Friday, 29 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: Crucible Peak Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: ERS G-Studio
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th December 2012
Platform: PC


Hot on the heels of playing the first Phantasmat game, I jumped straight into the next one in the series. I really enjoyed the first one, and the rest of the series (or at least the earlier instalments) all seem to have quite high ratings. It would be quite nice to have a new series that I can rely on (the closest I’ve come since Mystery Case Files is PuppetShow, and these are a bit hit-and-miss). So let’s see how the Phantasmat series shapes up…

The second game in the series is Phantasmat: Crucible Peak, and there’s been a change of developer. This one was developed by ERC G-Studio (now Amax Interactive) in 2012.


You’re a skier in this one (not sure if you’re supposed to be playing as the same person as in Phantasmat), and the game begins with you looking forward to a dream ski trip in the Alps. But shock! horror! a terrifying avalanche puts paid to your plans. You find yourself trapped in a little town called Alpion, which appears to be abandoned. As with the first game, your primary objective is to find a way to get out of the town and on your way. However – again, as with the first game – you are intercepted by one of the few residents of the town, who tells you that something wrong is happening. Naturally, your secondary objective is to find out what on earth’s wrong with Alpion.

The town has been deserted since another catastrophic avalanche many years earlier. The local resort is apparently still open, but there’s no one staying except a young man called Otto, who you meet earlier on. The resort owner offers to help you, and so you start to travel around the area, meeting a couple of other residents along the way. Gradually, the true mystery of Alpion is revealed… or, at least, it would be if you haven’t played the first game. Somewhat disappointingly, the storyline and mystery has almost exactly the same structure as the first Phantasmat game. While it’s quite possible that you guessed the ‘twist’ in Phantasmat, there’s no need to guess at all in the second game – it’s just the same twist. This is a bit of a shame, but it didn’t completely ruin my enjoyment of the game.

The game’s design is stylish and well-done. The frozen backdrops are beautifully rendered, and the character illustrations are also great. As before, the non-player characters are illustrated but not fully animated. The dialogue animation is okay – though there are some occasionally clumsy movements – and the voice acting is great (except in one case, which I’ll come back to). The HOGs are well-designed here. They are undoubtedly quite dark, but the difficulty level is just right for me. (And although I didn’t play them much, the Match-3 games are just beautiful.) Soundtrack and cutscenes are well-done, though these aren’t quite as stylish as those in the first game. Or maybe the novelty value was higher for the first one – Crucible Peak is an enjoyable game, but there’s an undeniable feeling that it’s treading the same ground as Phantasmat.


The gameplay doesn’t hold much surprise for HOPA fans: it’s move-around-and-find-stuff as usual. There are three difficulty levels, but no Custom option. I played on Advanced (the middle level), meaning I had slow recharge on Hint and Skip and some misclick penalty. Advanced is also meant to limit the number of black bar hints that appear during the game, but, while it does do that, the mini-games annoyingly have instructions displayed as default so there’s no setting that will remove these. There’s also no jump map in this one, but you can switch between HOGs and Match-3 should you choose. In my review of the first game, I praised the intuitive and logical gameplay, as well as the way HOGs are integrated into the gameplay. Crucible Peak began in a similar vein – it was pretty clear what you had to do and why you had to do it, and inventory items were used in a common-sense way. However, as the game progressed, I found myself using Hint a lot more. The back-and-forth began to get a bit much, and I sometimes forgot what task I was meant to be completing. Inventory items were mostly common sense, but there were a couple of things that I had to use in an unexpected way.

I don’t want to keep reflecting back on my previous review, but Crucible Peak is in many ways so close to Phantasmat that I can’t really avoid it. And so… once again, in my review of the first game I commented on the use of NPCs. I liked the way NPCs worked in the first game, and so was happy enough for them to be used in a similar way in Crucible Peak. Yes – they have that HOPA habit of telling you to help with something and then standing back while you struggle through the task alone, but that makes sense in the context of the storyline.

