Dark Romance: A Performance to Die For

     from Domini Games

I'm not even ready to review this game. For one thing, it's huge - it took about eight or nine hours to play directly through the Collector's Edition, and that's with eating at my desk and skipping several mini-games because I'm not about being frustrated for any period of time by things designed to be enjoyed. That means a big long review with lots of things to say - but happily, a lot of those things are positive, or at least confused in that delightful "who wrote this and how on earth did they manage not to sleep for fifty hours first" kind of way, so let's get right in there!

 

First of all, some of these games are sort of tangentially related to the Phantom story, but this is not one of them. This game is most definitely 100% a version of the Phantom story, featuring the same original characters and the same basic setup, set in the same late nineteenth-century time period and... sort of similar settings. Some of it gets away from the designers, which is a thing that happens in these games. As you can see below, the design of the opera house stage definitely owes something to the Palais Garnier and possibly the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film's famous introductory sequence. 

We open with Christine in her dressing room in front of the mirror, giving herself a pep talk about how her debut is going to go fine and she just needs to calm down, which is a cute touch; we don't often get to see Christine's jitters in adaptations for some reason, even though we get the obvious implication that everything is A Bit Much in the original novel, what with the fainting and all. The Phantom, who is watching her from behind the mirror in a mask that is very clearly borrowed from the 1986 Lloyd Webber musical, starts villain-cackling about how her perfect voice is the final piece he needs for his opera, and then BAM, SMASH CUT TO INTRO SCREEN, THAT'S ALL YOU GET, PLAYERS.

I'm not going to lie, I loved it. It was just so wildly dramatically overblown, and the game's pull out before the menu screen zoomed out past various bananas dungeon traps including axes dramatically swinging from the ceiling and I mean, if the Phantom does not have flair that requires the heroes to Indiana Jones their way through his various nonsenses, what does he have?

 

Christine's dress here definitely looks pretty reminiscent of the Lloyd Webber production designs, too, even some of the ones from Love Never Dies.  We'll get a better look at it later and it'll be generic but AestheticTM.

If you're thinking that Christine looks kind of Uncanny Valley there for someone who is ostensibly overcome with anxiety, I unfortunately agree with you. This game's biggest technical flaw is the fact that it has distractingly poor animation, especially for the characters. I think this is one of those unfortunate things that sometimes happens when a studio is trying too hard to give a game a nice finish, rather than not trying hard enough - the backgrounds are beautifully painted and the puzzles a joy to look at, but because an attempt was made to animate the characters in a vaguely realistic 3D way but without actual 3D modeling (outside of maybe some basic motion-capture/rotoscoping? I am not an animation scientist), the result looks jarringly out of place. It would have looked better overall if the game had either gone with "animation" that is really careful movement of 2D images, which is common with games like this that don't have a large animation budget, or taken the full plunge and done actual modeling; the in-between we get is sad and a weak point in an otherwise pretty stellar art direction.

And if Christine looks weird to you, oh boy, let me introduce you to our maniacal villain for today:

 

My God, where do we even start? He has the same problems with wonky animation that Christine does (and all other people in this game, so get used to it now), but he's fabulous otherwise. The solid gold hair alone lets you know that this Phantom is absolutely about the Look and the Drama and he is not going to stop any time soon. He's also rocking a green satin waistcoat and matching ascot and there is just nothing visually to argue about. His downside is, unfortunately, his voice - the voice actor for the Phantom here is a little on the high and nasal side and prone to histrionically getting even more so, and sometimes that makes it hard to take him very seriously. Well, as a mastermind, anyway; he's very believable as a person who is unhinged and loud about it and that's kind of the approach we'll be taking here. Case in point, as the love of Christine's life tries to dive into the mirror to rescue her, he yells, "NOT SO FAST!" like an old-timey cartoon villain and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

 

(Also, he isn't a singer, so alas, we're not going to be getting that angle anyway.)

The game has three difficulty modes, which is always nice to see:

 

There's also a Custom Mode, so you can decide how hardcore you want to be about various things on a more a la carte basis. As usual, I am A Baby so I played the game on Casual Mode, but more advanced modes remove hints like visual indicators of where to look next and slow down or even eliminate the options to ask for a clue or skip a challenging minigame, so there's a wide range of customizability and replay value.

Anyway, on to the plot, which is where I fall in love with this game FOREVER. Raoul, who is bafflingly spelled Raul throughout this game for no apparent reason whatsoever, proposes to Christine (whose last name is apparently Burns, which is a first, I think!), who gets to be delighted about it for about 0.05 seconds before the Phantom pops out of the mirror amidst supernatural green flame powers and kidnaps her, proclaiming that she doesn't have time to get married when he has the role of a lifetime ready for her. This is one of very few direct adaptations of the story in which the Phantom has no apparent romantic interest in Christine at all, not even in an attempt to use her as a replacement for anyone else's affection; he's just here for her voice and has no time for her to have petty personal interests like "a man she wants to marry and spend the rest of her life with". Not only does this remove most of the romantic and familial relationship stuff from their interactions, but it also totally removes this particular Phantom from his traditional role as Christine's teacher and implied architect or revealer of her voice; this Christine is incredible all by herself and has built her badass career all by herself, and the Phantom is just some monumental asshole showing up to try to use her for his own ends. There is no "Angel of Music" conceit here, and Christine straight up doesn't even know who this dude is when he jumps out of her mirror and drags her off.

The Phantom being just the absolute worst is a running theme in this game, so don't get your hopes up about having a lot of sympathy for him. The game tries by adding some tragic backstory later, but he's just such a monumental gold-hear-wearing assface that it's hard to conceive of anyone being even vaguely on his side in all this.

As is traditional in Phantom games, I'm now playing Raul and crusading to rescue Christine from this dude who just dragged her through a mirror and is apparently some kind of scary green fire wizard. Seriously, he shot me with a bunch of green fire that made me temporarily pass out and then kidnapped her by wrapping her in green fire tentacles, so... what, is what I'm saying.

 

In contrast to the sadly awkward animation an effects, the still backgrounds of the game are very nice; there's perhaps a little too much of a hint of the 3D modeling that was painted over here and there, but the overall effect is of a lovely painted environment with a lot of attention to detail and excellent background touches put there just to add immersion to the game, and it's clear that each background and image was developed specifically for this game rather than being repurposed from some other one or from a general "fund" of images a studio might keep on hand, which is always nice. It's especially nice to have the clutter be appropriate for the setting instead of made up of random items just to confuse the player, which also sometimes happens in hidden-object games with less of a commitment to setting.

There's an optional interactive tutorial to get you started, which I skipped (that's as Good at Games as I get, so be impressed, y'all), and the game on its most casual mode places sparkles over areas you should visit and items you should interact with to help prevent players from getting lost or not knowing what to do next.

I now want everyone to see this, because I found Christine's diary here in her dressing room and it is adorable.

 

As we can see, it's apparently 1911, which is when Leroux's novel was originally published after its serialized run. Please join me in being delighted that Christine's voice teacher is not the Phantom (who, as established, is the Worst), but is actually Mama Valerius, here with the first name Mimi, a callout to her foster-mother/landlady in the original novel! Mama Valerius never gets to be in things! I want the prequel game where she is a character teaching Christine and they do adorable domestic adventures together!

We also get a nice obvious confirmation that Christine is in love with Raul and can't wait for his return, which is always appreciated - if we can't show the bulk of the relationship onscreen, having these kind of background details is a nice way to make sure we still get a sense of history to the characters and believe in their devotion to each other. Also, she is adorable about her worries about her debut performance and okay, Raul aside, I also love her and I'm coming, babe, I promise! Upon reading this entry, by the way, Raul basically goes, "pfft, she's incredibly talented, this is a silly worry because she could never fail" and this is one of the many reasons I love him in this game, too.

Raul also has a journal, where he collects things and makes notes on what he knows and what has happened so far; this is pretty standard in hidden-object games, especially ones that hybridize into the adventure genre and focus on getting past obstacles and finding items, which this one definitely does. Annoyingly, it isn't accessible to the player except when something is added to it, at which point you can also go back and flip through previous items; but you do get a second book that says TASKS on it, which is easy to access and provides reminders about what you're supposed to be doing right now. You can also access a strategy guide in-game with full walkthroughs, which is a really nice touch to make the game more accessible and less likely to aggravate players who get stuck.

 

"The Admirable Christine" is a hilarious title but I also love it because goddammit, she earned this career and you better admire her. The little picture of Christine and Raul in the dressing room again gives you a nice extra clue to their happy relationship and history, except that when I clicked on it it briefly shimmered with green magic fire and the Phantom took Raoul's face and excuse me? Sir. I think the fuck not.

I'm already showing some hilarious skills here as Raul, starting with being able to pick the lock on this drawer with Christine's hairpin. Where did I learn to do that? What is Raul's background here, anyway? The game says a couple times that he's just returned from New York, where he went "on business", but that's all we're going to get, and it doesn't look like he's still aristocracy; his last name is given as just "Delacroix". This is an unfortunate reminder of various sequels, such as the 2001 Meadows novel Progeny or the 2007 de Mendes sequel novel The Return of the Phantom: Le Coeur Loyal, which often have Raoul "away on business" because they don't really have much idea what a vicomte actually does and want to get him out of town so that the Phantom can be up to things without his interference, but in this case, with no mention of Raul having a title, I think the game is just trying to establish him as a good reasonable match for Christine but not go into his backstory further. (It does seem like it could have been a good place to have him be involved in the business of the opera house itself, as in the 1984 Hill musical, but then again, not having him connected makes this more of a rescue because he loves her and keeps any question of whether he also loves his livelihood off the table.)

