Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 01 December 1996. Last updated on 23 May 2014.
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Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
Is the lovely Jocilyn going to betray you?
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
Curtis' fetish fantasy takes hold of his life.
Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh
Curtis must find out who is Hecatomb.

Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is the second game of a planned horror trilogy from Sierra On-Line. The game is also a departure in both design and production from the original Phantasmagoria. Written by Lorelei Shannon (not Roberta Williams who has written the original Phantasmagoria), this game is not meant to be a true sequel but as a separate adventure with new characters and story. In attempt to aim for a more mature adult audience, the story in Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh centers on the portrayals of the human psyche and human sexuality, mixed with a high level of gore and violence. Whether such an attempt translates to an artistic success is highly debatable.

Curtis Craig, a quiet young man with a disturbed childhood, attempts to return to a normal life since his discharge from a mental hospital a year ago. When his colleagues at work are mysteriously murdered and strange apparitions appear around him, Curtis once again begins to question his own sanity. As the edge between reality and nightmare around him becomes more blur, his struggle for love from his gentle girlfriend Jocilyn is antagonized by his lust towards the sadomasochistic coworker Therese. His inquiries about the murders lead him down a path of twisted past surrounding a company project called Threshold. You, as Curtis Craig, must investigate the source of these strange events and uncover the link that ties his very own existence with an entity named the Hecatomb. After all, we are only human, right?

Departing from the predominant utilization of computer generated imagery as in Phantasmagoria, locations and real sets are used in the production of the Full Motion Video for this game whenever possible. The alien world is still computer rendered, with Full Motion Video overlay via chromakey. Video compression is done by TrueMotion which provides near 30 frames per second with better quality than its predecessor. The clips are also optimized for 16-bit playback in 65,535 colors. The digital speech sounds clear with surprisingly good lip synchronization. The stereo music is sharp. Special effects and props are used to portray many of the gruesome death scenes (such as Dr Harburg's) in this game.

Gameplay is controlled using a simple point-and-click interface. An inventory is kept at the bottom of the screen to store important items that may be needed later. A map shows the available locations which can be explored and allows the player to travel between different places. The story is played out over 5 chapters. Due to the graphic and adult contents in this game, parental password lockout is available to tone down the intensity of the videos for minor gamers. Rather than blurring the original clips with large pixels during video playback, alternate clips are shot for this latter setting.

Calling this game just darker and bolder than the original Phantasmagoria is a complete understatement. Subject matters, dramatic elements, and its psychological impact are definitely not for the squeamish but only for the most mature of audience. The portrayal on the fragility of the human psyche or the lust of human sexuality (S&M, homosexuality, voyeurism) is disturbing and may raise controversy with the media or the public for a product that is meant for family entertainment. In this context, Shannon must be credited for her attempt to deal with such subjects in a mature fashion.

The story is somewhat intriguing and well executed with a surprising twist during the climactic final confrontation between Curtis and the Hecatomb. It succeeds in delivering both significant physical and psychological horrors. Ambient music also adds to the suspense as the story unfolds, though it is not as bone chilling as the Consumite Furore theme in Phantasmagoria. Acting is above average with an unknown cast, and is more down to earth than Phantasmagoria. Curtis is played by Paul Morgan Stetler, Therese is played by Ragna Sigrun, and Jocilyn is played by Monique Parent. Parent has previously appeared in the Playboy video Rising Stars. There is much violence and sex (and more sex) in this game, making it suitable only for a limited adult audience. In fact, a special retail version of the game has to be made to remove the offensive words "pig in puke" on the display box for Best Buy in Texas. Sale of the original version of the game has also been banned in Sam's and Wal-Mart. Only a PG-13 version is available in these retailers. Certainly, the crafty rape scene in Phantasmagoria is easily surpassed by the sex scenes in this game which include frontal nudity and bondage. The gentle Jocilyn or the sensual Therese—the choice is yours!

Unfortunately, the gameplay in Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh falls short to qualify as a mediocre adventure game. The gameplay is extremely linear and thin from the lack of clever puzzles. Some puzzles, such as the alien circuit board puzzle, are simply illogical. Often, playing this game feels more like watching a horror B movie. The player merely clicks on the screen with little purpose other than to advance onto the next movie clip. The game lasts only 15-20 hours. The 2 shoddy and uninspiring endings also minimize any replay value. There is no hint system that can be accessed within the game, though I cannot imagine why any player will need any. Limited number of save slots is another irritating and overlooked design element. There is no option available in the video playback that will allow continuous playback of all the movie clips from beginning to end in chronological sequence to form a full length horror click.

In the end, the controversial subject matters in Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh alienate, both willingly and unwillingly, many younger players. Scenes with frontal nudity are unnecessary to convey a story in a computer game that is meant for home entertainment. It is rumored that the departure of Lorelei Shannon from the company in 1997 is related to the marketing failure of this title. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh is a psychological thriller that tries to portray the dark sides of the human psyche but does so at the large expense of gameplay. I fear that this failed effort in making this game may have forever doomed the Phantasmagoria trilogy.

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