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2013-09-03

Phantom of Inferno Review



Title: Phantom of Inferno
Original title: ファントム -Phantom of Inferno-
Alias: Phantom: Integration
Release date: 2000-02-25
English release date: 2003 (original release)
                                    2005-09-16 (New Package Edition)
                                    2006-02-28 (Phantom Double Pack Edition)
Developer: Nitroplus
English publisher: Hirameki International (original release / New Package Edition)
                               Anime Works (Phantom Double Pack Edition)

Not a single visual novel from “Nitroplus” has ever disappointed me and “Phantom of Inferno” is not an exception. While currently “Nitroplus" has a relationship with “JAST USA”, PoI was released by now dead and buried “Hirameki International” in the reviled DVD-PG format.

Actually, from the technical standpoint “Phantom” works better as a DVD-PG game than “Hourglass of Summer”. It runs at a normal speed instead of 1 fps and isn’t regionally locked, however it has its own share of problems. In “Hourglass” one could call up a password at any point in the game, but here the passwords are displayed automatically and that usually involves a lot of skipping in order to reach the next choice. Also, let’s not forget a really shoddy translation, but that’s for the later.
The game starts with a bang... literally.
Nitroplus is known for its dark and disturbing games with mostly bittersweet endings. “Phantom” is not an exception, especially because its story was supervised by Urobuchi “Butcher” Gen of later “Saya no Uta” (in)fame. Contrary to subsequent Nitro+ games that all belong to the fantastique genre, “Phantom” is a gritty and realistic game set in a seedy underbelly of USA crime world.

After witnessing a murder of a CNN reporter investigating a mysterious organized crime group “Inferno” in LA, a teenage Japanese tourist is kidnapped and brainwashed. His memory is erased and after being given a new name Zwei, he is taught to be a killer under a tutelage of Ein – Inferno’s top assassin. Robbed of everything that makes him human and turned into a killing machine Zwei tries to hold onto a sliver of humanity in a brutal kill or be killed world. Eventually he can choose to take two distinct paths that will grant him redemption or will condemn him forever.

I found “Phantom” an exceptionally engaging game that realistically showed confusion felt by one thrown into such extraordinary circumstances. What would many of us do in a situation where we have to be either killed or kill another human being? The game explores the themes of identity and thought processes behind many of our protagonist’s actions while letting us decide if he is right or wrong. Are we just names assigned to soulless shells or can we go beyond that and even without knowing what we are, live adhering to a code of what is right? Inferno dehumanizes their assassins and treats them only as tools to be exploited and later discarded. That is accentuated by a creepy scene between Ein and Scythe Master where he is rubbing lotion into her body while claiming that a gun needs to be oiled frequently lest it becomes rusty. The game is dark and there are no truly good endings, as to achieve any outcome many sacrifices will have to be made.
Is it a carnival day?
The game masquerades as an action VN, but actually it’s not true. “Phantom” is a grey vs. black morality human drama with only a few action scenes thrown into a mix. The VN is composed of three distinct chapters with a timeskip between them. The first chapter focuses on Zwei’s training and introduction into the criminal world, the second shows him at the apex of his position and the third… well, find it out by yourselves. Natheless, the action when it deigns to present itself is spectacular. For example, the endgame is basically a non-stop hour long scene of total badassery.