Back with the game, there are some neat collection-focused mini-games included, which function as sort of game-wide hidden-object challenges; there are posters for various operas and ballets throughout the entire game, all of them in some way related to the Phantom story, that the player can find and add to a collection they can look at with each of them posted outside the opera house, and similarly there are a number of gems that can be found to turn in and spend to furnish Christine's dressing room in a side game and a large collection of opera and orchestra items throughout the game that once collected give the player information about how it is used and what its history is.

Let me just say, as I will be saying a lot, that I love Raul. He's just so constantly enthused about his fiancée and how much he loves her. I clicked on a painting of her and he was like "that's one of the best portraits of her!!!" He is a precious baby and I need to protect them both. In fact, then there's a letter on her dresser from him from when he was in New York being all adorably excited about how he was coming to see her soon:

 

When he sees the letter, Raul thinkgs, "It's sad my proposal ended like this, but love can overcome anything," and I JUST LOVE THEM BOTH A LOT IN THIS GAME OKAY

Anyway, I discover through more wild clicking on everything (the adventure game player's best friend) that there's a safe hidden behind one of these portraits, and when poking at it gets more magic green fire nonsense, I'm starting to suspect that while Christine may have no idea who the Phantom is, he's clearly been stalking her for a little while now.

The first minigame we come across involves collecting pieces of a mask to fit together in a complicated mechanical puzzle in order to open the wardrobe in the dressing room, so that particular bit of moon logic that these games sometimes employ where normal doors that people would use all the time are inexplicably locked by people who want to make sure you prove you can pass a MENSA entrance exam before getting your damn coat is clearly in effect.

 

There are a LOT of mini-games in this beast; this is not one of those games with only a couple of them. They show up pretty much constantly, making up a good fifth or so of estimated gameplay. I'm not going to put shots of all of them in here, but suffice it to say they quickly became my bane, not because they were poorly put together - they're mostly very attractive and give you a good variety of different logic puzzles and dexterity tests - but because I am personally bad at them. My assumption is that the Phantom, who is busy being the Worst Ever anyway, added all this nonsense to every door I want to open specifically to vex me. (Thankfully, on the Casual difficulty, mini-games are easily skipped if you get frustrated, which is a thing that I am not too proud to say happened to me several times.)

Inside the wardrobe, we get our first hidden object scene, which again points to what I said - this is definitely an adventure game with some hidden object elements, not the other way around! As if he weren't enough of a pain in everyone's ass yet, apparently the Phantom locked Christine's cat inside the wardrobe so I'm glad I was here to let it out.

 

She's a grumpy Persian cat, so maybe she's a shoutout to Ayesha from the 1990 Kay novel. The important thing is that if I click on her, Raul is allowed to pet her and she makes a little cat noise. It's always nice when game developers know what the people want.

There's a really nice variety in the hidden object games; some, like this one, give you a generic outline of the item to find, while others have you find multiples of the same object hidden throughout a scene, some have you look for something from a list of words, some require you to "create" the missing item by combining random things in the scene, and some do each of these in the same scene in escalating "levels". This game does a really excellent job with keeping players engaged via variety and creative solutions, even within the familiar adventure and hidden-object paradigms. And, in case you don't like or are not good at hidden object scenes, or you just really love Bejeweled, you can choose to play a match-three game instead, which allows you to completely skip the hidden-object search once you've racked up enough points:

 

I gotta say, it took me an embarrassingly long time to figure out that the matching game option was there, even though there was a button in the upper right-hand corner in every single hidden object scene. As you can see, you can also play the matching game for a while and then switch back to the hidden object scene at any time, so you can mix and match what you feel like doing today. The match game items are pretty generic, but they all fit the sorts of things you'd expect in a Phantom story adaptation - roses, masks, opera glasses, rings, and a lady's shoe which is probably meant to evoke Christine herself.

Whichever you do, finishing gets you a Useful Item for the adventure portion of the game, so you always get a nice feeling of accomplishment from success. Go team!

At this point, we've figured out that the Phantom is using some kind of rune-based magic, which definitely adds to my original hypothesis that he's some kind of literal sorcerer; the runes are pretty clearly made up for this game, though, or if they aren't, I don't recognize them (futhark or ogham they ain't). Raul, who is an enterprising soul, uses Christine's face powder to get a look at the outlines of the old runes left behind by the spell and then manages to actually cast them by succeeding at some more mini-games, which is super neat - here I come, motherfucker, with my shitty kludged-together magic skills - but also makes me wish the game had put more time into telling us about the magic system, because apparently anyone can learn it with the right runes.

By the way, there was a mini-game here where you had to drag something from one end of a maze to the other without letting it touch the sides and it was the worst game of all because my coordination-addled self just had to keep trying over and over and also crying. Seriously, use the skip feature if you need it. Don't be me. You don't have to review anything.

Finally, we get the mirror open and immediately hurl ourselves into the breach. I realized at this point that Raul never goes anywhere else in the opera house during this game - it's only Christine's dressing room, followed by getting into the Phantom's domain. Which makes sense, because he doesn't give a shit about the rest of the opera house because he has a RESCUE TO ACHIEVE.

 

On arrival, the Phantom is still restraining Christine and being an ostentatiously pontificating dickbag about how I'll never survive and there are traps everywhere, but Christine is a badass, who in spite of being wrapped up in creepy Force lightning chains still manages to throw me her amulet before the jackass drags her off further into the tunnels again. I'M COMING, BABY. WE GOT YOU.

Left to his own devices, Raul pulled a lever in the hopes that it might cause a drawbridge to descend and let him across the gap to follow and instead it DISGORGED A GHOST. RED ALERT. We have LITERAL GHOSTS. It is THAT KIND OF GAME. (Weirdly, the Phantom himself is like the only person down here who isn't a ghost, because he's really committed to being a dick just because and not because of being dead and tormented.)

 

The ghost's name is Agnette and she is here to explain the plot, which is a doozy. In quick succession, we learn that the Phantom's name is Isaac (which is a heavily Jewish name, but it doesn't look like this has much to do with anything or any connection to previous sequels and interpretations that have made the Phantom Jewish), that he is writing something he calls the Ghost Opera and that this is a literal name because it is intended to be performed only by ghosts (which is reminiscent of the 2012 game Night in the Opera in which the Phantom was killing people in order to use their voices after death), and that he has actually done this lots of times before and has the ghosts of various singers and performers trapped down here, including Agnette herself (which is similar to the 2014 game Danse Macabre: The Last Adagio, in which the Phantom kept ghosts trapped in the opera house with him). That... is a lot to take in all at once.

Agnette explains that Isaac has a spellbook that is what is allowing him to fuck with ghosts as well as using his green fire bullshit to attack and restrain people, and that she's ghost-chained to this pillar because she tried to steal it so that she could free herself but got caught before she could. I'm pretty much instantly outraged on her behalf, and Raul's comment of "poor soul!" comes well before she begs him to get her free and promises that she'll help him save Christine if she does. It's okay, Agnette. You don't have to bargain to get rescued. I'm saving everybody today, because Isaac, not to put too fine a point on it, sucks.

You might have noticed up there that there's a bat hanging in the middle of this room. If you weren't aware, I'm about bats. I know this isn't the Dracula library, so I don't bring it up much, but please look at this angry baby:

 

I just need you all to know that she's withholding clues and I don't care because I love her and when I poke her she sticks her tongue out and squeaks at me and I would absolutely adopt her in a heartbeat.

Raul is more chill than I am and spends a lot of time finding a light source to frighten her away because he reasons that bats are nocturnal, which would possibly work except that this is obviously a flying fox, some of which are nocturnal but not all of them, and which mostly want to bumble about in the trees eating fruit and not ending up in someone's draft dungeon. I sincerely hope she escaped to somewhere nicer after being shooed away.

There's a lot of your usual adventure game nonsense, including me building a jeweled metal skull using Christine's earring as a hinge - I don't know why, but it's a thing and I did it, thanks, game! - and the forlorn feeling of using Christine's expensive fur stole to clean cobwebs off of things. This is probably why adventure games are almost always high stress situations like rescues or survival of danger; you have to make some sacrifices, because there is no time to find a dirty rag when we have to get moving RIGHT NOW. The game's messages when something doesn't work are pretty cute, too - Raul often exclaims "I hate when that happens!" among other messages, which seem more meta and pointed at a veteran adventure gamer than necessarily in character. Unfortunately, we get that adventure game logic problem of an item being used causing it to disappear, even when it's a super useful item and there is no reason that the way it was used should cause it to vanish; for example, after using a lantern to frighten the bat away (sorry, sweetheart, I needed your brick, go be free and eat grapes), I seem to have hurled it into the abyss or something, because it's inexplicably gone and you would think Raul would want to hold onto that when exploring a thoroughly haunted dark and trapped dungeon.

