Insert Disk collects Phantasmagoria for the PC.
Today’s retro game review is Phantasmagoria for the PC. This retro gaming horror nasty has become a classic point and click adventure, ideal for Halloween and gamers looking for gory retro horror game action. The story follows Adrianne as she tries to uncover the mystery of the Carnavash mansion and release her husband Don from the curse of the crazed psychopathic killer Carno. Phantasmagoria is somewhat of an aging horror classic. Graphically the game hasn’t aged particularly well but the underlying game play is still very solid. Join me in this episode and discover if it’s worth your time collecting Phantasmagoria.
Greetings collectors welcome to today’s horror packed show. I’m taking an honest look back at the games of yester-year. Horror… Domestic violence… Blood… This is Phantasmagoria… Today we are travelling back to 1995 to take a look at the PC classic that is Phantasmagoria.
Back in the mid-90’s home PC’s were going through a transformation. Floppy disks although widely used were on their way out and the rise of games on CD had begun. Not only could the CD format hold more information, they enabled the rise of “Full Motion Video” in video games. This made for some interesting advances in game style. Along with games such as 7th Guest, Phantasmagoria was among one of the first to pioneer telling a horror story through video rather than traditional animation. With more advanced graphics Phantasmagoria set out to deliver shocks and scares with its 18 rated point and click adventure. Although relatively unknown today by newer generations this game caused a huge stir upon release. It was one of only a few games to depict full motion gore and a very controversial rape scene. I wanted to cover this game because I feel that it’s been a little misrepresented in online reviews and YouTube. Yes, there is the controversy but underneath all this is actually a very solid point and click adventure game.
The game was originally released in the big box black format as seen here. It is possible though to find the budget release and also small regional design variants. The artwork is nice and it takes a minute to work out what the cover is actually depicting. In terms of price a black box original UK edition will cost you anywhere from £10-20 depending on condition. In the US expect to pay around the $15 mark for the black box. Prices are a little unstable on this game. I have a hunch that this game will at least hold its price over time. As you can see my edition is a little dog-eared as a consequence of buying from eBay. Overall it’s a nice collectable. Suitably dark and mysterious. Sierra fans will also notice the name Roberta Williams, the legendary game designer. Roberta is known more for the Kings Quest series here in the UK but has a good track record of producing many 90’s classics.
You will notice the various 18 ratings on the cover and even a call out that the game can be password protected to lock out the controversial scenes. If you’ve played Phantasmagoria you’ll appreciate that there is a portion of adult content included. However, the option to remove the non-family friendly elements is a bit of a contradiction when buying an 18 rated game in my opinion. It’s always nice to read are the specs needed to run the game. This original release runs under Windows 3.1 or DOS 5+. You are also going to need 5MB of hard drive space as well as 640×580 SVGA display. I’m fairly sure that I can cope with the spec today. If you were born after 1995 the chances are you never used Windows 3.1 and or DOS which is fine. It does lead to a problem though when trying to run this edition on a modern PC but I will cover that in a moment. Inside the box you should have a warranty card and a Sierra 1995/96 games catalogue. It’s fun to look back at these. Very nostalgic. No printed manual to be found here but you will find this as a Readme file on the discs.
More importantly though you will find two CD cases. A standard double size and a fat case. Open these up and you will be astonished that the game is split over 7 CD’s. Be thankful that you didn’t buy the Japanese Sega Saturn version (known as Phantasm) which came on 8 discs. The disc set will be truly unusual for modern gamers. With capacity of storage media now commonly measured in GB rather than MB this is a great experience for those new to retro gaming and a really nice piece of nostalgia for those of us that had to go through this long install process back in the day.
So, back to that age old problem in playing older PC games. My current setup for mid-to-retro games is a fairly high-spec desktop running Windows 7. As it stands, out of the box the game will not run even under compatibility mode. Thankfully Sierra have provided a wizard install tool via their website. This will allow you to install the game with no problems and you can run the game on the DOS Box program if you wish. Once you complete the wizard loading all 7 discs you can play Phantasmagoria without CD swapping during your game. There are re-releases of this game that will play via a simple download. I’m a bit of a purist at heart though so I’m running from the original CD installation. So, to the game itself. You will be straight in to the menu screen in which you have a number of options. I suggest checking out the intro movie if you have not already seen it, it sets the tone nicely for the main game.
It introduces the gamer to the high-end visuals, imposing music and of course that first glimpse of the gore and horror. Starting your game couldn’t be easier via the start game option. I then suggest starting at Chapter 1 as logic would tell you. You are invited to watch yet another cut scene and begin your adventure in the Carnavash estate. A mysterious abandoned old mansion that you have just purchased. The gameplay is very much as you might expect from a point and click adventure. You have a talking skull that you can call upon for help when needed. To be honest though his suggestions are not particularly insightful.
There’s also 8 inventory slots for all the good stuff you need to pick up to solve the puzzles. The opening of the game is very straight forward. You take control of Adrienne, open draws, find matches, explore cellars, talk to people etc. In this sense its classic point-and-click logic and story-telling all the way. Early on I found myself anticipating the horror. Surprisingly, chapter 1 ends and I found there to be very little horror or controversy. We begin to learn about the mansions previous owner (the mysterious Carno) and the game alludes to black magic and torture. An evil is released in to the house and possesses Adrianne’s husband Don. This sets up the story for the rest of the game. The experience is a very standard point and click adventure albeit with interesting graphics and locations.
