Hirameki International is a fairly new publishing company on the scene these days. Based in California, their niche lies in bringing over and translating various Japanese adventure/digital comic style games, mostly of the “love adventure” variety but of other varieties as well. Japanese graphic adventure games (be they games like EVE: Burst Error or more romance oriented love adventures like Never 7) often play more like interactive novels and have less interactivity than western-style graphic adventures (such as Monkey Island, The Longest Journey, or Syberia) which involve item manipulation and puzzle solving.As a fan of Japanese adventure games, I applaud Hirameki’s efforts to bring such titles to a North American audience.
One of the titles they brought out is an adventure game, in a somewhat unconventional format, called “Phantom of Inferno.” The game has seen multiple formats on PC, PlayStation 2, and as an interactive DVD where you can play the game via a conventional DVD player using the remote as your controller. Hirameki brought this interactive DVD to US audiences and it is reportedly playable via the DVD players of PlayStation 2, Xbox, and PC as well as through a conventional DVD player. I played the game through a conventional DVD player.
The interface of this piece of software is pretty conventional for a Japanese digital comic. You read a whole lot of subtitle text and eventually come to points where you make decisions in the vein of those Choose Your Own Adventure books of yore. Depending on the choices you make throughout the story, you can get one of many endings. A single playthrough can last anywhere from about 10 to 15 hours, so the game is not very long. However, it does have excellent replay value, so you definitely get more hours of entertainment for your money than with a comparably priced DVD movie. The game utilizes a password system to track progress, with an 8 character password given to you every 30 minutes of so. These password intervals made the game feel like an interactive anime series with episodes. The password entry screen is not the greatest, though. When you enter a character for the password, you’re only shown a blank target icon at the top of the screen rather than the letter you entered, so keep track of your password as you enter it.
It goes without saying that the simplistic interface lends itself well to the interactive DVD format. The only caveat is that you are given a limited time to make a choice and if you take too long, the choice you have highlighted at the moment will be selected. Since the choices are difficult and not of the “no brainer” variety, I got very friendly with the pause buttom to contemplate decisions. I also got friendly with the pause button when there were large blocks of text, because sometimes the characters spoke fast and the text would disappear quickly. Otherwise, the interface is very intuitive and quite simple.
The main negative I have to the interface is that you can’t skip over stuff in the game. This doesn’t matter much in the first playthrough, but should you decide to play the game again (and given the replay value, you’ll likely want to) it can be tedious to sit through the same scenes over and over. There is a lengthy introduction sequence that you cannot skip through either. Sure it’s cool the first few times, but when I’m deep into the game and just want to get to the main menu screen, I would have liked to skip over the introduction.
The visuals are standard fare for the genre: Still pictures of backgrounds with still anime portraits of characters in the foreground. The character designs are terrific with vibrant detail and personality in their attire and expressions. Some look more over the top than others, but that’s par for the course. However, there isn’t constant interaction in the game and many instances where the main character is reflecting, so a lot of the time you will just see the bland background scene and read lots of text. If you dislike reading, then avoid this game at all costs. If you want lots of animated scenes and full motion video, then this game is not for you. It is like a digital comic told mostly through still pictures. There are a scant few CG FMV cutscenes here and there, but even then you may not get to see many of them unless you follow a particular story branch. And I didn’t think the CG was all that great. In short, the graphics get the job done but will not wow you.
Music is very scarce in this game and is only heard once in a while when completely necessary. I liked that, because too much music would have ruined the taut feel of this game. The silence often spoke volumes and kept me on the edge of my seat during tense moments. The sound effects were generally good, but could have been more varied and crisper. Despite there being a wide variety of cars and guns in the game, the sound effects were the same for all of them. On the other hand, the voice acting was top notch. Highly skilled professional seiyuu (Japanese voice actors) were selected, and they all carried their characters wonderfully. There was not a single instance where I felt the voice acting was flat or overacted. This is impressive to me, because despite the general consensus that Japanese voice actors are superior, I have played Japanese software where the voice acting was either very flat, very overacted, or both.
Since the gameplay is very limited in this genre of game, the storyline can either make or break it. RPGs and even some western style graphic adventure games can sometimes get away with so-so plots if the gameplay elements are addictive enough to keep gamers trucking onward. A game such as Phantom of Inferno does not have gameplay to fall back on. Tthankfully though, the story is very good. As I said before, it’s Japanese voiced dialogue with subtitles. The subtitled text flows well and never reads in a stiff or robotic manner, but there are a LOT of technical errors in terms of spelling, cut off words, or words running together without spaces. These errors were noticeable for sure, but did not hamper my enjoyment of the game.
Okay, the gist of the plot: Inferno is a vast criminal syndicate with a highly complex infrastructure, and is described by Inferno executive Claudia McCunnen as “the United Nations of the criminal underworld.” While their base of operations is in Los Angeles, they have members all over the US and even in a handful of foreign countries. One of the star players in Inferno’s immediate family is a young girl named Ein. She has been extensively trained by Scythe Master as an assassin and has earned the title of Phantom- a title only reserved for the top assassins in the organization. Scythe Master himself is an obsessive weapons expert cum mad scientist.
You play a young male Japanese student on vacation in Los Angeles who unwittingly finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. He is witness to a murder and is very surprised that the killer is a dark-eyed young girl around his age. Despite his dumbfoundedness, he manages to escape the girl, only to black out and wake up in an abandoned warehouse in the clutches of Inferno.
Under normal circumstances, he should have been killed, but Inferno sees some kind of potential in him and he has a chance to bargain for his life. He passes their little test and now the real trials and tribulations begin. His memory is subsequently erased, he is given the new identity of “Zwei” and he is placed under the tutelage of Ein to become the next great assassin. He quickly rises in the ranks and even surpasses Ein in some regards, earning the title of Phantom himself. Of course, there is a lot more to the story and characters than meets the eye and typical of any story of intrigue, there are tons of twists and turns.
The story’s great mix of tense action and human drama always kept me interested and wanting to keep playing. And while the endings usually involve the hero coupling off with one of the ladies, the game doesn’t have the “harem” feel like other games of this ilk would. See, in many love adventures or adventures involving coupling, the cast is primarily female admirers with you as the only male; hence, the “harem” feel. But not in Phantom of Inferno. Certainly there are many female characters, but the game also has a lot of male characters who figure prominently into the plot.
There are 3 chapters in this tale, but your tale may end prior to chapter 3 depending on the choices you make. There are characters you may not even meet unless you do particular story branches, and, yes, there are characters you’ll only meet in the elusive chapter 3. There are a whole bunch of endings, some good and some bad. In my initial playthrough, I got one of the bad endings but like any CYOA book, I want to go back, try again, and see what kind of ending I’d get if I make different decisions. In addition, there are still layers to the plot that I have not exposed yet and a fresh playthrough with different decisions may allow me to see those layers.
Phantom of Inferno was an interesting experience. I went into Phantom of Inferno with no expectations, save for trying out an interactive DVD with a seemingly interesting story. The story far exceeded my expectations and as I said before, I’ll have to play it a few more times to really get more out of it. The intriguing plot and complex characters made it such that “I didn’t want to put the book down.” As I said before, if you prefer more player interaction in your gameplay and/or don’t enjoy excessive reading, this game may not be for you. But if you’re not turned off by these things, I’m sure you’ll have fun with the game.