Despite sounding like something a poltergeist uses for yoga, Phantasmat by Codeminion is a fantastic hidden-object adventure game with a new twist. When your car veers off the road one rainy night as you travel down an unfamiliar highway, you have no choice but to seek help at the comfortingly named Drowned Dead Inn, even though the hotel "assistant" pleads for you to leave while you still can. HEY I KNOW WHAT WE SHOULD DO! LET'S CHECK RIGHT IN! Sounds like a smart decision to me!
The nearby town, you'll discover, has been abandoned ever since the dam broke and flooded the majority of it, merely damaging some parts while submerging the rest. It seems like the hotel manager, his assistant, and one very eccentric hotel resident are the only ones who have stuck around... and now you, of course. Although, you don't intend to stick around for long. Of course not. After all, it's not like the very forest itself seems to turn against you if you try to leave, right? Ha! Haha! Hahahaha... heh... oh. Hm. Well, that's a problem, isn't it?
If you've played a hidden-object adventure game before, you know the drill by now. Play the game with your mouse, exploring the environments for items you need, and solve puzzles and hidden-object scenes to unlock new items or areas to progress. The game offers three difficulty modes; easy is what it sounds like, the middle-tier offers hints and skip buttons with a moderate timer, and hard difficulty not only penalizes you for mis-clicks for does not allow hints or skipping. If you find yourself stuck, try clicking on the "tasks" button, which will give you an idea of what you should be doing.
The most interesting addition is the ability to switch instantly and at any time during a hidden-object scene to match-3 mode. Similar in execution to Bejeweled, you swap different items on a grid within the playfield; a match of three or more makes the items vanish, and more fall from the top. The goal is to get the glowing golden eyes to fall all the way to the bottom of the screen, which nets you one of the objects from your list. In match-3 mode, "hint" becomes "power", which, when full, will destroy several tiles on the board near any eyes in play. Your hint and power meters are interchangeable, so if you use a hint, your power will need to recharge, and, as Mr Bunker would say, vice-y verse-y.
Analysis: I'm pretty good at complaining. Ask anyone. But I have very few real complaints about the time I spent with this unexpected gem. The presentation is simply outstanding, with a few caveats. The "animation" used to make the otherwise static drawings of people speak looks a bit strange, and parts of the soundtrack are a little... excitable. Still, in a game as well put together as this, that's sort of like complaining that you don't like the colour of the frosting on your slice of cake. (It's blue! BLUE! Why is it so hard to remember?!) Environments are beautifully detailed, audio from both a musical and ambient point is top notch, and the story is very closely intertwined in the gameplay so that you feel like an active participant.
The only real issues with the gameplay itself are minor ones. Because you spend so much time moving from place to place, and some transitions take a few seconds longer, navigation can get a little tedious. My soul hungers for a map!... well, also for roast beef admittedly, but mostly a map, preferably like the one implemented in Hound of the Baskervilles. A wider range of objects to search for would have also been nice, since the same items crop up over and over in different scenes. But as it stands, Phantasmat delivers a very solid chunk of gameplay. Item uses are clear and logical, puzzles are varied and straightforward, and I never felt myself lost as to how to proceed.
One of the most frustrating things about a game can be a tendency to do everything for you, especially if the difficulty just isn't much to speak of already. Thankfully, Phantasmat presents a nice, comfortable difficulty curve that, while never particularly brain-bending, still keeps you from feeling like you're coasting downhill towards the finish line in a shopping cart. (Everyone knows that feeling, right?) The inclusion of the match-3 game is a welcome little treat, even if it is fairly simple; using your own eyes will probably be quicker than tile-swapping in most cases, but if you're truly stymied playing a little minigame while you wait for the hint timer to refill is a lot more palatable than staring at the screen for minutes on end like a lump.
While I had figured out the big reveal long before it happened, and most players will probably do the same, Phantasmat still kept me engrossed to the very end with its otherworldly environments, smart storytelling, and clean gameplay. The latter half of the game feels like it moves a lot more quickly than the first, but the conclusion is very well executed, and the bonus epilogue in the Collector's Edition provides an interesting perspective on familiar territory as well as some more story. Altogether, I spent upwards of five-six hours playing in "challenge" mode, not counting the bonus content, and of course your mileage may vary. (Especially if you take the different difficulties into consideration.) Phantasmat is simply a stellar adventure. Of course I always recommend you try the demo before you buy anything, but Phantasmat comes out swinging to hook you until the very end. Highly recommended.
A Collector's Edition is also available. It contains a bonus epilogue chapter to play, wallpapers, an integrated strategy guide, and more. Remember that Big Fish Game Club Members pay only $13.99 for Collector's Editions (or 2 club credits), and collector's editions count 3 card punches of 6 total needed for a free game.