Overall Score 90%
The Kings of Casual are back! Codeminion have released their latest creation and provided us a copy of the Collector's Edition to take a look at. These guys focus on quality over quantity. They have a small catalogue of casual games that are simply excellent in both presentation and gameplay. Some readers may have played Stoneloops! Of Jurassica, Brunhilda and the Dark Crystal or Ancient Quest of Saqqarah, and if you have, then you'll be excited to know that the perfectionist attitude that Codeminion have towards game creation is carried through to this new game as well.
Phantasmat is an adventure game with an overlying mystery/horror theme. Most of the gameplay is hidden object styled, but there are also some elements of point-and-click adventure, and even match-3 puzzle as well. The player assumes the role of a protagonist crashing their car in a creepy wooded area at night. Although the adventure starts off with the player simply trying to get help and perhaps hitch a ride home, the plot soon thickens with the discovery of an abandoned town, a decrepit hotel and a trio of unnerving characters. They seem to be hiding a sinister secret – either willingly or unwillingly – and our hero soon becomes embroiled in a supernatural turn of events and a plot that culminates in a satisfying and exciting climax.
It's not exactly Stephen King, but the story is good enough to carry the player on from puzzle to puzzle. It's not just puzzle gaming for the sake of it, and this is where Codeminion really shine. They continue to make me want to play games in genres that I don't even like! In each hidden object scene there is one important object amongst all the other detritus that the player picks up, and this provides a clue or clears a path forward in some way. If it weren't for the engaging and well developed characters as well as an interesting story, the game would struggle to hold my interest. But I actually played through the entire base game in just 3 sittings!
There is about 3 to 4 hours of play in the base game, but most players will probably tackle the game on easy or normal mode the first time around. In that case, there's bit of replay value from playing through the game on hard mode as well, where a time limit is imposed on the puzzles, and the overall difficulty of the logic puzzles are a bit tougher.
The meat of the gameplay is in the hidden object puzzles and they are very well presented. The style of the artwork is brilliant; dark and offbeat. There are lots of images of death and decay all throughout the game. Some items are in obvious positions, others are naturally hidden in the scene, and some are camouflaged into the background or other objects. The player simply needs to point and click on them to pick them up. Repeated clicking on the screen is discouraged by a mild cooldown penalty on the medium (challenge) difficulty and a more harsh cooldown and time penalty on the hard (extreme) difficulty level. At any time, if the player is having trouble finding objects in the scenes they can switch to a match-3 mini-game. In this mode special eye symbols need to be dropped from the bottom of the board by way of the player making matches around them. One item is discovered from the scene for each eye symbol dropped. Ironically, the hidden object game seems to be a lot easier than the match-3 game in terms of time and effort, but it's nice that both methods are available.
If a player is really stuck in between the puzzles, they can take a hint. Hints will lead you back quite specifically to where you should be in case you have wandered too far off the scent. Hints are also on a timed cooldown, and need to be used fairly sparingly. Overall, the difficulty level has been geared more towards the younger and more casual gamer, and this seems to me like a very deliberate decision by Codeminion. Certainly they have a very good understanding of their target demographic. Puzzles are difficult enough to get the player scratching their head, but not so brutally mind bending that you would want to quit and come back later. I had to use hints on two occasions where it simply wasn't apparent to me where I needed to go to complete objectives that were quite clearly defined. Rest assured that there are safeguards in place so that the game never really grinds to a halt.
I've briefly touched on how good the artwork as a whole is, but I really can't give enough praise. The scenes are dark, dreary and macabre, but there is always something about them that gives hope to the player and an incentive to unravel the mystery that enshrouds the town. The music is just amazingly good (of cinematic quality) and the voice acting of the 3 NPCs is surprisingly well done. Great sound effects and ambient noise make the whole game even more believable; the player truly feels immersed from their first person perspective viewpoint. This is Codeminion's bread and butter. They just do it so well. Phantasmat oozes class and professionalism from the no-nonsense demo to full install with one click, to the beautiful sounds and graphics to the well developed characters and storyline. The day these guys ever make a turn based strategy game or an in-depth simulation, I'm going to be glued to my PC for weeks on end.
At $10 you just can't go wrong with Phantasmat, whether you'd consider yourself a fan of the genre or not, I can heartily recommend a playthrough! The Collector's Edition at $20 might seem a little steep to casual gamers, but it contains lots of goodies such as wallpaper collections, concept art, a music library, character biographies and an additional epilogue campaign that will add another hour or so to the core gameplay. It would be nice if existing owners of the regular game could update to this Collector's Edition at a surcharge, but I'm not sure if this is possible.
After applying various criteria and awarding a provisional Gold Star to a game, as a final check I ask myself, if I were the developer, what could I do to improve the game? In the case of Phantasmat, there really isn't anything that I could come up with. It's a complete package and excels in all areas of presentation and gameplay. But judging by from what I have seen from Codeminion to date, I really wasn't expecting anything else.
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