Wednesday, November 13, 2013

I'm Going On An Adventure! - Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh

Back again so soon to familiar territory. As I stated in my Phantasmagoria review I started the sequel up immediately after playing through the first. I also gave a bit of a brief overview of what I was experiencing but didn't talk much about it then. But I found more to talk about than I really thought I would so I decided to make it a full on review.

A Puzzle of Flesh, while under the Phantasmagoria name has no connection to the first whatsoever. Instead the creators took an anthology sort of approach. Where each entry is different in story, character, etc, but all with connecting themes and style. It's what John Carpenter wanted to do when Halloween III: Season of the Witch was made with no Michael Myers and in a sense it's what Final Fantasy has been doing for over two decades with some exceptions. Upon first impressions, especially after spending a bunch of time with the first game, you'll find that this is definitely true in some respects. The point and click style is essentially the same. Not much if nothing has been changed from that. Everything that was changed was cosmetic and in story. Some were changed for the better... and others...

As a recap in the last game you played a woman who just moved into a fucking mansion with your photographer husband. Blah-de-blah-de-blah scary shit happens, your husband goes crazy trying to kill you and you find out it all started when the previous owner who was a magician summoned a demon to give himself more powers. It's a good example of a classic, over the top horror that had some pretty awesome bits. A Puzzle of Flesh is a bit more low key. You start the game playing as a young man living in a one bedroom apartment with his rat. He works in a cubicle at a big pharmaceutical company (at least that's what I was able to figure. They have labs and other medical-like stuff in their building.) and most of the interactions you'll have in the game are with your co-workers. From the start there are strong suggestions at insanity and that at one point your character, Curtis, had been hospitalized at one point. At least that's what the opening cutscene suggested to me.
I will say I like the change to the user interface along with the overall look of the game. You could tell they wanted to be somewhat more professional with their approach by making it much more cinematic. The entire game has a widescreen presentation with the black bars hiding the buttons for inventory and options until you hover over them. It gives a much better sense of atmosphere and depth than the last game due to the fact the last game had a huge border and buttons placed in front of you the whole game. On top of that the production value has definitely gone up. As much as I love pre-rendered backgrounds from the first game this definitely looks better having all real sets. That and the game has more characters to interact with than before. Granted they all still are on the D-level with acting but that's beside the point. Even with the bad acting you can find yourself grossly invested in the game and it is a great experience.

Now with that engrossing atmosphere I do have some problems with the story. The last game was really over the top and classical in it's horror approach. A Puzzle of Flesh feels like a psychological thriller from it's era (the 90s) with some horror elements thrown in. Not necessarily a bad thing. A lot of great movies came from the 90s. Frankly it was an awesome period for movies especially with organic special effects. It was after years of training but before CG was the norm meaning some of the most "realistic" movies came from that era. So that elements I don't have a problem with. I'll even accept that it's a departure from the original theme because the idea is for this to be an anthology. What I do have a problem with is the content.
I'm not squeemish. I don't know how much more I'll have to point that out but it's true. So when there's blood, guts, gore, suggestive content, and the list goes on I'm pretty okay with it. It's hard to gross me out or offend me. What actually bothers me when it does come to content is the appropriateness of the content. Is it there for a good reason or just there for shock value? Well as over the top the first game's violence was it fit the bill. It had that vibe and feeling that called for it. But for Puzzle of Flesh the content seems more like the writer needed to top the last game.
"Okay, let's see. We've got a guy on the brink of a mental breakdown. How did he get there. I know! His dad was killed and his mom committed suicide. But before that his mom was very abusive. Ummm... mentally and physically. Oh yeah, taboo topics. Let's make the character bisexual. But how did he get that way? I KNOW His abusive mother used to dress him up like a girl when he was a kid. Fantastic! We need something else, though, something even more shocking. Well he's got that straight laced girlfriend in the office. Maybe we could make his other female co-worker a total horndog whose into... um, into... S&M! YEAH! That'll blow the socks off the players!... now let's see, what else could I do?"
It all feels really forced for the sake of shock value. But for all the mature material that was in this game there wasn't as much violence as I was expecting. Sure there are a couple murders in the first half with lots of blood splatter. But you have to keep in mind this is the sequel to a game where a person's face is split in half with a pendulum blade and another is by being forced fed flesh causing suffocation. A Puzzle of Flesh is definitely on the shock value route but more in terms of psychological shock.

Then in the final chapter of the game everything goes in a bizarre direction that I don't think anyone was expecting.