There was a feature of the NPCs in Phantasmat that I couldn’t say too much about without giving spoilers. Well, Crucible Peak does the same thing (and I still don’t want to give any spoilers). And, on reflection, I think it’s even better second time round! The NPCs are given more detail in Crucible Peak – they’re given names, for instance, and a slightly more developed backstory. My favourite of these was Schultz, whose story went from vaguely HOPA-creepy to incredibly moving in just one cutscene. Nevertheless, there are some slightly odd moments – the development of Otto’s accent is just strange, and I don’t think the voice acting is at its best here. I can’t pretend that the motivations of all the NPCs makes sense, but a lot less suspension of disbelief is required than with some games.


As I played the CE for this one, there was some bonus content. The main attraction is, as ever, a bonus chapter. But this turned out to be a disappointing. As with Phantasmat, the bonus game is an epilogue chapter that feels a little bit tagged on. It adds nothing new or different to the story, and simply gives you another half an hour of gameplay. Other bonus features include concept art, soundtrack and achievements. There are also replays on HOGs, Match-3s and mini-games, as well as achievements. The game does offer one unusual bonus feature – character profiles for each of the NPCs. These profiles flesh out some of the backstory you discover in the game, as well as offering some little extra details. This quirky little feature adds to the overall feeling that Crucible Peak is developing its NPCs in a bit more detail than Phantasmat.

So, overall, I did enjoy this one, and I spent a happy 5 hours or so completing it. I feel like I enjoyed Phantasmat more, but I wonder if that’s because it had a real novelty value to it. Perhaps I would have like Crucible Peak more if I hadn’t been constantly comparing it to the first game! Nevertheless, I’m definitely liking this series, and I think it’s quite likely I’ll be playing the third Phantasmat title before too long.

Monday, 25 March 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Codeminion
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 6th January 2011
Platform: PC


I had a couple of game credits and a bit of spare time, so I thought I’d try out a game series I’ve not played before: Phantasmat. I saw the most recent title (Remains of Buried Memories) listed on Big Fish Games, but it seemed to have mixed reviews. I know this sounds weird, but it was the negative reviews of Remains of Buried Memories that convinced me to try the series. Bear with me on this… A number of the bad reviews of Remains of Buried Memories were from people who were comparing the new game (unfavourably) to earlier instalments of the series. These reviews were so effusive about the early titles, they convinced me to give them a try. I’ve been looking for a new series to replace Mystery Case Files in my affections, after all.

So I started with the first game, Phantasmat, which was developed by Codeminion (later titles were developed by other companies). And I’ll say up front, this is going to be a positive review. I really liked this one!

The game begins – like so many others – with your character driving down a dark and rainy road. And would you believe it? You crash your car and end up in a strangely deserted town. This is fairly typical HOPA stuff, but it’s done very well here. You’re quickly introduced to one of the non-player characters (more on these characters shortly), who directs you to the local hotel – which is ominously named The Drowned Dead Hotel. You’re advised to ask for help and use the phone only – apparently this is not a good place to stay the night. However, when you enter the Drowned Dead, the hotel’s owner (another NPC) tells you the power’s down, the phone’s not working, and you’re going to have to help fix things.

And so the story unfolds… your overall objective is pretty straightforward. You just want to leave. Each step of the game is supposed to move you closer to this goal, but every time you solve one puzzle, you’re thwarted in the next step. This forces you into a secondary objective, which is to solve the mystery of the abandoned town and its curious remaining inhabitants. Again, this is fairly standard HOPA (one might almost say clich├ęd), but the storytelling in this one is really good. It’s a compellingly creepy story, which unfolds through some interesting techniques.


