Before entering into a discussion concerning the sound and visual effects displayed by Phantasmagoria, it should be noted that this is a cd-rom game designed to run on average (for late 1995) home 486 multimedia computers and thus cannot be judged by the much higher standards expected from a conventional motion picture. It will be some years before most PC gamers own Pentium Pro or Pentium II based computers, MPEG and 3D capable video cards, and powerful surround sound stereo speakers. Until that time, game companies will target the largest market possible which means those with superior hardware will have to wait even longer to stretch the limit of their equipment's capabilities. Phantasmagoria was reviewed on a 486DX2-66 computer with 20Mb of RAM running Windows 95 in MS-DOS mode, equipped with a quad-speed cd-rom, SoundBlaster AWE32 PnP, a pair of 35 watt hi-fi stereo speakers, and a mediocre 1Mb SVGA video card. For optimum performance, I would recommend a Pentium system incorporating a wave table sound card. I am not at all familiar with the Apple Macintosh personal computer, so what I write here might only apply to the IBM PC and compatibles version of Phantasmagoria...
Overall, the quality and variety of sound within Phantasmagoria, as demonstrated by both the sound effects and soundtrack, is superb. Where sound effects are expected, they are heard by the player. For example, listen for the power down hum of Adrienne's laptop computer, Don stomping across the floorboards of the bedroom, the crackling from the various fireplaces, and the bird song and wave lapping environmental sounds of the outdoor scenes.
There are different sets of soundtracks (both DAC and MIDI based) for portrait gazing scenes, romantic scenes, general exploration scenes, and even for particular rooms. All MIDI soundtracks, many of which use stringed instruments and "choir aahs" quite effectively, are enhanced immeasurably through the utilisation of a sound card capable of wave table synthesis such as the AWE32. Players may initiate additional soundtracks that are actually heard by Adrienne: the fortune telling machine in the reception hall initially plays a short, cheerful carnival tune which slowly deteriorates with each use into an unenthusiastic dirge like drone by chapter seven in line with the increasingly grim plot, and the nearby wind-up piano (that plays different tunes) may be started at any time. As for the more grandiose pieces, these are usually reserved for the many cut scenes, chapter introductions, and the interactive ending - occasionally sounding reminiscent of Batman (particularly the introduction to chapter two and the finding of the dead cat scene) and the talents of world famous choirs. Curiously, these compositions are often more elaborate versions of the standard exploration themes. Just as pleasing, the closing theme song, Take a Stand, is not only relevant to the content of the game, but accurately summarises its plot!
Regrettably, these musical treasures are occasionally partially spoilt by presumably unintended audio effects which should have been edited out of the game prior to its commercial release. A usually inappropriate echoing of the voices of the actors and some of the sound effects can at times be detected. At many locations in Phantasmagoria, such as in large rooms and underground, this can realistically be expected, but to have it occur in small rooms and even outside at sea level, far from any tall buildings or mountains, is somewhat disappointing. Additionally, cut scenes are always accompanied by static, but only when there is no speech or powerful music. Fortunately, these are but minor failings that do not get in the way of a thrilling gaming experience.
By the standards of cd-rom game graphics and video in use in late 1995, Phantasmagoria visually presents itself very well. Those who say the video quality in titles such as Wing Commander 3 and Command and Conquer is superior should remember that the game under review depicts a lot more action than merely "talking heads" and would probably refuse to run on the average gamer's computer if quality standards were aimed too high. Stunning three-dimensional indoor backgrounds are rendered with the same or greater attention to detail as those in Under a Killing Moon while the outdoor environment is reminiscent of Myst. The utmost care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the antique furnishings and lighting effects. The actors, filmed separately in front of a blue screen, are transposed onto these backgrounds reasonably well apart from certain instances where Adrienne and/or some inanimate objects appear to either grow or shrink between different viewpoints. In a rare move, these actors include real animals - a cat, a couple of dogs, and even a rat.
Phantasmagoria has taken graphical realism to new heights with what I term as a "dynamic interactive environment". There are actually casual passers by walking the streets, most people are not partially concealed behind desks or counters, and objects may appear or disappear at various points throughout the game indicating that they have been used by someone or something. For examples of this phenomenon, witness what is happening around Adrienne as she walks the streets of the town as well as the changing nature of what she finds behind the bar, in Carno's bedroom, and within the secret passageways. Even better, have Adrienne talk to Don as he his working in the darkroom in chapter one and as he is lying down in the couple's bedroom after suffering a headache at the beginning of chapter three. In both cases, Don previously remarks that he will be doing these things while talking to his wife at another location. This feature can also be seen in chapter four after Adrienne informs Harriet of the duties she is to perform as the newly appointed housekeeper. Harriet can subsequently be encountered in the kitchen, reception hall, library, Don and Adrienne's bedroom, and the bathroom.
Each scene has been filmed (using real cameras and computer "cameras") by technicians with a flair for the theatrical. Few styles of camera angle or movement were ignored, greatly improving the feel of the game. See the introductions to chapters two and three as well as the attempted murder of Carno scene and the interactive ending sequence and ask yourself if you have ever seen anything of that quality in a cd-rom game before. I certainly have not. All cut and general exploration scenes run in widescreen format at the same size - approximately two thirds of the display area of your monitor - allowing for some consistency and easy use of inventory items at all times.
The only significant justifiable criticism of any of the video scenes might be that, while many other things change, Adrienne's appearance while she is adventuring does not. For a start, she never changes her day clothes (an orange pullover, black jeans, and white sandshoes) and, although the game allows her to carry up to eight items at once, she is never shown with bulging pockets or carrying any item too large to be placed on her person. By the end of the game, Adrienne has acquired items such as a fireplace poker, hammer, snowman Christmas ornament, and even a spellbook, and yet she looks the same as at the beginning of the game. Admittedly, this is not as realistic as it might be, but how many games change the appearance of the main character while he or she is adventuring? In Under a Killing Moon, Tex Murphy carries a vicious little creature called a geigger in a substantial wire mesh cage, but you never see his uniform trenchcoat bulge even once! If characters' appearances were adjusted in this way, the amount of extra fairly irrelevant video shot and subsequent amounts of cd swapping involved would be intolerable or leave little room for a decent plot and physical environment. Phantasmagoria comes on seven cd-rom discs even without these possible improvements - would its critics like it to be published on ten or more and put unnecessary wear on their cd-rom drives?
Phantasmagoria Designer Roberta Williams' explanation for this phenomenon
While software companies such as Sierra strive to find ways to perfectly integrate high quality true full motion video of human actors and crystal clear ultra-realistic sound, the distinctions between conventional motion pictures and advanced computer games are becoming increasingly blurred. Even more intriguing is the thought that the distinctions between fantasy and reality are becoming increasingly blurred as well, particularly as all computer games contain a reasonable degree of interactive opportunities. This is perhaps the issue that makes Phantasmagoria so controversial, that its various disturbing scenes might prove too real for some people to handle.
Title - Introduction - Gameplay - Plot Synopsis - Main Characters - Censorship Issues - Miscellanea
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© Anthony Larme 1998