So as I stated, the whole time you feel your character has been going insane. He has a history with mental problems so it makes sense. Something that bummed me out. Making it feel like all the fucked up stuff (minus the murders obviously) wasn't really happening. Like when demonic-looking creatures some to haunt you throughout the game. It all felt mental instead of like it was really happening. Well in the final section of the game a lot of that stuff was answered. I think it's safe to say I'm going to spoil this game big time from here on out.
So by the final chapter of the game three of your co-workers are dead, presumably by your hand. Something that is clearly not a mystery. Also you discover your father didn't die by accident, but intentionally by the company you work for while they were working on a secret project called Threshold. Lastly, you're under the impression that this Threshold project is up and running again. So after some work with getting around high clearance levels you make your way into the basement of said company. And this is where things are explained and everything... makes sense?
I think this is where I realized the writer took big inspiration from Stephen King. Don't get me wrong, I love the guy and I have most of his books. But he has this tendency to write great stories filled with deep, interesting characters who are dealing with very real problems in a realistic world. But then in the final act the story goes "Fuck it. Aliens." And that's what this game did.
Threshold is a portal into another dimension. You find out you were involved in said project as your memory slowly comes back to you while exploring the basement. But the twist is that you're actually a duplicate created as an aftermath of said project. The original you is still very much alive in this alien world. So to make a unnecessarily convoluted, long final chapter short you make your way through the portal into this other dimension where you conquer your demons and destroy your original self. It's unlike anything that came before in this game and was a nice change of pace. I must say I did enjoy this last part and I wish more of the game was like this. Crazy insane alien shit. But I don't think it would have held up throughout. One thing I will definitely point out is both my favorite and least favorite part of the game. In a game that didn't really have any puzzles outside of "which item in my inventory should I use next to progress the story" suddenly at the very end throws you THIS!

This baffled me when it came on screen. There was nothing anywhere close to this kind of puzzle earlier in the game and no indication to what I would have to do to make it work. I mean look at it! What the hell? But I was happy to see this. It meant something of a real challenge has come up instead of the same old same old just to keep the videos coming. Also there was one key thing that happens here that both frustrated me, but made me happy to see. I read about this game being really buggy back in the day so I don't know if this was intentional or not. There come a point in the puzzle where after you have the key components charged and ready to be fully powered via LASERS!... it is still possible to make a mistake and inevitably lose. However the game pulls something that hasn't been pulled yet. If I click on one key spot after a certain point the entire game crashes and returns you to Windows. Now if this was meta or bad programming I don't know. And as frustrated as I was I liked how the game was as no-bullshit as it was at the end like that. And it's easy to run across because the spot you click at that point is a logical jump. It's not hard to come across. The first time I thought there was something random and wrong. But after it kept happening I definitely knew it was happening only in that one spot damn near intentionally.
And that's really my last complaint. I wish this game had more puzzles like this throughout. The game moves at a very standard, only slightly escalated difficulty throughout. Then at the very, VERY end of the game you run into a difficulty curve so drastic you begin to wonder how it got in. It's like the programmers came up with a really intense puzzle and based a game around it. That or it was something separate that was worked into A Puzzle of Flesh for the sake of an end of game challenge.
After you solve the puzzle you have the option of two endings. The shitty one and the less shitty one that makes more sense. You can either choose to stay in the human world with a teaser that you're slowly transforming into one of the aliens. Or you can enter the alien world where you technically belong. Either way the endings are not good and do not tie up all the loose ends of the story. At least the experience was decent enough throughout to make it a brief yet enjoyable experience.

Still... I wouldn't necessarily say this is one you should go out of your way to get. If it's on sale at Good Old Games then go for it. Otherwise it's nowhere near as good of an experience as the first game or other point and click horror games. At the time of writing this I am starting The 7th Guest and I'm already enjoying the first hour more than this entire game. Another thing I don't understand is why it's a Phantasmagoria game. It didn't have to be connected, but it could have been more in line with what the first game started. Phantasmagoria is literally a theatrical term, giving it plenty of sense in the first game. But the sequel should have just been called A Puzzle of Flesh. I know, I know, Phantasmagoria was put in there for brand name recognition and I know the intentions of the creator. Still even A Puzzle of Flesh doesn't make any sense as a title. So much is wrong with this entry. Still parts of it are worth experiencing. You just may come out a bit disappointed like I did if you play it immediately after the first. A judgement I feel is justified since this is from the same people in the same... franchise? (only two were made)
...but the game does make reference to laserdiscs at one point so I can't knock it for that.

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