Chapter 2 begins to move the story along. Now in the early stages of possession Adrianne’s lover Don begins his descent in to an ever darker spiral of behaviour. Chapter 2 also broadens the narrative by letting Adrianne explore outside the mansion. Whilst visiting town she visits a number of shops and their kooky inhabitants. It’s worth interacting with the shop keepers as they will provide you key information and access to useful items later in the game. As the game progresses the overall tone does get rather dark. By chapter 3 Don is well on his way to the dark side. It’s around this point of the game that you’ll know whether you are a fan or not. Despite the slightly dodgy 3D rendered video, B-Movie acting talent and convoluted puzzles there’s just something about the storyline that held my interest.
It’s the sign of a decent game when despite its short comings the overall experience makes you want to progress and adventure on. Despite enjoying the game there are some really painful moments. Anything where you have to engage Sirus but particularly his mother Harriet can really test your patience. I just found the character of Harriet really just too much at times. I’m assuming that the character was for contrast as the comedy relief against the dark background story. At times she seems a bit out of place though.
Harriet does contribute something to the storyline though as it’s revealed that she has a talent for palm reading. As you might guess, she sees some dark moments ahead for Adrianne. At times there’s a lot of speech and you’ll be wanting to fast forward to get to the meatier parts of the game. I won’t post too many spoilers in this review but I can tell you that the game gets much darker the further you progress. By the start of chapter 4 there is a very bizarre rape scene of Adrianne and gruesome murders happening. However, these events still seem to take a back seat to the puzzle solving, which is a good thing in my opinion. Throughout the game you will visit numerous locations within the mansion and the local town. The story is well crafted although somewhat predictable. Chapter 3 ends with revelations from a former associate of Carno known as Malcolm. He gives pivotal information and clues about the cursed book and what might be going on with Don. The story builds towards chapter seven culminating in an epic chase scene between Don and Adrienne. By this point things have got about as dark and crazy as they will go with various depictions of murder and torture.
Now I can’t complete a retrospective on Phantasmagoria without mentioning “that scene”. Chapter 4 starts with what has come to be known as one of the most controversial in gaming history. It allegedly depicts Don raping Adrianne. I will show an excerpt from the scene here and let you come to your own decision. It’s worth highlighting that both Don and Adrianne are clothed. However, the scene is deeply disturbing whichever way you look at it. It’s certainly one of the most analysed scenes in the game. After Chapter 4 the murder flashbacks come think and fast. This is what horror gamers really came to see. There’s a whole variety of gruesome magic tricks gone wrong right through to being killed in a greenhouse by soil. It’s all wonderfully over the top and a real treat if you have a sense of humour about these things.
Things really escalate quite quickly towards the end of the game. Lovers of gore will be pleased to know that they are well catered for. I won’t reveal the plot of the final chapters, needless to say though the game does climax pleasingly as Adrianne attempts to end the curse. There’s some great energy and it was satisfying to know that the game did build to a decent conclusion (even if parts of the final scenes weren’t quite what I was expecting). In terms of the controversy, yes it is in there but the impact is somewhat less than I expected. Going in to this review I’d been led to believe that Phantasmagoria was going to be on the top end of extreme in terms of content. However, at times the murder scenes seem rather comical, the alleged rape scene is just strange and most of the gory scenes are no match for big budget movies. I have to say though that there are a couple of stand-out death scenes. Perhaps the most offensive thing that happens in the game is naming the cat Spaz, I’m not sure if this means something a little different in American English. It could be considered a little offensive to those that use British English though. Graphically the game is very pleasing. The video animation is clearly dated but I actually like the charm it gives the game. It’s just wouldn’t be the same if the locations were traditionally animated.
In terms of sound this was a little more hit and miss. Some of the cut scenes have a very B-Movie quality to the sound and the acting for that matter. The sound was just enough to get by though.
Although the acting in the game is clearly terrible from some of the actors I find that it’s all part of the experience. Adrianne’s husband Don appears to be reading from a script most of the time and very fixated on drain cleaner. The worst acting offender though is Harriet, just every line of dialogue is given as if she was in a school play. Adrienne herself though is very tolerable as a protagonist, within the confines of this type of media it’s a job well done. She’s a likable every-woman and you will be rooting for her by the later stages of the story. I did question a few times why she would put up with Don’s behaviour but it all serves to reinforce her good nature. It also shines a light on the nature of domestic violence, whether intended or not this is probably one of the deepest take aways from the game. Other townsfolk though give quite believable performances. I particularly enjoyed Harve from the general store.
Phantasmagoria has clearly aged very badly in the graphical and sound departments. However, the story and actual gameplay still stand up to create a very playable game. The puzzles are not so ambiguous that you have no ideas what to try and yet there is enough here to provide a challenge, especially if you want to see all the easter eggs and best ending. What I found most interesting about playing through this game was how my impression changed from having only seen online reviews. I’ve seen a few reviews where the game is made out to be a non-stop gore-fest and endless controversial scenes. In truth there are a few scenes of this nature but these are greatly outdone by the proportion of good quality adventuring. I think at times we’re under-selling how good the underlying game actually is.
So, the final verdict. For anyone who has a love of classic point and click games I think that you would get something out of this one. As would collectors of Sierra games. For the casual gamers with only a passing interest I think that the game might underwhelm you. It doesn’t deliver the sustained horror to appeal to more serious horror fans but does provide a good experience if you enjoy horror movies with a low budget feel.
When it comes to Phantasmagoria, I came for the gore but stayed for the story and puzzles. This is the true accomplishment of Phantasmagoria. Despite suffering as an early adopter of new technology its great writing and charm see it through to become a much loved gaming horror classic.