There are some very cute touches in this game in general as well, including old things that break on contact when touched, candles that flare when messed with, or mice occasionally popping up and squeaking when frightened - none of these matter to the gameplay, but they're great touches to make the world a little more vivid and entertaining. There are also a ton of more story-relevant things going on - for example, there are two chandeliers in this room, and in fact there's at least one chandelier in almost every room that anyone enters for the entire game, no matter how obviously poorly lit or disused, which is clearly a callback to the chandelier crash of the original novel.

In case you wondered, I figured out what to do with that jeweled skull. I put it in a statue's hands and it creepily petted it. I hate this incredibly haunted dungeon so much. (Although the statue is an angel, so maybe that's our Angel of Music cameo, which I can believe since it helps give us a clue to freeing Agnette.) I then only barely survived accidentally stepping on a floor tile that caused arrows to shoot from the walls, so Isaac continues to be a dick even in absentia.

In a brief detour back to Christine's dressing room, Raul discovers a love letter to Christine from Isaac on her dresser; but it looks like my original theories were probably accurate, because it implies that he's sending her a fan letter despite never having spoken to her before, and she doesn't seem to have answered or kept the flowers he sent alive. That's really not me being optimistic, since Raul also doesn't barely notice except to think that he can use these flowers for his rescue mission, which is just a smart move. He has his priorities in order.

After finally getting Agnette free (Agnette, I am trying, you don't need to yell at me while I'm working on this stupid mini-game!), she floats across the chasm to the other side but then pushes a lever for me to let me cross as well. I honestly really want to know what the rules are for ghosts in this universe, because they're intangible and they can fly but they can also touch things and I just want to know the rules.

Raul has no time for the rules, though, because he manages to jump from stone to stone to cross the chasm, gets to the other side, and... a cage falls on him from the ceiling. SIGH.

 

Yeah, thanks, task journal, I would never have guessed.

But I'm not even mad, because after Agnette explains that only a special key will get the lock open and that she'll go find Christine and see if she can help, I realize that this... this is a co-op game. This is a dual rescue. Raul is rescuing Christine and also, simultaneously, Christine is rescuing Raul.

 

HELLO YES I LOVE IT

I had actually been thinking, early on, that it's a shame that video games so often have Raoul rescue Christine from peril; sure, it makes sense, it's a common game format and it's not like he isn't trying to do that in the original story or anything, but it cuts Christine herself out of the equation and puts her at the end of the game in the position of goal or prize. That's a shame when Christine is the protagonist of the original story and in a position to have much more power over the outcome of its plot... and finally, a game is here to fulfill my dreams. With Christine also working to help Raul while he works to help her, the two of them become dual protagonists with just as much power to affect the situation, more like the original book with Christine saving herself at least as much as Raul saves her. We also get a much better illustration of their relationship to each other and determination to reunite, which increases the player's investment in it and gives us the option to care about Christine's experiences and struggles just as much as Raul's.

It is great, is what I'm saying. I love it and the fact that the game will swap back and forth multiple times makes it one of my favorite game setups ever already. The game uses the locket above - which is Christine's locket, by the way, so she's carrying around a picture of each of them together because she's the cutest - to show which character is active and when the switches will occur.

I was much too excited about all of this to pause and say, but also yes, there's a map included in the game after a little while, which lets you immediate return to any screen you've been on before without having to remember how to "walk" there through the environments in between, and which also works with the hint system to highlight areas you might need to go to that have outstanding items or puzzles. The music, which I meant to also mention, is fine; it mostly flies under the radar, since it's not especially interesting or evocative, but it's also perfectly all right and doesn't jar against the setting or anything.

Anyway, over to Christine! Who is in chains, with Isaac loudly sucking in real-time in her direction. Don't call me your darling, you gold-plated buttmunch.

 

He decides to get his villain monologue on a bit to help advance the plot, explaining that he wants to go down in history as the best opera director ever; that's an interesting choice, since it has the Phantom's usual desire to be acknowledged and remembered but also seems to be putting him in more of a background role than usual. He is a composer, but unlike the original Erik, who considered his magnum opus too terrible to be played and too advanced to be appreciated by opera-goers, he seems a lot more concerned with being famous for his composition than anything else.

Anyway, he explains that he's going to have to do a ritual to bind Christine's ghost after death and therefore can't kill me yet, and goes off to do wizardly nonsense somewhere, leaving me with some ominous pronouncements about how there will be "repercussions" if I don't wait like a good little girl. To which I say, bite me, Isaac.

The first mini-game on Christine's side is getting out of her manacles, which apparently can be undone by a combination of moxy and logic, which I am super in favor of because eff this dude. If determination and smarts can take down all of his spells, he doesn't have a prayer.

Once free, I note that there are other cute little environmental touches, like being able to skip stones across the lake or feed the fish in it (also, nice that we've got the lake here! it's only a small touch, but I appreciate it). It's very important to have these touches, because a minute later it becomes clear that there's just a CORPSE lying around here.

 

ISAAC. This is VERY BAD HOUSEKEEPING.

But never mind that, because there's a plaque, and first of all, oh my sweet lord, it's AGNETTE'S body, like he has not visited enough indignities upon this poor woman yet, and second of all, Agnette's last name is Leroux! I did a little research, for those wondering, and was not able to find any evidence of any female relatives in Gaston Leroux's family named Agnette, although I did learn that his wife's name was Jeanne and that their daughter was Madeleine. Which unfortunately made me now wonder if all the uses of the name Madeleine from Kay's novel onward were actually callouts to Leroux's daughter, but there's no proving it one way or another and Madeleine is a common French name to English-speakers.

ANYWAY, this bier also says that Agnette died in 1882, which would be right around the time of the original story; given that she was a singer who was killed by the Phantom so he could use her voice, that might make Agnette technically the "original" Christine of this story. Which is just so tragic, my god. When I click on the plaque, Christine notices that Agnette was only thirty-one and says sadly, "She died so young," and Isaac is the WORST.

This place is of course a death-trap, as Raul already discovered; I tried pulling a lever and it filled the floor full of spikes. Thanks so much for that, Isaac. Not to be daunted by scare tactics, Christine tries to escape down a hallway... and there's a MONSTER IN IT.

 

WHAT THE HELL IS THAT

HELP

You know, some Phantom games create an atmosphere of creeping terror and subtle fear that makes it hard to play them with the lights off, and then some of them do THIS. I tried stabbing it with a glass shard I found, but the game didn't think much of my intelligence for trying that.

You might think it couldn't get worse than that, but I managed to cut the ropes typing poor Agnette down (which made me think of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, weirdly enough) and the burlap sack she was buried in broke open and now I'm looking at her poor skeleton and all the creepy ritual bullshit that Isaac did to her and everything is SO SO SAD.

 

I really want to abandon the "escape" objective and move on to a "murder Isaac with his own stupid golden hair" objective, God.

The creepster buried her with a program for his wretched ghost opera and touching it to read it makes her skeleton make this godawful crunching sound and I'm going to find that man and boil him in this lake. Christine just says sadly that she wishes she could have heard her perform, because she's here for other ladies and performers, which just makes it even more touching and sad. Agnette, you've been adopted onto this team and we're going to save you.

Inside the program, more sadness and a little Easter egg:

 

She's singing "Ah! Do I Hear My Lover's Voice?", which is of course one of the repurposed opera arias used in Ken Hill's 1984 musical version of the story. Someone on this team really loves the subject matter and has some familiarity with a lot of different versions of the story, and I love that and it shows.

We also learn that Isaac's last name is apparently "Cloden", which I think might be a callback to the 1943 Lubin/Rains film's Phantom, whose last name was "Claudin". And that he apparently had an opera troupe of his own, which Agnette was a member of when she was alive, which lines up with what she told Raul. And here she comes as a ghost, getting right to the point like "let's find this key together and save your trapped boy" and YES, GHOST LADY TEAMUP. This game has all the right features to make this genre.

Getting the door open to get out of this first dungeon only rewards me with a puzzle about frigging Isaac doing Shakespeare's Hamlet, which does not surprise me because of course he'd see himself as Hamlet, because he sucks. I also managed to find his journal, so I can read his creepery thoughts, which is about as much fun as it sounds and mostly only reinforces what we already know about what he's up to.

I have to pause here to mention that there's a raccoon in Isaac's study?

 

Christine apparently just takes this in stride, assuming that Isaac must keep it as a pet, and she's more worried about whether or not it's going hungry because she is a much better person than he is. Meanwhile, Isaac is apparently doing fanart posters for his own unpublished opera using a very recognizable mask logo, and let me tell you, it was satisfying for Christine to be able to rip it off and throw it on the floor like the garbage it is. (And yes! That's a poster for Faust next to it, as a call-out to the opera performed in the original novel!)

It is super neat that Christine figures out here that Agnette travels via mirrors - she was able to get out and come to help here because of a mirror Isaac keeps in his study. There's a lot of folklore in different cultures about mirrors and ghosts or spirits, and it's a neat connection between the Phantom and the mirror in this version where he doesn't actually coach Christine through the mirror to have him associated with them because of his association with the dead.