The game’s design is pure Gothic-y HOPA. It’s dark and creepy, with some detailed settings and scenes. The colour palette is dark, but not too dark to find hidden objects in the HOGs or inventory items scattered around the scenes. NPCs are illustrated, though not fully animated, but there’s nothing cartoonish about them (there’s also a kind of cool aspect to the illustration of these characters, but I can’t tell you what it is without spoilers!). There are also a number of cutscenes – again, illustrated but not fully animated – that are really well-integrated into the gameplay. The game makes interesting use of the cutscenes, so although there are a fair number of these scenes (and also breaks for dialogue with NPCs), they’re not unwelcome interruptions.

Another aspect of the design I enjoyed was the soundtrack. While it doesn’t quite hit the dizzy heights of the Ravenhearst music (what does?), it’s really good, with a number of distinct, atmospheric themes that vary throughout the gameplay and don’t loop too frequently.

So, on to the gameplay itself… this is also well-done. Phantasmat is absolutely a HOPA, so there are no surprises with gameplay. It’s point-and-click, move between scenes, pick stuff up, use stuff from your inventory, play HOGs and mini-games. However, this is a great example of how less is most definitely more in these games. There are no morphing objects, no collectibles, no jump map and no ‘plus items’ – all of which can be a tad distracting if you’re trying to immerse yourself in the story. The gameplay here is also intuitive and logical – you look for objects that are directly related to your overall objectives, and use items from your inventory in common-sense ways (often, though not always, shortly after finding them).

One detail of gameplay that I enjoyed was the way HOGs were integrated into the overall story. There are three difficulty levels in this one (but no Custom option, sadly), and I played Advanced (slow recharge on Hint and Skip, misclick penalties, limited black bar tips). I had assumed that this difficulty option would not include sparkle indicators on HOGs, so was initially disappointed to see the ol’ sparkles appear almost immediately. However, I came to really like the sparkle indicators in this one – and I’ll try and explain why. Quite often, the sparkles appear after you’ve entered the scene, sometimes even after you’ve interacted with other items/NPCs within the scene. So, for instance, you talk to someone, and then realize that you’re going to need a screwdriver. Suddenly, there’s a sparkle to your left, and you click to have a rummage through a pile of stuff. Sure enough, you find a screwdriver. It’s as though you’ve spotted something out of the corner of your eye and gone to take a closer look. This is a great touch, which integrates the HOGs into the very intuitive gameplay and keeps you fully immersed in the storyline. While the HOGs are junk piles, they do make sense in context.

However, if you really don’t want to play all the HOGs – and the game is heavier on these than on mini-games (of which there are only a few) – then you can switch to a Match-3 game instead. I tried this a couple of times, and while they were beautifully designed, they seemed to take a lot longer to complete than the HOG itself. And, of course, they do draw you out of the story a bit.


Now, if you’ve read any of my other HOPA reviews this year, you’ll know I can sometimes have strong feelings about NPCs in these games. So, it might come as a bit of a surprise that I was more than happy with the fact that Phantasmat involved sustained and repeated interactions with three NPCs. In fact the story is essentially about your interactions with these characters.

The first you meet is a young woman, who instructs you to go to the hotel but tells you it’s a dodgy place. As I’ve said about some of the other features here, this is fairly standard fare. But there’s something quite sophisticated and stylish about the way you interact with the NPCs in Phantasmat (there’s two more after the young woman – the creepy hotel owner and a weird old woman who lives in one of the rooms). Yes, they do have that HOPA habit of telling you that something needs to be fixed, and then standing back while you do all the work. But there’s a reason behind this, which becomes clear as the game progresses. There are some really nice touches in the way the interactions work in Phantasmat. Although the dialogue scenes are standard – though nicely done, with no irritating voices – the effects of the interactions are… interesting. (It would be unfair of me to say too much more, as I don’t want to spoiler any of the game’s little surprises.)