I admit that I adored Zwei. He is smart, genre savvy and has a bull-headed determination that allows him to move forward even when the whole world is against him. He is also a survivalist willing to do anything as the situation calls it. The game is one huge “Break the Cutie” show from start to finish and shows how the criminal world corrupts and degrades people. The situation becomes even more poignant when you realize that at the beginning of the game Zwei is 15 years old. Yes, he’s a high school student, but unlike any you have ever seen in a VN before. Instead of learning Sciences, Languages or Maths, he learns pistol, knife combat and vital points on a human body. If you manage to reach chapter 3, Zwei becomes an atoner who is still willing to do anything, but this time for others rather than for himself.
A blue suit is a typical assassin's uniform.
Zwei is not alone in his plight – Ein is his teacher, his comrade in arms, his friend and his enemy. Due to being Inferno's best assassin she is granted a codename Phantom. Ein is a young girl who has been with Inferno for two years already and obviously doesn’t remember anything before that. She is cold and emotional killer, using a knife or a gun with a brutal efficiency. Ein is a mistranslation of a German word Eins, meaning “one”, as she is the first successful experiment in brainwashing and hypnotism by the game’s main villain Scythe Master. Where Zwei eventually decides to always pull the trigger of his own free will, Ein decided that the only way to stay sane and alive in this world is to kill her emotions and free will. She is completely subservient to Scythe Master and considers herself only as his extension. Be as it may, she is my favourite heroine of the game. While the game doesn’t have conventional routes, Ein does have a specific ending and it’s arguably a True End of the game. Anime based on this VN also mostly follows her path. It is very gratifying to eventually thaw Ein’s heart and make her cry or smile for the first time. Another thing that I absolutely loved about Ein was her voice. She arguably has the best seiyuu in the game and can portray emotions so well while at the same time being completely emotionless.
I'll believe you, Ein... for now.
Cal Devens is the heroine that appears in the second chapter and her relationship with Zwei is an unashamed homage to “Léon”. Cal is two years younger than Zwei and appears to be a happy and cheerful girl, but inside she is seething with poorly hidden anger. Her only friend in the world Judy was accidentally killed in a mafia shootout and Cal wants revenge on the perpetrators. She attaches herself to Zwei, because she believes he can help her with that matter. At the same time Zwei notices that Cal has an uncanny understanding of guns and is a pretty good shot. He is disconcerted that she might walk down the same road that he took and be lost. He wants to protect her from the cruelty of the world and preserve her cheerful smile, but that becomes even more difficult once Inferno gets the wind of Cal’s existence. In this chapter Cal is both Zwei’s morality pet and his one beam of light in an otherwise black world who helps him go forward despite all the shit in his life. Some would probably find Cal annoying, but I think that her presence provides a perfect contrast to the gritty life of murder and intrigue, and the life Zwei would have had if he wasn't robbed of it. Cal's slice-of-life scenes introduce nice interludes where our protagonist can actually act like a normal human being.
» Click to show Spoiler - click again to hide... «

Wholesome toys for little girls.
Fujieda Mio is the heroine of the last chapter and a yakuza princess who isn't aware of her status. She is a shy and demure yamato nadeshiko-like schoolgirl, who gets a crush on Zwei. You just know it can only end badly. Despite being kind of a damsel in distress she shows surprising strength in dangerous situations and even manages to engage in a psychological analysis session in a presence of an armed sociopath... LOL Still, despite the game really trying to make Mio likable, I found her kind of bland and definitely less interesting than other heroines. This is exacerbated by the fact that she is a relative latecommer to the show and doesn't get enough screen time to grow on to us.
A proper Japanese lady.
The game has three main endings (four in some Japanese editions) in the third chapter. There were details in every girl's path that I liked and I couldn't say which I consider to be the best. Ultimately, if I really had to break it down I would say that I liked Ein the best as a heroine, I liked the endgame showdown the best in Mio's path (due to the chance for Shiga to be a badass) and I preferred the ending of Drei's route. Thus the amalgamation of all three routes would be my preferred combination.

The fourth and last heroine is Claudia - a member of Inferno's executive board. Her route is mutually exclusive from the others and could be considered an evil path. Claudia is manipulative, remorseless and completely without morals. She manipulates everyone to do her bidding, Zwei not being an exception, and tries really hard to be a Magnificent Bitch. She doesn't succeed really well in that endeavour, though, but it's the thought that counts.Despite everything I consider Claudia to be more of an anti-villain as she can be quite sympathetic and I believe that she really cared for Zwei in the end. Sadly all of her endings are downers, but it's fitting for such kind of setting.
Boobs.
If Claudia is sympathetic, then the game's real villain Scythe Master is definitely not. He is a de facto Magnificent Bastard, who is a real expert at playing the game of gangs. Mild mannered and softly spoken he manages to turn friends into enemies and allies into rivals. Claudia tries to be manipulative, but Scythe is a master in that field. He is also the one responsible for brainwashing Inferno's assassins, including Zwei and Ein. Scythe Master is a person you just love to hate and hate to love, however I cannot help but be fascinated by him. Say what you will, but Nitroplus knows how to make strong villains. Scythe Master's real name used to be Helmut von Giuseppe when he was an officer in Stasi. I might be looking too much into it, but one of the game's endings is named "The Woman in the High Castle", which is an obvious homage to Philip K. Dick's classic novel. A real life murderer Giuseppe Zangara plays a minor role in the novel; could it be that Scythe's name was borrowed from there? Who knows...
P.S. Is it just me or does Scythe Master's sprite really have the longest nose I have ever seen in a VN?