There's an interesting inversion of the usual hidden object game here, where you get to take a collection of items and figure out where to place them in the scene to best effect. After completing it, we get a very cool collection of art scenes detailing what happened in Isaac's backstory before he became the Phantom, which inform us that we have someone to blame now, and his name is Dirk.

 

Okay, so it's not really Dirk's fault, poor guy. He was just being a decent human being, saving Isaac from the disastrous destruction of the opera house, in which apparently the chandelier fell and set fire to the place, much like the end of the 2004 film. Isaac was disfigured by burns, which is similar to the 1983 Markowitz/Schell film and part of the whole grand tradition of film and game Phantoms having disfigurements as the result of injuries.

At this point, it seems pretty clear that Agnette and the others in the image must have been part of the original troupe, and that they either died in the fire before he bound their souls, or else he hunted them down and killed them to keep his original group together. But if so, why is Christine kidnapped now, when she's never met the guy before? Is he using her as a replacement for Agnette, who said she was being punished for trying to escape and who seems to have been the original Christine figure and lead soprano? Why is he just the absolute fucking worst? He goes on to claim that the opera house "sank underground", which doesn't make a ton of sense, but then again, he's not the most reliable narrator anyone has ever heard of.

You know, the further I get into this game, the more I appreciate Christine as a character, which is what I want to happen in an adaptation of this novel. She empathizes with ghosts, she discovers history and clues, she rebuilds useful tools out of garbage using only her wits, and she still has time to be kind-hearted and go get food for this raccoon just to make sure it's happy. She'll feed a mouse later, too, because apparently Isaac cannot be bothered to feed his damn pets. She also wants to repair a set of bagpipes she found purely because "it's a beautiful instrument" and I really feel her in my soul. When she finds a lock and says "Someone tried to saw through this and gave up, but I'm more determined," I'm aware that the someone was probably the doomed Agnette and no shade to her but also fuck yes I am, Christine and I are about to kick this dungeon's ass.

 

As you can see, there's a horrifying creepy mannequin here, although in defiance of Lloyd-Webber-inspired tradition it doesn't seem to have anything to do with Christine herself; it doesn't look much like her (or Agnette, for that matter), so it's mostly just here to stare horrifyingly at us next to that handprinted mirror.  Christine is pretty horrified too, but her reaction is to clean the mirror and then do the mannequin's hair and makeup so it can be pretty again and you know what, I can't even argue because I love her so much.

We have a lot of mini-games within mini-games in this section, with matching followed by puzzles, and once again it's really nice to see that they're all on-theme and related to the story, as opposed to being reused or recycled images or mechanics from earlier in the game. (I mean, that would make life easier for me, but this is better for both design and replay value.)

And now, Christine has got the magic key finally and SHE'S COMING, BABY BOY, HANG IN THERE!

Agnette takes the key over to relay it to Raul so he can escape, and lets him know about the horrifying ghost monstrosity blocking off the corridor so he can start trying to find a key for Christine to get past that. The teamwork is just the best. Sadly, he can't actually come deal with the ghost for her, but I firmly believe she can handle anything and it's not like it makes much difference to me, since I'm still the player either way.

 

Agnette, by the way, is so reassuring and firmly on their team, and I just really love all the togetherness of this team of people who want to kick Isaac in his ass. She makes a point of letting both of them know that their loved one is all right and exactly what they need, too.

So there are some creepy skulls here, and do you see that purple face-thing on the right? That's a screaming ghost that comes out and RUSHES AT MY FACE when I try to prod at this empty hand and I really do not need this kind of shock in my life. I totally understand, ghost friend, whoever you are, but it's not my fault. Please haunt Isaac until he dies. In a similar vein, there's some sort of Angel of Death statue over the door in one of these rooms that opens red eyes and shakes its scythe at me when clicked on and this place is just so disgustingly haunted. Take a day off, Isaac.

After messing around with some broken floor tiles a little, Raul finds more Christine-related paraphernalia buried under the floor and I'd just like to say, on behalf of everyone: leave her and everyone else on the planet alone, you creeper, for the love of God.

But Raul is also finding out some more of Isaac's backstory, which is neat; it picks up where Christine's investigations left off, which makes sense for the player who already knows some things about what's going on by this point, but the game keeps it coherent form Raul's point of view as well. He doesn't know what happened to the original opera house like Christine does, but he doesn't have to in order to learn that it was destroyed and Isaac is now doing some sort of very badly advised Plan B in response to it. Isaac's writings claim that his opera cannot be performed by human voices, which is why he has to murder everyone and make them ghosts first; not only is this again reminiscent of the murderous, voice-stealing Phantom in Night in the Opera, it's also giving me powerful flashbacks to a particular episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Also, it's probably some well-deserved shade being tossed in the direction of certain classical-era composers (cough, Mozart) who were prone to composing things for a specific person's range that then ended up being completely unperformable to the vast majority of all other humans on earth.

Another new variation on the hidden object scene pops up here, with each scene including multiples of an item in different forms - for example, the game might tell you to find "fire" and this might include a candle, the fireplace, a lantern, and so on, which is a neat creative way to keep player brains going. I also enjoy that finding each of these things slowly denudes the scene, which gets emptier and emptier, leaving the Phantom sitting alone in his plottery. The art direction on this game really is fantastic.

 

It turns out here that the "opera assistant" previously mentioned is Dirk, our unfortunate friend who saved Isaac from the catastrophic burning of the opera house, and that he's miserable and trying to argue with Isaac about not, you know, murdering this poor girl he's kidnapped. Isaac is a subtle fellow, so he reacts by grabbing Dirk in a giant skeleton hand, threatening him, and then dramatically sweeping away. Much like Agnette, he offers to help save Christine if we can get him down, and also much the same in tone, Raul was already planning to help him because he's a good person.

Also, I see that poster back there and I'm getting REAL TIRED OF YOUR SHIT, ISAAC.

Continuing to prove that he has an amazing breadth of skills and is probably one of the Musketeers, Raul finds an owl stuck down here and manages to get a heavy glove to wear and use proper birding techniques to get its attention and make friends with it. He's the coolest. I want every version of Raul to have the ability to befriend wildlife and pick locks. And if that wasn't enough, he takes a look at some sheet music Isaac left here for his opera and announces out of left field that he always loved playing the trombone but hasn't in years so he isn't sure he's any good at it anymore. Raul, I love you, and not just because that might or might not be a callback to the 1944 Waggner/Karloff film, which had a musician Raoul character. Can you imagine Christine singing and Raul cheerfully just blat-blatting along back there as an accompanist? I love this stupid game's version of these characters so much I'm writing fanfic by accident here. And baby, we empty that spit valve and try a few bars of Isaac's music and Raul does okay, although honestly the music itself is pretty pedestrian. All this and Isaac's not even any good.

The owl, by the way, is a sweetheart and flies up to a balcony to throw things down for Raul to retrieve and use. He was robbed by never getting an invitation to Hogwarts.

The sceptre Raul has to find to rescue Dirk gives us a little more exposition as well; it has a note with it from Isaac discussing how he needs it for protection in case something goes wrong with this giant melange of ghosts he's running around, and how it should unravel ghostly enchantments when used properly. Unfortunately, I can't bask in the hilarity of the idea that maybe this means that awful door ghost will eat him at the end of the game because the damn thing makes me play this mini-game:

 

What are you trying to do to me, game?

We get a little more backstory once Dirk is free; he explains that most of the original opera company did die in the fire, so Isaac did not have to hunt down and kill (very many, Agnette is an obvious exception) people for this. Not that binding their dead souls and being an absolute dickmonkey to them the entire time is much better.

Hilariously, Dirk explains that he's still alive purely because he's a good stage manager and Isaac is terrible at it and needs someone to actually know how to run a show. Like Agnette, he jumps right on board to help out, promising to pass on the key to Christine to help her get past her ghost guard once Raul finds it. This kind of makes him an analogue to Madame Giry in terms of being a fixture of the opera house that helps serve the Phantom but also tries to help people escape his power; if you want to stretch, he could also be considered a version of the Persian, although Agnette probably fits that role better when she isn't being Christine mk. I.

I'd like everyone to know that I clicked on a ball on the floor and a tiny cat foot shot out from under a dresser and stole it. There is no reason for this to happen and it has nothing to do with anything. The cats are an absolute delight of an additional feature in this game. After navigating some horrible things like skeletons with skulls that fall off when touched, Raul's basic camp skills triumph over Isaac's rune magic again (so much for being a super smart necromancer) and he finally uncovers this portrait of the Old Crew:

 

Agnette is off to the left, Dirk all the way to the right, and this new lady with the sexy governess look is Bruna. That's right, we're THIS far into the game and we just met our Carlotta analogue! She was the original lead soprano of Isaac's troupe before the disaster and is apparently still around somewhere as a ghost, too, even though we haven't seen her, and furthermore was in love with Isaac, as we discover from her personal journals. Unfortunately, the game instantly starts trying to cast her as Evil, but while I am definitely worried about her stopping the lovers here from reuniting, I'm not really on board with the idea that Bruna is clearly Evil and Unhinged because of her Obsessive Love when we have Isaac right over there trying to get a sympathy arc later in this game, of all things.

