Phantasmagoria review

Written by Julian Schoffel on . Posted in Adventure

Phantasmagoria game image

The name Phantasmagoria brings two things immediately to mind; a long overdue, extravagantly produced PC adventure game from Sierra and a nasty bout of overblown, relatively unjustified controversy.

This is the game the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification chose to ban nationally back in 1995.

Phantasmagoria was Roberta William’s (designer of the King’s Quest series) pet project at Sierra for three years or so during the early 1990s. It was a massive adventure game and came on no less than seven CDs! It was also supposed to be the first adult oriented product from a company long regarded as the purveyors of sickly sweet, politically correct graphic adventures.

In Phantasmagoria the player assumed the role of “Adrienne” who, with her husband Don, had moved into a large island home originally built by a famous but enigmatic illusionist known as “Zoltan.” As Adrienne, players had to unravel the dark mystery surrounding the house and combat the evil force vying for control of her husband.

Phantasmagoria looked amazing (er back in 1995 that is…)!

Phantasmagoria was filmed at Sierra’s state-of-the-art studio in Oakhurst, CA, which was built specifically for the company’s interactive game production. Drawing upon the expertise of the special effects team from Kronos, the guys who brought us the digital effects in “Batman Returns,” Phantasmagoria looked like no other adventure game previously released. Well this wasn’t strictly true, after all most of you would have played Myst or Noctropolis and Phantasmagoria was, in a sense, a sort of cross between these two games.

Phantasmagoria was set in a large, rambling and inherently evil house. All of the scenery was magnificently rendered and there were a lavish array of rooms, outdoor settings, even a coastal town for the player to explore.

Gameplay consisted of moving the digitized actress (another early 1990s PC game “Noctropolis” also used digitized actors instead of animated sprites) who plays Adrienne around the house and the surrounding landscape. It was basically traditional adventure fare with the player discovering and using objects, interacting with other characters while exploring the extremely Gothic gameworld. Of course Phantasmagoria was basically an interactive horror movie, so players could also expect plenty of ghoulish surprises hidden amongst the spectacular rendered scenery.

The game was controversial – but did it deserve to be…?

“OK why all the fuss?” I hear you ask.

All of the supposedly controversial material in Phantasmagoria came in the form of non-interactive cinematic cut-scenes.

I can recall four mildly confronting sequences: in one Adrienne was raped by her husband (they are both clothed at the time), in two others Adrienne witnesses a ghostly re-enactment of the former owner of the house, Zoltan, killing two women in rather ghastly ways and in the last scene (one of the possible losing endgame sequences) Adrienne has her head cleaved in half by a massive swinging blade and yes you get to see her brains go everywhere.

While these scenes aren’t something you’d normally associate with a Sierra adventure game, they certainly didn’t justify banning the game! After all they were pivotal to the plot, lasted about ten seconds (blink and you’d miss them), and the player was just an observer and not a participant. In this way they really weren’t any worse than the stuff in many MA15+ rated horror movies. I hasten to add that the game had a built-in censor feature which allowed the player to cut them out of the game entirely if he or she wished to do so.

While the acting in the game often left a lot to be desired, the performance of the actor who plays Adrienne was generally pretty good. However, the acting in Phantasmagoria was secondary to exploring the house and its surrounds anyway.

The interface was mouse-controlled, very simplistic and unobtrusive. The soundtrack and sound-effects first rate. At the time of its release Phantasmagoria rated up there with Myst, Under A Killing Moon and Wing Commander III for quality of presentation and sheer technological sophistication.

In conclusion Phantasmagoria looked fabulous, could be mildly scary at times, sounded excellent and played like a typical adventure game. Its sheer size, beauty and scope made it great value for money and for these reasons it seems a great shame that Australian gamers missed out on what people everywhere else in the world (bar a few countries where censorship reigns supreme) got to enjoy.

Review Summary
Score: 78%
Info: I first reviewed this game way back in 1995. At that time Phantasmagoria was the source of great controversy here in Australia and was actually banned by the OFLC. This sparked a debate about the need for an ‘R’ classification category for games in Australia and, believe it or not, this debate still rages some 17 years later!
The Good: Cutting edge (for 1995 that is) use of FMV and 3D rendered environments. Quite an engaging storyline by one of the graphic adventure genre’s biggest names – none other than Roberta Williams from the once great “Sierra” gaming giant.
The Bad: The game sometimes veered into ‘cheesy’ territory. Also featured some incredibly hammy voice-acting.

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Julian Schoffel

From 1994 to 2007 Julian was a contributing editor for Australian PC User Magazine. He has also written for numerous publications which include Australian Personal Computer, PC PowerPlay, Hyper, Ralph, Megazone, The Disc, PlayNow, TechLife, The Sydney Morning Herald and IGN.

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