Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Game Review: Phantasmat: The Dread of Oakville (first play)

Developer: Eipix Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 10th July 2015
Platform: PC


I’m continuing my journey through the Phantasmat series with the fourth title: The Dread of Oakville. The series is still in the competent hands of Eipix Games for this title, and this one really has a ‘classic Eipix’ feel about it (in the best possible way). Unusually for me, I played the Standard Edition of this one (because I had a free game coupon that was only redeemable on SEs) – it’s been a while since I played an SE!

So… surprise, surprise… The Dread of Oakville begins with you driving down a dark mountain road, as a storm begins to gather. Suddenly, a landslide forces your car off the road, and rocks block the way behind you. Of course it does. You find yourself in a tunnel, a locked gate in front of you, and a blocked road behind. The only way to continue is to find a way to unlock the gate and enter the town on the other side.

The town is Oakville and, as in other instalments of the Phantasmat series, it is deserted. There are missing person posters scattered around, and you quickly find the driving licence of a young woman called Josie Grimes. What happened to the people of Oakville? And how are you going to escape? It’s not long before you meet one of the residents who seems friendly, though if you’re familiar with the previous titles in the series then you’ll have a good idea what to expect from him.

The storyline in this one had so much potential. There’s a creepy woman, an apocalyptic prophecy, an ancient entity contained in a tree, and a sinister puppet called Mr Nightingale. However, the execution is rather fragmented, and it’s not particularly clear how the elements fit together. For the first time in the series, I was left a little confused as to which characters were alive and which were dead, and I couldn’t quite work out which ones were working together (and what the intended to achieve). There was a bit of a paint-by-numbers quality to the storytelling in this one, with the Big Bad (Mae Grimes) pretty much being bad for the sake of it. It’s a shame, as some of the apocalyptic elements (see below) worked so well (and I’ll even admit to enjoying the jump scares in this one), but the narrative just wasn’t quite coherent enough for me.


Although the storyline of The Dread of Oakville was weaker than some of the previous instalments of the series, I loved the design of this one. It is really excellent, and definitely Eipix at their best. Scenes are beautifully detailed, and the HOGs were clear and well-designed. The soundtrack is also a real plus point, with evocative and atmospheric music that doesn’t loop too much. I do enjoy it when the soundtrack shifts with the action of the game (not all HOPA soundtracks do this), and the music here does just that. The cutscenes (though there aren’t many) are well-illustrated and integrated into the narrative.

But the real highlight of the design in The Dread of Oakville is the impending apocalypse. In my reviews of the earlier Phantasmat games, I mentioned how much I liked the way the design of the NPCs shifts as you learn more about what they are. The Dread of Oakville takes this to a different level, with a really unsettling shift early on in the game. Without giving too much away (there are a few shocks and scares early on in the game that it would be a shame to spoil), the design of the not-quite-living characters in The Dread of Oakville is classy and cinematic.

However, it’s the rain that really makes this game. In mad Mae Grimes’s prophecy/plot, the apocalypse is due to come in the form of a cataclysmic storm that will destroy the world (or destroy Oakville – Mae’s a little unclear on that one). When you first arrive in the town, it’s overcast but still fairly dry. By the time you meet your first NPC, dark clouds are gathering… and then the storm starts. Now, The Dread of Oakville is far from the only HOPA to include constant rain as a backdrop to gameplay, but it does do it so well. It builds up gradually, with rumbling thunder, before driving down in a relentless torrent for the second half of the game. The sound design is great, with the rain effects balanced well with the music, and the storm is beautifully illustrated. I know it might sound a little odd, but the rain was probably my favourite part of the game!


In terms of gameplay, The Dread of Oakville is pretty standard HOPA fare. You move from screen to screen, clicking stuff, picking stuff up, using items from your inventory. It’s fairly intuitive and logical (though the fragmented storyline meant that I occasionally lost track of what I was doing and had to use Hint). There are three difficulty settings, plus Custom (yay!). I played with my preferred Custom options (no tutorial, no sparkles except on HOGs, longer recharge on Hint and Skip), and this worked well for me.

My main criticism of gameplay would be that the HOGs and mini-games are on the easy side. In fact, some are very easy to complete. I enjoyed the variety with HOGs – there are straight item lists, morphing objects, items to be assembled and silhouettes – and the fact that there are no repeats, but there just isn’t quite enough challenge. The mini-games are fun and well-designed, but again they just aren’t particularly challenging. It’s a tough balance to reach, though, as I’m aware I’ve grumbled in previous reviews about mini-games that are too difficult. I also know that all players are different. Nevertheless, as I’d completed the game within three-and-a-half hours, I just don’t think there was quite enough gameplay in The Dread of Oakville.


And now it’s time for my regular rant about non-player characters in HOPAs… I’m a bit frustrated, to be honest, as I’ve been rather impressed by the use of NPCs in the Phantasmat series so far. As you may remember from previous reviews, my biggest pet peeve about HOPAs is NPCs that set you a task and then stand around watching you complete it. Why don’t they help you?? At least with Phantasmat, it seemed that some explanation was given for why the people you encounter weren’t too keen on helping you out.

Sadly, though, we move towards Gregory Logain territory in The Dread of Oakville, and that’s guaranteed to wind me up a bit. At first, it seems like things are progressing nicely: you meet a suspiciously friendly resident who encourages you to stay in Oakville for a while, and a creepy little girl who sings a horrible nursery rhyme at you and then disappears. But, unfortunately, this doesn’t continue. You soon end up hooking up with Josie Grimes and her dad, who have that irritating tendency to say things like ‘We’re going to need fuel for the Limo. I think there’s a barrel in the basement.’ Before standing stock still and watching you. Sigh. I’ll go down to the basement and look then, shall I? And I’m guessing I’ll also need to search the house for a funnel and a hose. Jeez. To make matters worse, the lack of full narrative coherence means that it’s not always completely clear who you’re meant to be helping, and why. I couldn’t quite get my head around what was going on with Ansell Grimes – exacerbated by the fact that a bit of dialogue skipped at a key moment, so I didn’t get to see the full interaction. Despite this – and this is definitely a personal gripe – I will say that the NPCs are illustrated very well, and the voice acting is very good throughout.

I just really don’t like being told to do stuff by NPCs in a game where you can’t answer back.

As I said above, this was a rare Standard Edition for me, so I didn’t get chance to try any bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has a bonus chapter (which I didn’t really miss, as these haven’t been a strong point of the series so far), a jump map (again, I didn’t miss this), Match-3 options for the HOGs, collectibles and achievements.

Overall, an enjoyable game, but not the strongest instalment of the Phantasmat series. Design-wise, The Dread of Oakville is excellent, with some really stylish and impressive features. But it’s let down a bit by a fragmented narrative and lack of challenge in gameplay. Still, it’s not put me off the series, and I imagine I’ll keep going with Phantasmat for a while yet.

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