...actually, now that I'm thinking about it, why is Bruna so weirdly on board with Isaac's plans for Christine? She's shown to be ridiculously jealous and possessive later, so why is she so willing to help him kidnap and permanently bind another singer that he wants to use for his lead role? Why isn't she threatened by Christine? Isaac definitely isn't as romantically inclined as a lot of Phantoms, but he's still doing weird things like enchanting pictures to put himself holding her instead of Raul, so you have to wonder. Not to mention, Bruna herself apparently isn't being offered this vaunted lead role or featured on any of the homemade advertisements Isaac makes in his basement, which you'd think might also aggravate her.

We finally got an organ - although actually I think it might be a harpsichord, since it sounds more resonant and harp-like when played - although this Phantom doesn't do any playing of it in the game. Raul does, though, and it's a much better representation of the Phantom's supposed musical talent - the chords are slightly discordant, but they have neat combinations and the "runes" used to write it could be a kind of personal alternative musical notation, which is cool. I'm sorry about breaking the poor instrument, but it's not like we were going to move it into Raul's and Christine's eventual honeymoon cottage, so...

 

Aww, Bruna was Ophelia? I'm even sadder for her now. (And did I not predict that Isaac would think he was a Hamlet figure? What a nerd). Also, please note that Bruna's last name is given as "Guidicelli" - almost definitely a reference to Carlotta's last name Giudicelli in the Lloyd Webber musical.

Raul finally manages to dig things up from the hole in the floor and it turns out that there was a figurine of Christine under there, apparently made by Isaac for a creepy diorama of his opera company that he's making. The diorama is reminiscent of the 2004 Schumacher/Butler film's little figure theater, but it's hard to focus on that because the image of Raul sitting on the floor of this dungeon, gluing this broken figurine of his kidnapped fiancée back together and then carrying it around with him is... super sad? I have feelings about it?

Of course, we're not allowed to have nice things, so when he puts it in the diorama with the other figures, ALL of the pieces except for Isaac's become ghosts and disappear because Isaac ALWAYS ALWAYS HAS TO SUCK. GOD.

 

Now that's a classic hidden object screen! While Raul loots it for useful items and searches for the rest of this key, the game exposits to the player about Bruna's feelings, which more and more are shown to be unreciprocated and powerful. I was worried at this point that the game would blame the the fire at the original opera house on her as some sort of vengeful act of a scorned woman, but after finishing the game, it appears that the fire is just a random disaster without a malicious source. We do get to find out that when the ghosts talk about Isaac's "assistant", they actually mean Bruna, not Dirk, which honestly makes sense because Dirk clearly wants nothing to do with all this and is just trying to keep his ghost inside his body where it belongs at this point.

There is definitely a vibe of Bruna being painted as an unlikeable/dangerous version of Isaac, an obsessive lover who won't let go of the object of their affection but who doesn't have his impending sad backstory to try to "soften" her, and I'm not a fan of it; it's a lazy way to throw in a "worse" antagonist to try to make the existing one seem like more of an anti-hero/grey figure. But it doesn't work here, because Bruna may be a jerk, but Isaac continues to suck like a cosmic vacuum cleaner and he doesn't have the incredible gravitas she has anyway.

 

I mean, she just showed up like an amazing badass harpist to fucking knock Raul out in one hit with her evil magical music and force him to tap out to let Christine take the wheel for a while. Instant KO. I feel you, Raul.

Luckily, Dirk got the key from Raul in time to run it over to Christine. Most of his scenes are hilarious anyway because his voice acting sounds like literally every wheezy old man character ever to appear in a cartoon, but he's extra side-splitting here because Christine has never met him, so he's just a strange old man crashing through a wall like the Kool-Aid man, yelling CHRISTINE at the top of his lungs and throwing an artifact at her. That's okay, though, because she's the kind of lady who has just fashioned a knife out of a piece of broken metal, a belt, and a ribbon, so come fucking get some, Isaac.

Christine finds another poster for Faust, the opera Christine performed in Leroux's original novel and various other versions to follow it, and it says the role of Marguerite is played by "the marvelous Christine" - hell yeah, it is! I know I keep saying it, but someone with a lot of love for the subject matter worked on this game.

There's a neat little mini-game here that is literally just a game of chess - the Phantom is on the board as a king, and Christine has a piece that looks like Raul as a knight and a pawn to help him, and the player just has to have basic knowledge of how chess works to win. It was easily one of the most rewarding-feeling mini-games in the entire experience, even for a chess dummy like me.

Christine is an absolute repair badass, going around servicing a whole bunch of broken-down metal machinery stuff down here. She legitimately melted down candlesticks to forge a new key when she realized she couldn't find an original, and she did it in between feeding this mouse some cheese because she is a delight who should be protected and then facing down this ghost monster like a badass (thankfully, it didn't even talk to her; it just took the artifact and vanished and I like to think she freed it from servitude, since Isaac seems to be keeping all the ghosts here under duress). She and Raul are going to have career prospects no matter where they go in life.

But now... she has to navigate the Indiana Jones Corridor of Horrors.

 

Those gargoyles shoot fire, the holes in the walls (both visible and otherwise) shoot arrows and missiles, axes sometimes swoop down out of the ceiling, and that gibbering skull is VERY MUCH ACTIVELY ANIMATED and biting and attempting to set her on fire as she runs past. And she is having none of it so she just FUCKING RUNS THE GAUNTLET AT FULL SPEED and while this is not an old-school adventure game and I'm pretty sure she can't die - the game just backs her up to where she was if she gets something wrong - I'm still biting off every nail I have. The skulls laugh a nerve-wracking baritone laugh at her as she dives past and you have to do everything on timing and it's just a lot, y'all.

And then... this happens.

 

For the first time in the game, Christine screams, and I don't fucking blame her. It turns out that the Phantom has figured out how to possess Raul, so our poor sunny boy got all the way here and then ended up catching her and turning her back over after all. The animation still isn't great, but there's a neat effect of him having the Phantom's half-faced burn scars for a split second when she first sees him to let the player realize what's happening, and his corpsey lurch in her direction is definitely unnerving.

After Isaac monologues at her some about how he has her fiancé in the palm of his hand now (because he SUCKS), she just goes ahead and adjusts her next goal to be "rescue Raul", because she's a take-charge lady and, like me, she presumably has the phrase "how the fuck dare you" running on a loop in her head right now.

Her investigations yield up knowledge of yet another character we haven't heard from before... and she's a big one. Apparently, Isaac was previously married to a woman named Roselle, which begs the question of where the hell her ghost is - we can see from his journal that she died at some point and he was despondent over it, although I absolutely love Christine, whose immediate comment is "well, that's no excuse for wrecking other peoples' lives". Thank you for that Classic Phantom Story Beat, Christine!

 

As usual, Christine has found a vulnerable animal that needs help and is also being a handy badass, figuring out how to unscrew hinges and locks to get into things.

By this point, it's clear that Christine literally combats most things in this game with life, which is an incredible contrast to Isaac, who is accomplishing everything through death and destruction. She feeds and helps animals, she waters and restores plants, she helps people are in need and she repairs things that are broken. Raul does this to, to a certain extent; the game's tasks and mechanics help back up the dichotomy of the heroes as representative of life while the Phantom is a figure, in Leroux's words, built "head to toe of death".

Unfortunately, once Christine finds Roselle, it's pretty clear that everything is going to be the saddest AGAIN.

 

This is Roselle, whose ghost is trapped in a crystal ball in her old room, which Bruna is now using. She is a sweet poor lady who tried to stop Isaac from doing all this bullshit but couldn't succeed at it, and who was trapped here by Bruna to prevent her from getting in the way of her designs on the guy. Isaac believes that Roselle has crossed over to the other side without him and is lonely and despondent that he's lost her, and Roselle is miserable being stuck in this ball while he does horrifying things to her friends as well as strangers. In a pattern familiar to everyone by now, she says she can help unhypnotize Raul for us, but we have to get her out of the ball first.

I agree, Christine - I also find it hard to believe Isaac somehow got this very nice lady to be stuck with him. Every time we find another note from her, I get sad about how terrible he is.

 

I know, babe. I'm sorry. He sucks so much.

Bruna is definitely well past the moral event horizon on the whole Roselle thing; in addition to trapping her and lying to Isaac to make him think she's gone forever, she has apparently moved into her rooms, taken over all her things, and defaced all pictures of her and Isaac, viciously scratching the Phantom out of the pictures so that Roselle is no longer with him. Honestly, that's a weird choice - wouldn't she scratch Roselle out of the pictures, if Isaac is the one she's in love with? Why act out the violence on Isaac's image instead? It's possible that she's angry with Isaac for marrying Roselle in the first place (but then, she doesn't seem to have in any way taken out any of that temper on Isaac, only tormenting Roselle); or maybe she's actually in love with Roselle, not Isaac, and Dirk is just confused/misinformed about the whole thing, which could explain why she's keeping Roselle literally in her room (but I don't think this game wants to give that to me and sadly that wouldn't explain why Bruna is so loyal to Isaac's shenanigans, because then you'd think she wouldn't like him).

