The current trend in games is to increase the immersive effect of the game using a variety of technologies including motion-capture to make animated figures move more realistically, improved software to generate computer art that appears real and methods of combining real world items with that art in a seamless whole. Another increasingly used technique is to add digitized video to the game, as is done with Phantasmagoria 2, making the experience more like an interactive movie than a computer game. The ability to do this has steadily increased, as has the quality of the video.
Sierra has obviously learned from creating both Gabriel Knight: The Beast Within and the first Phantasmagoria game. The use of video is more creative, better integrated, the scenes more cohesive and the acting is more or less up to the standards of a made-for-TV movie. In fact, A Puzzle of Flesh begs to be categorized as a movie rather than a computer game. There are few puzzles and while most are well-integrated into the game, they slow the action and the continuity of the video portions. Unlike most games that use video, the problem is not with the video intruding on game play, but game play intruding on the video.
The game begins with you (as the game’s main character Curtis Craig) employed at a pharmaceutical company called Wyntech. Apparently, you were released from a mental institution a little over a year previously and so the onset of some disturbing hallucinations suggests that all is not well. Curtis has some less-than-fond memories of having been institutionalized, so the last thing he wants to do is go back. The clues to what’s really going on come from items like photographs and a letter from your father that allow you delve into Curtis’ history including his memories of abuse at the hands of his mother and his father’s involvement in some of Wyntech’s unsavory business practices. When people begin turning up dead, that’s when you know you’re in trouble and that you’d really better figure out what’s going on.
Before you begin this game, pay careful attention to the rating of this game. When the Sierra labels the box “Warning: Intense Content,” they’re not joking. You’ll find violence, graphic and horrific images, sex (including S&M), and a storyline that will have you squirming. Oh, and there’s a few swear words in the mix too. The easily-shocked and the weak-of-stomach should avoid this game at all costs.
For anyone else, this game delivers what it promises in far more satisfying fashion than the first Phantasmagoria game. My two biggest gripes were the attempts to shock got a little wearing after a while and some of the scenes didn’t ring true. The problems are related, though the latter is more serious. During the course of the game, Curtis visits an S&M club called the Borderline. Call it “Curtis experiments with alternative culture.” The scenes in the Borderline are lacking in atmosphere and feel “stage-y.” The Techno music on the soundtrack doesn’t help either. Something more industrial would have worked much better. Some other things didn’t ring true such as some of the scenes with Curtis and his girlfriend Jocilyn and scenes involving the police officer investigating the murders. I didn’t get much sense of chemistry between Curtis and Jocilyn and since A Puzzle of Flesh relies so heavily of video, this is lack is more noticeable than in other games where more is left to the imagination. The police officer is so vindictive that it’s hard to supend your disbelief and take her seriously.
Phantasmagoria 2: A Puzzle of Flesh is horrific and scary and actually delivers exactly what it promises. If it’s not your cup of tea, I’d advise you to stay far away. If you’re looking for something that may give you nightmares or looking at the world in a slightly different way, this is what you’re looking for. Even more than other games in a similar vein, like Dark Seed with its art by Giger, the images in a Puzzle of Flesh will be with you for a while.