"Phantom of Inferno" presents a strong plot and a strong cast of characters, but I feel that there were a few details that didn't add up. The game constantly tells us how powerful Inferno is, but does it really expect us to believe that it's executive body is composed of only three persons: a South Central gang leader, a Colombian drug lord and... Claudia? And how the hell are they so efficient in ruling together if they are always bickering among themselves?
90's haircuts FTW.
Also I feel obliged to mention the character of Lizzie. She is a black woman who serves as the bodyguard to Claudia. At first she appears to be a capable member of the organization, but then the second chapter arrives. Suddenly Lizzie is everyone's butt monkey. She is taken advantage of, betrayed, held at gunpoint, shot and made fun of. Sure, she is too good of a person to be in Inferno, but one might wonder how in nine hells did she survive so long in the organization.

Graphically the game is quite dated (it was released 13 years ago, after all), but is still pleasing to the eye. I love the old school anime look that is sported by the sprites and CGs are also good looking, though their quality varies a bit. It's the backgrounds that are the most dated. They are composed of both undoctored and blurred photographs, and computer generated imagery. Photos are mostly used for outdoor scenes, while CGI for interiors. I think that it would have been much better if all of the backgrounds used were photographs, as the computer imagery is very dated and really smells of the 90's. On the other hand, the photographs are actually taken in America and provide the authentic feel. I don't friggin' care that many of those photos were not actually taken in LA. A non-American person certainly is not gonna realize that. Recently Japan got an X360 remake of the game and its port to the PC. While I would love to see this version coming to the West, I cannot fail to notice that the character sprites in it are based on the anime "Requiem for the Phantom" art. Sorry, but I personally would take the old sprites any day. Just a personal opinion.

The soundtrack of the game is quite minimalistic, but it has a few memorable tunes. The one reserved for action scenes immediately comes to mind. Nonetheless, it's not BGM but speech that is the most important in this game. The seiyuu are amazing, especially Omi Minami, who voices Ein. Others also do a great job and let's not forget the fact that the narration is voiced too.
320 km/h? Sorry if I find that hard to believe.
There is one more thing that is worth mentioning, especially because it's rare to see such a thing in many visual novels. I'm talking about animated cutscenes. Some VNs give us animated sex scenes, but very rarely can you see animated story sequences. "Phantom" is spiced by various short clips mostly depicting the firing of guns or the driving of cars. Two different animation styles were used here: CGI and anime. Most of the clips use CGI, but there were two or three sequences done in a traditional anime style. Strangest off all is the fact that all of the anime cutscenes and two largest CGI clips were crammed into Claudia's route. I cannot really discern a cause for that as it's obvious that Claudia's is not a True Route. Oh, well, it doesn't matter - what matters is that the production values for this DVD-PG edition were through the roof for the year 2000.