Honestly, why does Bruna like Isaac? With Roselle, we see a little courtship, and everyone else either had a professional relationship with him or doesn't like him very much, but for Bruna the answer appears to be "because the game said she was". They never even interact onscreen and no reason is given for her to have any interest in him, and now she's dead so it's not like she's even getting anything out of being his star performer. Honestly, it would make more sense if she was very committed to the ghost opera itself as her only chance now to fulfill her professional dreams or artistic vision even after death, rather than because she has some weird inexplicable connection to the Worst Dude.

Christine's only comment here is about how sorry she feels for Roselle, and I really appreciate that this game goes out of its way to make its characters compassionate and interested in each other rather than just the goals and game tasks. (Except poor Bruna, apparently.)

Christine found raspberries to feed to the hedgehog and he ate two of them and then put one on his spines for later and scurried off with it and this game was made to cater specifically to me, personally.

Continuing to be a badass polymath, Christine is now able to finish actual realistic paintings and I am duly impressed by her, although finishing the painting of the old opera company causes it to magically burst into flame, which is upsetting after all the work she put into it. But, being fantastic, she scavenges things out of it and manages to find what she needs to free Roselle, who pledges to go find Dirk and get him to help her reach and cure Raul because this is a TEAM EFFORT and we are all in it together.

And she does! Continuing the theme of compassionate characters who are nevertheless on a schedule, Dirk explains what happened to Raul, tells him not to blame himself because it won't help, and he gets right the fuck back on task, because his determination is unbreakable and he's got a rescue to mount.

 

You know, Isaac, maybe you're not internationally renowned not because of the tragedy of your opera house fire but because you spend all your time underground building Fire Door Traps instead of composing and networking.

Raul has no memory of what happened and is now in his own dungeon to break out of, but he is nothing if not ready to get on it. One of the most delightful puzzles of the game involves Raul putting together a working mechanical mouse and then using it to run around and set off a bunch of bear traps so that he can get through a corridor, and the little critter even leads him off to the pantry, which is very in character for a mouse, even a robotic one. A lot like Christine, Raul also solves problems and puzzles with creative life-affirming solutions - and I think it's worth noting that a lot of them are traditionally "feminine" solutions or pursuits, such as him sewing things together, and that the game does not ever treat this as unusual or more difficult for him than anything else.

There's a poster here for Romeo & Juliet, another one of the operas from Leroux's novel! Sadly, we can only enjoy it so much, because Isaac's reaction to finding out that Raul is awake and out from under his control is... to magically fill the place with poisonous cobras.

 

Because he sucks.

Raul handles the whole Indiana Jones situation (there is a lot of Indiana Jones in this game, isn't there?) with flying colors, using a hooked stick to carefully catch each of the snakes and then put them all in a basket, which he then puts in a dark corner. Which I love, because it would be so easy for lots of games to kill or hurt or frighten the snakes to get rid of them, and instead Raul goes out of his way to not only be careful not to hurt them but to put them somewhere they'll be less stressed and dangerous to themselves and others. It's not their fault that Isaac sucks.

I know this review is ridiculously long, but I really think we need to stop and look at this sketchbook of Isaac's that Raul found, because seriously, look at it:

 

What... is this trying to tell me? Is it trying to tell me that Isaac designed his mask based on Christine's face? Can someone please explain why? I think that it's probably actually supposed to be unrelated - he was sketching Christine on one page and mask designs on the other - but the combination of the face being a half face and the mask right next to it just makes it look like he's definitely wearing CHRISTINE'S FACE and this is a weird place for that. I don't even know what to think about it. This is the first time the Phantom wanted to be Christine, to my knowledge.

Raul's only opinion is that he's pretty pissed off that Isaac has portraits of Christine in his office, and you know what, that's fair. Carry on, man.

Things are getting very very weird in here, with a gargoyle that is literally telling Raul riddles and a magic scrying bowl of some sort in the corner. Roselle has told Christine recently that Isaac had an uncle named Orphel that did some sort of magic, which Dirk passed on to Raul via the Rescue Grapevine, but he's rolling with it remarkably sanguinely. More of the magic of Raul, I guess.

The magic getting moved front and center gets us some more lore on the way everything works, with Raul finding Isaac's actual book of spells to poke around in. It turns out that he has to be fairly nearby to maintain his power over the ghosts, which is why he's enchanted the mirrors to let him teleport around instantaneously, and he uses a number of amulets to help keep things locked down, which Raul doesn't recognize but we the player do because they are identical to the one Christine enterprisingly made by melting things down a while ago! And like every good teamwork partner when he doesn't know how to proceed, Raul figures out how to call the rest of the team and let them know what's going on.

 

YES, he CALLS CHRISTINE ON THE SCRYING BOWL. I love them and I am rooting for them so hard. They are literally communicating from a distance through sheer moxy, street smarts, and magic cobbled together with survival skills and common sense.

We swap back to Christine, now that she has the deets on how to mess with Isaac's spells, and she gets started trying to figure out how to find or make an amulet to get over to Raul because these two are just lobbing help back and forth like pro volleyball players.

She discovers as she investigates that Uncle Orphel had better be a really good wizard, because Isaac is apparently coming for him. (Bruna is also coming for him, which is frankly a lot scarier.) This puts a deadline on how fast Raul needs to get out of Sorcery Central, which is a problem because as soon as Christine manages to locate the missing amulet, the MANNEQUINS COME ALIVE AND GRAB HER.

 

COME ON WHY. I know the answer is that Leroux's mention of Erik building lifelike automatons in his epilogue has spawned a thousand weird Phantom robots, but also, I do not need to be grabbed by a bunch of animated wooden mannequins like life isn't surreal enough. Because she is a genius, Christine quickly unscrews all of the mannequins' arms so that they can't keep her restrained, so at least she manages to get on the loose again fairly quickly.

If you're wondering who the person with the improbable hair up there is, the answer is that she's another ghost, the cellist from the original troupe whose spirit Isaac has bound to a mannequin to force her to be in charge of security. As usual, Christine is ready to help her and she'll try to help in return, and in the real world I'm getting really bummed about how all the ladies in this game (Agnette, Bruna, Orianna here, Roselle, and Hannah who we have not yet met) are dead, and all the dudes (Isaac, Dirk, Orphel, and Gregory who is still upcoming) are alive and able to affect things. I doubt it's on purpose, but it points to a certain assumption that the ladies on the team are more fragile or helpless or both, and that they suffer tragedy and pain more for no apparent reason.

In a hilarious interchange, Christine finds a note from Isaac where he remarks that mannequins are useful because they can play orchestra instruments that he doesn't have staff for and they're quiet and obedient, and she responds out loud, "That's not a good reason to imprison peoples' souls!" Literally no one in this game has any time for Isaac's bullshit and it is a rejuvenating experience.

In the first of several ABSOLUTELY NERVE-WRACKING SEQUENCES, Christine comes upon Bruna draining all the life force from Orphel's body so that he's going to die any moment... and I just have to run around screaming because I don't have the right item to save him yet so Christine is just charging to and fro, ransacking rooms as fast as she can and probably yelling HANG ON JUST A MINUTE at the tragedy going on in real-time right next to her. The game actually does not allow her to lose by taking too long - Bruna and Orphel will remain locked in exactly where they are until Christine finds the right item to save the guy - but it was still VERY STRESSFUL to spend so long searching for things while someone is DYING right there.

The actual sequence of events was apparently a) dig around in the stands until you find a piece of a comb, 2) run back to the wardrobe room to put the comb in a slot and get a drawer to open, 3) take a belt out of the drawer, 4) run back to the stage, 5) use the belt to fix the backdrop machinery, 6) WATCH A PUPPET SHOW about Roselle and Bruna and their history together, and 7) THEN you get the sphere that Bruna once trapped Roselle in so that you can run back and trap Bruna herself in it. Man, I hope you're extremely hardy for a frail old wizard, Orphel, because I swear to god there is no way to do all that quickly.

Upon rescuing Orphel, he of course immediately has to go do wizard stuff (as one does), but he tells Christine to investigate a tree in the cemetery and gives her something to help rescue Orianna, which she does, getting the amulet to lob over to Raul. And she does a little more animal whispering along the way, first soothing a frightened cat to sleep (it purrs because life is good), and finding a messenger pigeon to persuade it to send her amulet and message to Raul.

 

Not only does Christine send him the key amulet and write him a letter, in which she gives him the clue Orphel just gave her, she actually sketches the area and I don't care if that's obviously just the game designers making sure the player knows what they're looking for, it's also evidence that Christine just sat down and did a quick charcoal sketch to make sure her beau could get this job done and she's just too amazing for words.

 

And sadly, it's good that she did, because Isaac returns at that point and drops her like a sack of potatoes, so we have to send our hopes for success back over to Raul.

I got an achievement, by the way - oh yeah, this game has achievements! there doesn't seem to be a list of them, so I only saw them when I got one and was like hey, glow of success - called "Power of the Twain" for writing that letter to Raul and getting this far on the teamwork initiative, so the game is clearly all in with me on this whole thing.

Raul manages to get through the mirror and out of the dungeon in time to almost catch Isaac again - in fact, in time to hear him monologuing at an exasperated Christine again about how Raul is clearly going to die soon because he's too inattentive to evade all the traps. Christine immediately defends me, claiming that Raul can "deal with anything you can throw at him," and then I felt extremely bad that he immediately stepped on a trap and fell off a cliff. I'm sorry, hon, I swear I'm not actively trying to let you down. Let me just figure out this puzzle to claw myself back up to the top.

