Roberta Williams’ Phantasmagoria walked a delicate line between camp and hardcore horror. Personally, I didn’t feel it pulled this trick off terribly well. While the carnival atmosphere allowed for some truly gruesome Saw-like kills, the plot lacked serious tension and quickly fell into stale haunted house/possessed lover routines.
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is a sequel in name only. Roberta is out creatively (though she does make an acting cameo) and the story contains no ties to the original. Ghosts and the supernatural are similarly tossed, in favor a story focused more on psychological horror and the unraveling of the mind. It seems Sierra was going toward making “Phantasmagoria” more of an anthology series – sort of The Outer Limits for games. That’s an intriguing idea that I would like to have seen more of, but what’s surprising is that – despite what you may have heard – PoF actually plays well enough to stand on its own.
In Puzzle of Flesh, you play as Craig Curtis; a young twenty-something who’s been out of a mental institution for about a year. The purpose of Craig’s stay is initially unclear, and most of his memories of the place focus on traumatic events (like violent electroshock therapy), with no context. He now works as a technical writer for the pharmaceutical company WynTech. The first chapter is spent establishing his relationships with his co-workers, and in particular, his awkward situation with sort-of girlfriend Jocelyn (she’s ass over entrails in love, but he’s extremely cautious of commitment). As the day progresses, Craig begins to experience visions that gradually become more horrific. These visions lead you to explore Craig’s past, the untimely death of his father, and what implications that might have had in what seems like a buried corporate conspiracy at WynTech.
What first deserves praise is the pacing. PoF plays across five chapters and five discs, and the length feels just right. The buildup across these chapters is equally skilled, and without treading into spoiler territory, I’ll just say that the stakes rise appropriately. You learn a great deal about Craig through his visions, confessions to friends, and discussions with his therapist – all of which do an expert job of adding a single, vital piece of the puzzle at a time, and which, surprisingly, never feel contrived. These discussions also help immensely in showing Craig’ thoughts, and in understanding his frame of mind. Having the character go over previous events in his own words is a clever way to bring games closer to the literary ability to read what a character thinks and feels, without falling into film clichés of narration or talking at the audience.
Also, I found a surprising amount of empathy generated for what is essentially an interactive movie. You have very little control, and basically no direct influence over the events of the plot (not even dialogue choices), but you still manage to feel for Craig. I felt awkward and annoyed when Jocelyn kept constantly throwing out “I love you”s that Craig found ways to avoid returning. I felt a little devious, excited, and guilty when Craig snuck out on her. I felt shocked and disgusted (though not as much as he did!) as his more terrible repressed memories surfaced. It’s worth mentioning specifically, because most games and their characters do not even come close to this kind of connection, and PoF manages quite capably. Maybe I actually empathized easier with a male character, while a woman would prefer the first Phantas. Or, maybe there’s simply truth to Roberta Williams’ belief that real actors are required for a horror game to have any effect.
Those real actors also do a commendable job. Craig (Paul Morgan Stetler) is the best of the group, and completely believable throughout a very complex role. Trevor (Paul Mitri) also does an exceptional job as the best friend. He offers legitimately disarming comic relief, while being completely sympathetic as Craig’s state beings to deteriorate. I would definitely like to have Trevor around as a friend, which I take as a sign of an excellent performance there. Your therapist (Cynthia Steele) also does a wonderful job of acting like a compassionate professional. In my layman’s opinion, she actually does come off like a licensed counselor. Her plausible interactions with Stetler’s performance further help sell his pained confessions as a legitimate plot device. The rest of the cast varies. The two main women are less convincing in their roles, and the big boss seems greedy and uncaring without understanding his own motivations. Evil for evil’s sake.
