Sierra's Phantasmagoria, the company's first foray into the world of full-motion video adventure games, met with mixed reactions. While it was a big hit commercially, reviews - both from magazines and from players - were incredibly divided. Sierra's second attempt at combining their classic game formula with film sequences was The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery, which fared much better and was among the best adventure games of 1996. With its extraordinary story creating a truly suspenseful and frightening experience, The Beast Within made up for the mediocrity of Phantasmagoria.
Unfortunately, The Beast Within didn't mark the beginning of a positive trend. Phantasmagoria: A Puzzle of Flesh takes giant steps back, both as a game and as an interactive experience. The film quality is far superior to either of its predecessors, but technical achievements don't amount to much when it seems like the story was written for the Halloween issue of a junior high school newspaper.
First, the game - or at least what semblance of one there is. Classic Sierra puzzles are few and far between here, and the few that do exist are far beyond the realms of reasonable disbelief. I can only explain by example, so here goes: At the very start of the game, you must find your wallet. Okay, easy enough - it's under the couch. The couch looks like it weighs about 12 pounds, so what's the logical thing to do? If you guessed "have your pet rat crawl under the couch, then tempt her out with a granola bar," you were right on the money. The puzzles continue on at this clip, feeling tacked on and without purpose. What's worse, the game follows Sierra's traditional chapter-by-chapter structure, but the tasks you must complete each day rarely move the story in any direction. You must do things like show a picture of your family to a co-worker, who in turn makes some very general comment that does little to further the silly story and nothing whatsoever to further the game.
The poor quality of the puzzles would be more excusable if the film sequences were in the least bit compelling. Drawing upon almost every horror cliché, the game tells of Curtis Craig, a technical writer who thinks he's going insane. Surrounded by a rash of murders, and pestered by horrible visions and disembodied voices, he begins wondering whether he is the culprit. If his visions weren't so inane, and the voices didn't sound like Fozzie Bear speaking through a flanger pedal, the game might be a bit scary. As it stands, only the music of the game manages to provide any mood - and Gary Spinrad's haunting score seems wasted on what amounts to a trashy, B-rate sci-fi thriller. I don't wanna ruin anything for anyone planning on setting aside the 10 hours it takes to finish this game, but the real answer to Curtis's hallucinations is more absurd than you will ever imagine.
The game could have just been a no-brain gorefest, which might have been fun. The real problem is not the inanity, but the attempt to bring mature issues to the table. Curtis has to visit a therapist several times, and you use objects from your inventory to bring up topics of discussion, including: his latent homosexuality, the physical and psychological abuse inflicted upon him by his mother, watching his father get shot to death on the front lawn, and the fact that his employer is conducting frightening experiments on human beings. And that's just the first session. The subjects can be brought up in any order, so the sessions take on a detached, incoherent feel - especially when you are giving background on a topic that has already been discussed in detail previously. The attempts at pop psychology that show up throughout A Puzzle of Flesh are far more offensive than any of the evisceration scenes.
Perhaps A Puzzle of Flesh is best summed up by my gut reaction during the conclusion. As the credits rolled, all I felt was regret - regret that I had spent a good chunk of my life in this ugly world, with annoying, unappealing characters and their silly problems.