Now that the Phantom has passed through the tree we were told to investigate, it's closed magically behind him, so it's time for woodland hijinks! There's a tiny graveyard here for those who died in the opera fire, and the first grave we find is Roselle's, where we discover she died at only twenty-seven years old, even younger than Agnette. If that wasn't sad enough, Bruna is also buried nearby.

 

I promptly start robbing Roselle's grave, which is just as sad and miserable as it was when I had to do it to Agnette as Christine, although I feel like Roselle would probably understand, having dealt with this bullshit for way too long at this point.

 

You know, not only are all the ladies in this game dead, murdered by tragic circumstances or evil jackasses, but I also apparently have to see all of their actual corpses, something that emphatically doesn't happen with the male characters (there is only one dead dude, and he will only appear as a ghost). This is something I'm more used to seeing in media in the horror genre, which often treats the death and desecration of women as in some way pornographic or at least fetishistic, but that really isn't this game's genre or tone, nor are the sad corpses of the women presented in such a way as to be lurid about them. It's just a weird thing to notice, especially when the Phantom story so often focuses on the Phantom's connection to death as its representative and instead we have here a fully alive Phantom in Isaac who is just being an asshole to the actual dead.

There is also a hungry squirrel here that Raul feeds because he is also kind to animals, and this is how you lose, evil villain dudes. Not enough attention paid to the humble woodland creatures that can wreck up your plans.

Roselle's and Isaac's vows are actually buried with her:

 

Oh, Roselle. I wish someone had been there to be like, "I don't know, babe, he sounds like he's way more interested in you as a discussion piece and inspiration than a person." How sad to know that Isaac has always sucked. This poor woman never had a chance.

After fashioning a makeshift torch and burning the tree roots to get through, Raul is then stymied by an ACTUAL DRAWBRIDGE because there are no ends to how bullshit this all is. He soldiers on to find a guy in a magical blindfold who turns out to be named Gregory and who introduces himself as Isaac's "personal architect", who has been captive here and building him all of this wacky shit while being kept blind and helpless to stop him from ever sharing the designs or secrets of the place with anything else. It explains how there's so much absolute architectural nonsense down here, I guess. Predictably, Gregory would like his sight restored and to escape the area with all due haste, and can help Raul get through the traps and fix the drawbridge if he'll help him. I swear, this entire game is just people Isaac has fucked over helping each other out in a cooperative intramural relay race of aggravation.

 

Okay, I have to stop here and start yelling a little, because this door is TALKING TO ME and being TERRIFYING and asking me to solve a riddle to be offered entry. This is an extremely obvious homage to the 1992 classic adventure game King's Quest VI: To Heir is Human, in which the protagonist has to get past a likewise skeletal and terrifying door in the underworld that talks to him and demands the answer to a riddle in order to pass. I've been saying that this game (and most of the hidden object genre, really) is a spiritual successor to the old-style adventure games forever, but in case we needed a blatant sign, that's it!

No extra time to yell about homages, though, because I'm back to being in love with our protagonists and I need to yell about that instead. Raul catches up after finally fixing the drawbridge, only to get lassoed to a tree; but while Isaac's back is turned, Christine manages to find and pull one of his trap levers and actually drop the Phantom through a trap door.  INCREDIBLE. Sadly, Raul is still stuck in a tree and she's locked in a room, but my god, what a team. A second later, she's acquired an axe, because she's my DREAM CHRISTINE.

After picking some more locks and building a ladder, thus cementing that she and Raul definitely need to have a career as international spies after they get out of this, she gets down into another part of the underground and it gets really weird (as if things weren't weird already).

 

There's... a Greek temple shrine? And a pirate ship? What is going on down here? I guess I could be charitable and assume that this is where set pieces and props from the old opera house went to die, but this is a wide range of weird shit in giant chunks even for that.

Naturally, I instantly climbed aboard the pirate ship, where there was a live cockatoo who is a VERY GOOD GIRL and also a revelation that there's a very sad extra story going on here, where we discover that the pirate ship belonged to one Louis, who was attempting to find and rescue someone named Hannah from the Phantom but died locked in the same building Christine was stuck in (his skeleton is still up there). A little while later, we find Hannah and, in a pattern Isaac continues to adhere to because he cannot ever stop being the fucking worst, she's been magically trapped in a portrait for attempting to fight his control over her, and poor Louis never got to her and died in the attempt, which has got to be terrifying for poor Christine here, who is living that situation right now and desperately hoping Raul stays alive while she tries to help from her end.

I'm not proud that I skipped a LOT of mini-games at this point; for many, I'd get the theory for how they worked, but not want to spend a lot of time trying to get them to complete when I could just click the magic button and move the fuck on. (But I also usually don't like mini-games, so I'm sure your mileage will vary.)

After managing to free Hannah so that she can go hopefully find Louis' spirit and be happy at least in death, she goes to return the favor by giving Raul directions to come and find Christine... but Isaac shows up and uses magic to AGAIN knock me out, and he's almost ready to get his magic bullshit on so we're running out of time.

Back with Raul, we make it down from the tree and rob Bruna's grave as well because this game is just endless grave robbing (I'm so sorry to all you ladies), and I'm mollified because every time Raul finds new information about Isaac's past, he says something along the lines of "this guy is talented but he also sucks and that ruins it", because the protagonists of this game are all very savvy to the story they are in. He catches up to Isaac, who has an unconscious Christine and is about to do bad things to her (and refers to her as a "sparkling diamond" - is that a Moulin Rouge reference?), but apparently he really is too unaware to deal with the endless traps, because he instantly steps on something and gets shunted into a cage, which means this is the first thing Christine sees when she wakes up and takes over again:

 

I'm sorry for laughing at your suffering, Raul, but the idea of her waking up and replacing seeing you dangling from a tree with seeing you making a sad puppy face in a cage is just too comedic. Your tribulations.

Putting Raul in a cage was apparently a tactical error on Isaac's part, because Christine's reaction is to start trying to make DYNAMITE. So get ready to permanently shut the fuck up, Isaac.

As with the interlude with Orphel, this is a stressful time-crunch-that-isn't - Isaac has begun his ritual and theoretically Christine might topple over at any second, so she needs to stop him or free Raul or escape as soon as possible, but instead I have to run around counterintuitively trying to do tasks on four different screens while making a high-pitched noise like a panicky fire alarm. Apparently even when someone is doing magical rituals that will literally kill me, there is time to go feed the cockatoo, which as usual was absolutely the right call because it gives up the key to the cage and Christine's kindness toward animals saves the day again.

Christine manages to find and repair the machinery to safely get Raul down from his cage, but she falls down a trap door herself (hilariously, she does not sound afraid; she sounds pissed off and inconvenienced) when she does, switching us back over to Raul again as he tries to pick up from there. Raul finds two of the necessary keys needed to defeat the Phantom, which means that with the one Christine found they now have three out of four, and I just need to repeat how much I love the team rescue theme going on in this game.

 

Here at the eleventh hour, Raoul finds this note from Orphel and an enchanted violin itself, bringing us another reference to the original novel, in which the Phantom was a violinist. Raul isn't one, but I think we've seen that he's not afraid to play foreign instruments with great gusto. Thanks for coming through in the clutch, Orphel!

Raul crawls into a secret well to find things (as one does in adventure games) during the same tense no-time-no-time situation, and the puzzles now are so INTENSIVE. Raul and Christine have to be engineering geniuses to figure all this shit out, and, well, the only thing I can say is GOOD THING THEY APPARENTLY ARE. Seriously, they need a sequel where they fight crime together.

In a last attempt to look sympathetic, Isaac's old postcard falls into Raul's hands and we just need to pause and bask in it:

 

IT WAS THE ONLY OPTION. THERE WAS NO OTHER WAY. YOU UNDERSTAND, EVERYONE. (Raul immediately says out loud "no the fuck it wasn't" or slightly less profane words to that effect. Get wrecked, Isaac.)

 

WAIT, she was just HANGING THERE the entire time I was crawling down a WELL? GAME. COME ON.

After hauling her to safety, Raul and Christine are barely united for a few seconds before Isaac is back, strangling Raul with magic until he falls unconscious and we are suddenly in a situation that looks really familiar to anyone who's seen the end of the Lloyd Webber musical. Raul's last act is to desperately throw his bits of the key at Christine so she can complete it and hopefully handle this, and because she is the literal queen of my heart, she takes it, looks at the goal of "Distract Isaac" that pops up at the top of the screen, and promptly uses dynamite to blow up the wall underneath everyone and flood the entire area in the water that it was holding back. (This is very reminiscent of the end of Leroux's novel, too, in which Erik threatened to use gunpowder to blow up the opera house and the threat was averted by flooding the cellar to render it inert.)

In case you wondered if Isaac was still a hilarious cartoon villain, he actually says the line "No more Mr. Nice Guy!" as he drops Raul and threatens that he'll have to take drastic measures, which turn out to be drugging Christine with magic powder to take her out again. But that's okay, because Raul is ON THE LOOSE AGAIN and this villain is going down purely from the power of teamwork and two ridiculously determined people who absolutely cannot be kept contained both at the same time.

