was given any lines to work with. The first morning, Adrienne asks him if he would like some coffee and he replies in an excited voice, “Yeah! Big one!”
On the other hand, Morsell does what I see as an excellent job considering the material she was given. She displays a myriad of emotional states throughout, mostly believable, and reacts appropriately to most of the situations thrown at her. My only gripe is that Williams has her stopping at every mirror in the game to toss back her hair and check for blemishes, even when the situation warrants being on the look out. Besides Homb, most of the other actors do fine jobs, especially Robert Miano as Carno.
However, a problem persists throughout the game, due to its nature more than anything else, in that everything feels a little broken. Adrienne will just escape a traumatizing event, and then walk around casually. Realistically, the producers could not have filmed Adrienne walking every inch of the house in every possible emotional state, but the point stands. Also, none of the characters can ever change clothes during the entire week the game takes place, another attack on mimesis.
And there are genuinely scary moments. I played the game with the lights off in a dark room, and the music and imagery combined with the occasional tense moment coming from not knowing what’s going to be around the next corner had me on edge a few times. And the final “chase” scene has some suspense as well, at least for the first forty-seven times Adrienne gets killed.
But rather than true horror, a larger part of the game relies on enough gore to make Wes Craven blush. The faint of heart should consider playing the censored version, as there are some truly disturbing images, including an effective but controversial rape scene that got the game banned in Australia.
The end game is not so rewarding, as it is very short and, while realistic, not very satisfying.
Despite all my complaints, I did enjoy the game, probably because it was different than anything else I’ve played. Considering its weaknesses, it is probably a blessing the game was incredibly easy. One icon and a lot of pixel hunting is all that is required. The in-game hint system is not needed, as there is hardly a puzzle that could be considered difficult by adventure game standards. Case in point, I won this game over the course of two evenings.