"Phantom" was initially released in Japan as an adult game and later got an all ages port to DVD-PG. This is the version that was eventually released in the West. While the sex scenes are gone, the preludes to them are not. It's very clear when and were the characters are having sex in the game as the leading conversations are all there before the black curtain falls. As the H-content was already removed by the Japanese and wasn't cut specifically for the English release I didn't lament the loss of those scenes, but I would still have liked to see them. Not that big of a loss though...
Thankfully we still get some skin.
OK, as you can see I don't have almost anything negative to say regarding the game itself. Still, it wouldn't be prudent to leave without digging for some earthworms in this particular arse. Let's talk shittiness, and by shittiness I mean translation, which is a curious amalgamation of Blind Idiot Translation and Did Not Do Research. Numerous grammar and syntax mistakes notwithstanding, it's obvious that the translator didn't get to play the game and didn't even see any accompanying graphical resources. Some of the errors could only be done in that way; others prove that translator was completely unfamiliar with American pop culture. Now I wonder if Wikipedia existed in 2003 as 99% of the errors could have been avoided with a 5 minute research. On the other hand I'm sure that IMDB existed back then, so no excuses there. Now, let me entertain you and give you a list of the most egregious mistakes in the game:
1. Colt Pyson. The game graphics clearly show the correct name Colt Python.
2. Glok. Graphics again provide us with Glock.
3. Tokaref. Seriously now...
4. Barabarem. How do you get this gibberish from Parabellum is anyone's guess.
5. Sig Zower. Graphics again have the correct name.
6. Michael Karashnikof... You know, I have heard of one Mikhail Kalashnikov who is turning in his grave.
7. Zwerrenshvestain. *sigh* That was supposed to be Zahlen Schwestern.
8. Steven Segal - IMDB check fail.
9. Robert Deniro. Not as bad a Segal, but De Niro are separate words.
10. Jet Lee. Supposed to be Li.
11. Translator cannot make up his mind between Master Scythe and Scythe Master.
12. Cannot make up his mind between Sechs and Zex.
13. Cannot make up his mind between Sieben and Zuibe. LOL
14. Cannot make up his mind between Azuma and Agatsuma. WTF?!
15. Ditto with McGwire / McGuire.
16. And the worst and deadliest offence. In the scene depicting the play "Phantom of the Opera", the main female character's name is rendered as Christeen. By this point I wanted to take Gaston Leroux's novel and beat the translator to death with it.
If that wasn't enough, a few obvious copy-paste sequences rear their ugly heads. For example, you can go to the sniping operation alone or bring Cal with you, but the translator always treats like Cal is with you and that is not the only one such scene.
I agree with this sentiment.
Oh well, even a subpar translation couldn't ruin the game for me. Yes, I loved "Phantom of Inferno". I loved the dog eat dog world it portrays and I loved all the characters. In the end, I feel that this game really should be played by anyone who looks for strong storylines in their VNs. Also, how many Japanese visual novel that are set in USA have you ever seen? Out of the top of my head I can only think of one - "Demonbane", also made bu Nitroplus. What's more, there are a few scenes where characters speak a proper and correct English. Tell if that isn't a miracle.

If you want to acquire this particular game, you're in luck. This is probably the only Hirameki game that is still widely available on the market in part due to "Media Blasters" imprint "Anime Works" saving the licence. Even after the death of Hirameki, the game was available as the so called "Phantom Double Pack", bundled with "Phantom the Animation" 3 part OVA and it can still be found in many online shops.

Links of Interest

Visual Novel Database
Official Japanese site for Integration / for DVD-PG version
Waybacked official English site for original release / New Package Edition
Official English site for Phantom Double Pack
A guide how to run the game on a PC (originally made for "Hourglass of Summer", but works for this game too)
“Phantom of Inferno” walkthrough
Buy the original game at: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Ebay.com.
Buy the Double Pack at: Rightstuf, AnimeNation, ShopAnimeDVD, Anime Corner Store, Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, Ebay.com.

Final Verdict: 88%

2 comments:

  1. > While I would love to see this version coming to the West, I cannot fail to notice that the character sprites in it are based on the anime "Requiem for the Phantom" art. Sorry, but I personally would take the old sprites any day. Just a personal opinion.

    They've change the voice actors too actually (and there were some additions to the story I guess).
    Also speaking of DVD-PG vs PS2 version I've read that the first one was less censored which is good.

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    Replies
    1. Changing the voice actors... You mean that my waifu Ein is not voiced by Omi Minami anymore?!
      And yes, I did hear somewhere that DVD-PG version was less censored than a PS2 release.

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