 

Unfortunately, when Raul comes to, Christine has already been half severed from her body (while Isaac does a creepy ritual all over the lower part of her body, I might add, because he is terrible), and yes, that is her scarf she's holding out to him, the one he went into the sea to get for her when he was a little boy, so please join me in being generally rained on by the sadness. She managed to wrap up things she thought he could maybe use in it and give it to him as her last action before she's afraid she's about to die.

And now, once again, it's a terrifying race against time as Raul has to charge around to various screens, trying to find or make a bow in order to play this magic violin to disrupt Isaac's ghost-controlling magic, and it's the most stressful thing that has ever happened to me in a video game even though I know, intellectually, that I could probably get up and go make a sandwich before I came back to start doing any of this and it wouldn't make any difference.

But eventually Raul does get a bow. And my god, he's a trombone player but here he comes to play horrifying 10-year-old-at-orchestra-camp strings to save his lady love, because he's the best. Please note his INCREDIBLE TECHNIQUE:

 

I can only assume the ghost magic is disrupted by the godawful shrieking noise that he has to be making as he saws across the fingerboard.

This is one of the most satisfying game endings ever. The magic violin releases all of the ghosts from Isaac's control, and we get to watch them literally all punch him in the stomach with righteous ghostly rage before they drag him bodily into the underworld with them, leaving only his mask behind (similar to the end of the 2004 movie, but with 100% more angry ghost punches which I think we can agree is a great addition). Christine wakes up, Raul instantly proposes to her again since that's what he was doing when they were so RUDELY INTERRUPTED, and then SMASH CUT TO WEDDING.

 

I've got feelings about it, man. What a great time.

But wait - there's more! Because I have the Collector's Edition of this game, there's a bonus game included, which is fairly common practice for bonus editions of these kinds of games; it's a sequel to this one starring my favorite people again, so here we go!

 

We've jumped forward into the future, where Christine and Raul are married, and that's their adorable daughter, Margaret (the English form of Marguerite, again the role Christine played in Faust), who is a teenager who wants to be a singer just like her mother and is about to have her first debut at the opera house and is so excited she can't even stand it. They're a happy family, it's all adorable, and predictably someone has to come along and ruin it by being the worst.

That person is a strange creepy lady in a hood that obscures her face, who shows up to STEAL MARGARET'S VOICE with a magic box and then run off with it, leaving the poor kid completely mute and passed out on the floor from the shock. Obviously, the wizardly bullshit did not end with Isaac's death. Because this game is basically like if The Mummy franchise had a baby with the Phantom story, the family is not taking that lying down, and Christine is on the rampage immediately to save her daughter and her career prospects. (Sadly, Raul doesn't get to help in the bonus game, although we see him now and then in background material. This is probably because the bonus game is a lot smaller and shorter than the huge main game, so it's not a surprise, but I do miss the family teamwork.)

Because we don't have the excuse of being in Isaac's weird dungeon of terrors anymore, things like Margaret's dressing room being locked with a weird mechanism shaped like a toucan make a lot less sense than they did in the main game, though. It's hard to care too much, because Margaret has little dolls of herself and her family and is absolutely too precious and needs to be rescued yesterday.

We definitely have time to establish what's been going on in Christine's and Raul's marriage as well as Margaret's life, though, and we learn that they're a happy family, that Christine continued her career until very recently and is now happy to hand the reins over to her daughter, and that Margaret was scouted by the current opera house's manager, a dude named Wilfred, when she was at school and has been incredibly excited about her burgeoning career and already has hundreds of fans she's worried about letting down, just like her mother way back at the beginning of the main game. It's all so pure and wonderful and wherever Isaac is, I hope he's rotating in Hades like he's on a rotisserie spit.

 

We're in the opera house where Margaret is supposed to perform, and clearly there is way too much sorcery going on for anyone to have a good time. We have already established that Christine is definitely willing to hurl herself into magic portals to save someone she loves, but I am not pleased to discover that there are apparently notes from Isaac here in the opera house? I swear to god, if there was ever someone who didn't deserve to get to be a ghost and keep affecting events...

Before leaving, Christine puts together some smelling salts to revive Margaret and get her resting comfortably, and the poor girl has to write things down to communicate because she can't talk. I realize that I'm projecting a lot here, but I hope we find an axe by the time we get there.

After investigating some more, it comes out that Isaac had a daughter, and that, lacking any information about what went down, she just knows that the Delacroix family killed him and is pissed off at them about it. It's neat to have a female villain, but we also just cannot stop making tragic bullshit happen to these poor women in this game, can we?

She attempts to drop a chandelier on Christine, again calling back to the original story, but luckily Christine is a hardy lady and survives. She also rehangs the chandelier before leaving, which is somehow hilarious. I suppose, since this is the opera house Christine herself used to sing at and the site of Margaret's impending debut, that she might feel a little outrage over this woman beating the place up.

The problem-solving in this bonus game is a lot simpler and more direct than in the main game; items are often right next to where they need to be used, and puzzles are less involved in the lore surrounding the story. This is also pretty expected for a shorter, simpler additional chapter to the game.

 

Feel free to now join me in laughter as we discover that Isaac named his daughter Belatrix. It's almost definitely a reference to Bellatrix Lestrange, one of the evil Death Eaters from the Harry Potter series of books, famously played in the movies by Helena Bonham-Carter. I don't even know how to say anything else about it. It just is what it is.

Belatrix is obviously suffering from a crisis of ego, in which she's not only angry about losing her father, but also angry that the family that took him away is being given praise and most especially that they're being praised for something she believes should have been hers. Belatrix is a singer herself, but she has been overshadowed by Margaret's success as she has an inferior voice, and believes that she would have had the operatic triumph if her father had still been alive to give it to her.

Christine has no time for this, because not only did Belatrix throw her off the balcony, but she also called Margaret mediocre, which is frankly a much greater sin in her opinion. Continuing her patterns from previous games, she also feeds and releases a bird in a cage and helps provide first aid to to Wilfred, who was also thrown from the balcony and is woozy with injury but still very concerned about the reputation of his theater and whether or not he's going to have to refund a lot of tickets, as opera house managers so often are.

Belatrix has apparently left a bust here of Isaac with a legend on it claiming he's the "best composer", which I'm not even going to get into because I definitely already heard some of his music and it wasn't all that, but more importantly, there's a little statue of a scorpion next to it, which of course is a reference to Leroux's novel, in which the scorpion was one of two choices to Christine and the one that symbolized her accepting the Phantom's offer.

Watch yourself, everyone. Christine has a GUN and she is not afraid to use it. Not until after she feeds this baby mouse in the opera house, though, and puts it in a little hat for safekeeping. That's our girl.

Eventually, we encounter a very creepy taxi driver who isn't supposed to be creepy, I think, but who definitely is due to some beyond belief voice acting, who can be paid to take us over to Belatrix's house to help continue the search. Christine uses her gun to shoot off the padlock because she is not remotely fucking around anymore, and pauses to find Belatrix's journal only to note that she definitely has a problem with thinking Margaret is "unworthy" of her voice as a consequence of being the child of Isaac's killers. We also get to discover that she learned enough of Isaac's necromantic powers to actually summon his ghost, which is why we have to STILL HEAR FROM THAT ASSHOLE, and that's how she knows what happened to him, or at least the edited version she seems to be operating under.

Alas, the voice actor for Belatrix pronounces "maestro" like "MAY-stroh".

There are some shenanigans with drugging the big big dobermans at the front door with sleepy sausages to get past them and Christine being thoroughly unimpressed by Belatrix's traps after having survived her father's, but I got yanked out of the story a bit by this portrait hanging on her wall:

 

How on earth can there be a portrait of Belatrix as an adult with Isaac?! She would have had to be a child when he died to be this young, which is backed up by the fact that he left notes around the place saying that he never told her what he was up to because he wanted to protect her when she was younger. I assumed when she earlier said that her father taught her things that she meant after she raised his ghost. We were so close to the end without hitting a major continuity error!

But anyway, after one more of those "rush because someone is mid-ritual even though because of the way game mechanics work you could actually leisurely wander about with no hurry whatsoever" moments, we manage to interrupt Belatrix and prevent her from stealing Margaret's voice for her own, returning it back to its owner. In a move that is pretty unnecessary, interrupting the ritual actually KILLS Belatrix (Christine doesn't kill her, to be clear, the magic just appears to have that effect when interrupted), and the game ends with Margaret making her big debut, her dreams all coming true, and Christine and her family living happily ever after.

The additional features for the game are all very nice; you can go back and look at all the concept art, listen to all the music tracks used in the game, visit your finished dressing room and poster columns from the side games, and even play all the mini-games and hidden object screens that have already been completed from the "Extras" screen. It's a very nice collection of extra features and replay options!

The bonus game is a little weird, which isn't a surprise since those are often tacked on by a slightly different team or at least separately from the main game (I don't have any proof, but I also think they are often put together from material that was created for the main game but ended up being cut for whatever reason, so they don't have to do a lot of extra design or build too many extra art assets). But the main game is a gorgeous one, and I don't think I've enjoyed one of the games in this genre this much except for the 2011 Mystery Legends: The Phantom of the Opera one, which had a very different tone. Overall, it's a great time and a fun adaptation.

 

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