Content is also far more serious this time around. While the gore has actually been reduced somewhat from the grisly torture-kills of the original, the adult content has shot way up. Sex is still suggestive humping, but women go topless this time. Bondage and S&M factor heavily into the plot, as well as the general theme of temptation. Cross-dressing and gender identities briefly get explored, and Craig struggles with the idea that he may actually be bisexual. It sounds like a checklist of “things that scare the living shit out of conservatives,” but none of the above is actually demonized. Your best friend is a (not flaming, but certainly… simmering) homosexual, and he’s a genuinely awesome dude throughout the show. The S&M isn’t depicted as a gateway to horror (like in Hellraiser), but instead as more of a deviant, different, underground world. It’s a truly adult game; not only in content, but in the generally mature handling of the subject matter.
All this praise being said, the ending completely sucks. I won’t give it away, except to say that the excellent psychological horror vibe that had been set up takes a disappointing turn around Chapter 4. But the story’s also not consistently solid before then. Some of the visions you have are just random scary images with no context or deeper meaning. Some come off awkward and immature – like Craig arguing with his pet rat (who speaks with a cheesy, modulated demon voice), or the overuse of –boy as an apparently serious insult (“rat-boy,” “scarecrow-boy,” etc). The moments that make an impact certainly do (and I wish I could talk about them without ruining the experience), but the rest really feel like generic filler.
Gameplay also fails at most points. Your interaction is frequently limited to doing nothing more than continuing to click on a person to load the next clip of the conversation. As there’s no dialogue system, many items you collect serve no purpose except to “use” on the therapist to discuss the topic that the item signifies. Puzzles are also weak. Finding computer passwords is the most frequent requirement, which is boring and easy. Meanwhile, Adventure Game Logic occasionally rears its ugly head. You have to get your wallet from under the couch. You can’t reach it. You can’t move the couch, or use the long screwdriver in your inventory to slide it out. Instead, you have to send your pet rat after it, and then find a granola bar to coax him back out.
Finally, as a fair warning, the final puzzle probably holds the distinction of having the worst design out of any in Sierra’s entire catalog. You have to manipulate a strange machine with no prompting on how it operates. The machine is so mind-bogglingly complex that I think it’s probably impossible to tackle without a walkthrough or hint guide. Look it up on YouTube if you don’t care about spoilers – it’s really something to behold.
There’s also no in-game hint system, and limited clues as to what you’re supposed to do next. Craig will rarely offer any suggestions, and the small number of total areas makes me think the intent is for you to wander around and try everything. That’s certainly what you’re reduced to. Hotspots do at least deactivate after they’ve been used. This makes it easier to see what you’ve missed or what’s changed, without reactivating previous scenes (and an updating video log lets you replay any scenes you might have missed). Still, there’s a ton of aimless clicking, and all the glorious frustrations that brings.
I have no technical complaints, and the production is pretty close in quality to The X-Files game. Real sets are used this time instead of greenscreened CG, and competent cinematography (with some expertly-framed shots) tells the story without confusion. It’s also low-budget without feeling much like it, which is admirable in itself. Sound holds up equally well, with the only complaints being some occasionally cheesy choices for effects. The game comes in DOS and Windows flavors. Both feature heavy scanlines, but DOS features a further reduction in quality (it only displays 256 colors to Win95’s 16-bit). If you’re serious about playing this, you’ll want to grab this fan patch/installer, which perfectly upscales the video and removes the scanlines (though for the CD version only!)
I had heard that Puzzle of Flesh was much weaker than the original Phantasmagoria, and am surprised to find that’s not the case. It’s a hell of a production, beset by limited gameplay, a particularly obnoxious puzzle, and a real stinker of an ending chapter. It’s not quite the Jacob’s Ladder of horror games, but it does psychological horror reasonably well, and does a bang-up job of exploring a realistic character’s multi-layered personal demons. Not much of an adventure game, but at least 3 out of 5 discs of solid interactive movie.
Excellent production, strong characters, not just “adult” but fairly mature as well.
Boneheaded final chapter. Limited actual gameplay. Simply awful final puzzle.