Thursday, June 11, 2015

Phantom of Inferno

Years ago, I was in a Suncoast Motion Picture Company store (remember those?) and I stumbled upon a DVD.  I was neck deep in my fixation with animation from Japan, and I saw mention of a game company that made, essentially, "visual novels" where you could make decisions in a game, and then see where the story went.

I knew that such games existed, and for the most part, they were all pretty terrible.  There were a few great ones, though.  But considering I knew that Japan was pretty crazy for interactive stories (even if most of them were little more than "choose your own porn adventure") but this looked different.  For one thing, it had people holding guns on the cover.

Plus, it was in the clearance bin.  I pretty much threw some money at the register and took this new prize home.

The story of Phantom of Inferno involves you, a 15 year old young man from Japan who gets kidnapped and brainwashed by a huge crime organization that's working to unite and control mob families around the world.  You're assigned the name "Zwei" and work with their premiere assassin "Ein" (the girl on the left, because of course it's a young girl, thanks Japan).

Throughout the game, you're offered choices of sides of the organization to follow and connect with.  There are betrayals, assassinations, and (because "Japan") opportunities to have sex with various women you encounter through the story.

The game had a lot of strikes going against it.  It came with a list of DVD players it was "tested" on and found to mostly work with.  If you wanted to play on your PS2, you had to download a video player update, or tough luck.  The subtitles were awful, the game barely worked on my DVD player if I was lucky that day, and looking back now the graphics weren't all that great.  It was very reliant on the still new "CG" of the day and looked like a mashed pile of polygons in some places, or you'd have an awkward CG "explosion" emerge from a pre-painted background.

But I loved it.  I mean, sure, they edited out all the actual "porn" bits of what was originally a game with quite a bit in it, but I think that actually helped it, strangely enough.  I've discussed before how I think sex is misused in video games, being a prize instead of a part of life that needs to be handled maturely, and by taking the sex out of this game and just leaving the story, it lets you focus more on what you and the characters might want instead of just "see how many naked women I can unlock."

It's a game that doesn't hold up, but has inspired a miniseries and a full-blown animated series from Japan, the second of which I thought was pretty good, the latter of which I'm watching now.  There's a great story buried underneath all the problems, and while the CG might be extremely dated, I thought the character designs were simply amazing back then.

Case in point, the amazing Claudia.
There was little actual "choosing" in the game, which really emphasized the "story" more than the "interactive" part of the interactive story.  You'd make some key decisions, but for the most part you simply read the text on the screen then pushed the button to move on to the next batch of text, hoping a different still picture would come up.

So with all that I've said about why it's not that great ("barely playable" isn't typically high praise), why do I love it so much?  Because it was something I hadn't experienced before, and I could see what they were trying to do.  It was the first time I saw something that put me in the mindset that maybe an interactive book on a DVD could be something amazing, and that a format typically used just to have guys hook up with their entire high school class' worth of teenage girls could actually deliver something other than smut.

Nitro+, the company that initially made Phantom of Inferno has gone on to do many other games in many other genres, from horror, old west science fiction, to urban crime.  Many of their later projects are ones I wish I could have played, simply because the design team they had could create some absolutely mind-blowing characters and settings, and I kept hearing more and more about "story" over anything else.

So Phantom of Inferno has a permanent spot on my DVD shelf, even if I never plan on playing it again, if just to act as a bookmark in time of when something tried to be more than what many people were willing to accept the limits of a game's formatting as.  It wasn't the first, and it wasn't the best, but it was one of the few the United States ever got to see, and that gets it some credit.

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