I played the CE on this one, so there were a few extras. There’s a bonus chapter, which is an immediate epilogue to the story. I wasn’t blown away by this, as it doesn’t really add anything to the story (and, in some ways, it doesn’t make a huge amount of sense given the main game’s ending). But it’s a little bit of extra gameplay (about half an hour’s worth), which is nice.

The game also has achievements, replays on HOGs and mini-games, and a chance to have another go/a first go at the Match-3 games. This last feature could easily suck you in for a few hours!

I’m trying to put my finger on what I enjoyed so much about Phantasmat. It’s certainly stylish and atmospheric, but no more so than some other titles. The gameplay is straightforward and intuitive - though there's a bit of back-and-forth throughout - and just the right level of diffculty for me (I hardly used Hint at all, but I didn't find things too easy). But it really is a story-driven game, and that story is developed using some neat techniques that I haven’t seen before. Ultimately, I play HOPAs to immerse myself and switch off from everything else – Phantasmat was definitely one to lose yourself in, and I’m looking forward to exploring the other titles in the series. I wouldn’t say it’s replaced Mystery Case Files in my affections, but to be honest I don’t think anything ever will.

Sunday, 3 March 2019

My Year in Books 2019: February

I've decided to carry this little blog series on for another month, keeping track of all the books I've read for pleasure in short 250-word reviews. I didn't get chance to read a huge amount this month - mostly because I had a lot of essays to mark, and a few books to read for work and radio projects. But still... here are my reviews for February...

(In case you're curious, here are the books I read this January.)

Perfect by Rachel Joyce (2013)


I picked this one up from a book sale shelf at the College of the Third Age when I was there to give a talk. Once again, it was an intriguing blurb that got me. I’m not familiar with Rachel Joyce’s other books, though I think I must have seen The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry advertised or reviewed, as the name rings a bell. Perfect tells the dual stories of Byron Hemmings, an eleven-year-old boy at private school in 1972, and Jim, an older man with OCD in the present day. Byron’s story begins with the boy’s concern at learning that two seconds are going to be added to ‘time’ (really, the atomic clock) in order to compensate for the leap year. Byron is so discomforted by the thought of the extra seconds, he accidentally sets in motion a chain of events. While the story unfolds slowly – and the events in the chain are pretty mundane on the whole – there is an ominous atmosphere that suggests we’re heading to a bad place. Byron and his best friend James come up with the idea of Operation Perfect, a plan to get things back on track and to save Byron’s troubled and fragile mother Diana from impending catastrophe. I enjoyed this one a lot, though I sometimes struggled to engage with the characters. The novel is peopled with ever-so-slightly larger-than-life creations, and some motivations and behaviours are a little arch. Overall, though, Perfect is a rather captivating – if somewhat sad – novel.

The Narrow Bed by Sophie Hannah (2016)


In my ongoing (frequently thwarted) quest to find the ultimate literary twist, I stumbled upon this blog post by Sophie Hannah, written as publicity for The Narrow Bed back in 2016. I very much like Hannah’s definition of a twist here, as it’s close to my own feelings about the difference between a ‘reveal’ and a ‘twist’. I’ve read nine of the books on the list already, and am planning to read the other six. But it seemed polite to begin with Hannah’s own book! The Narrow Bed is the tenth book in Hannah’s Spilling CID series – I read the second book in the series last month, but haven’t read any of the rest yet. The set-up of this one was very intriguing: a serial killer is targeting pairs of best friends, leaving little white books with the victims as a calling card. But when comedian Kim Tribbeck – a woman with no friends, let alone a BFF – gets one of the books, it looks like the police might be wrong about the pattern. Admittedly, this is a book with a ‘reveal’ and not a ‘twist’, but that’s not a problem for crime fiction. And I enjoyed everything about The Narrow Bed (especially the character of Kim)… except the reveal. There were plenty of clues, which I picked up on, but no way of working the mystery out, as the reveal is so incredibly complicated and far-fetched, the reader has no chance. Great writing – but a disappointing resolution to the mystery.