Phantasmat: Behind the Mask
[Note: Please be aware that this game contains themes of abuse and torture.]
It puts the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again. There. Okay. Phew. It's out of my system, I swear. As Eipix Entertainment's hidden-object adventure Phantasmat: Behind the Mask opens, you've just arrived for a family reunion thrown by your estranged cousin Patrick, whose decision to have the party at the world's least inviting remote Gothic mansion, complete with cryptic warnings about "missing the main event", somehow fails to set off any warning bells whatsoever. Ditto the fact that the key to the place is describe as a "face in agony", and the whole place feels like it's set its soundtrack to Silent Hill, but hey, what do I know about foreshadowing. Once inside, you find yourself in odd company, with an assortment of eccentric relatives, each with their own specialty, but making awkward dinner conversation is the least of your worries when you suddenly find yourself trapped inside. All you want to do is get out, but someone has other plans for you, and it looks like this is one family tree you might want to cut yourself out of...
Eipix knows their craft like few others, and Phantasmat: Behind the Mask comes with everything you need to customise the game to your preferred difficulty level, not to mention the helpful map that allows you to fast travel, and some optional items to collect throughout. The mechanics of gameplay are what you'd expect for the genre... explore, find items in hidden-object scenes, solve puzzles that usually require you to track down a necessary object or three, and be loomed over by your pretentious relatives. The mansion makes a great setting to explore, thanks to some creatively creepy design. If you're going to have your game take place in a locked house, you might as well go all out and make it as interesting and weird as you can, which is exactly what Eipix has done. Every room is filled with so much to look at and click on that you can easily get caught up in the mystery of it all. The game does have a tendency to throw so many items at you that keeping track of what you have and where it can be used can be a bit of a juggling act, and some uses aren't immediately intuitive. Okay, Google says you can use that as a solvent, but is that really common knowledge? While many of the puzzles you'll encounter are variations on familiar types, however, they tend to be implemented in clever ways. One has you cracking a code by sorting moths whose labels give you an equation to solve, for instance. Things pick up a bit more past the first chapter, as each family member begins to make a distinctive impact on the game and brings their own theme. It keeps things feeling fresh, and
As for the story, well, while you'll likely have an idea of the direction things are headed almost right off the bat, especially given the recurring themes of the rest of the Phantasmat games, Behind the Mask earns high marks for its presentation and style. You feel menaced and stalked as you explore the manor and begin to learn more about your lineage, and while it's all a little over the top, it's crazy in a fun, engaging way that keeps you hooked to see what happens next. Want a quibble? Here's one. There's something weirdly annoying about your faceless, voiceless avatar of a protagonist... she stammers, gapes, and quails a little too much, though the juxtaposition of the little local caterer with a business in the Yellow Pages against her ridiculously fancy relatives is kind of funny. There's something a little Clive Barker's Undying-sy about the whole setup, so though the jump scares aren't particularly effective, the game is at its best when its making use of those creepy shadow puppet cutscenes, and having dead-eyed children chant at you. It's actually unexpectedly dark for an Eipix game... they generally deal in grand adventures or mild spookiness, so the more gruesome scenes and violence here might be a surprise to some, though it certainly fits the story. Behind the Mask actually feels like the closest the series has gotten since it left the hands of the original developers to matching the tone of the first game... though the first Phantasmat focused more on gray morality and regret, Behind the Mask's lavish style and memorable, creepy characters make a big impression, and are perfect for a late night game. It's an unexpectedly long one, too, making this one worth every penny, and definitely something fans of Eipix, and casual horror in general, should make a date with the demo for. Highly recommended.