Review – Personal Nightmare

There once was a time where games were designed to ease the player into the gameplay, get him addicted, and then proceed to murder him. This was naturally because the games could only be sustained through a diet of quarters, and demanding a constant flow of money from addicted players was the most effective way to separate a gamer from his cash. Games today have the liberty to come in a lot of forms and sustain themselves in many different ways, so that cliché difficulty curve isn’t used so often anymore. Personal Nightmare, for example, simply murders the player right off the bat.

Personal Nightmare was made by Horrorsoft, creators of Waxworks (which I reviewed previously). Both inhabit the very specific niche genre commonly called “survival horror,” although they existed before that term was coined. In my review, I berated Waxworks for its poorly implemented and frustrating systems. Personal Nightmare anachronistically continues that tradition (Waxworks was made after Personal Nightmare) but through different means.

Between the development of the two titles a decision was made at Horrorsoft to change the genre slightly. Waxworks used a point-and-click GUI and keyboard buttons to control the player and interact with the environment. Personal Nightmare is split in half by graphics and simple text, literally on the screen and in the gameplay as well. Every environment is represented visually on one half of the screen and described on the other half. The instructions claim that “most” actions can be done with the mouse, although this is actually a dirty trick to make you think that this game is more modern than it actually is, and to restrict your thinking to the commands listed on the screen. In reality the game is predominantly a text adventure with some fancy graphics (which aren’t so fancy in the year 2009).

Personal Nightmare’s main problem is that it doesn’t have the available technology to create a functional graphical environment but insists on using one anyway. It will show the player an image of a scene and reserve the textual descriptions for the things that its graphics don’t have the power to convey, such as complicated actions, facial expressions, or anything else important. The sad reality is that far too many vital details are conveyed as a few pixels on the screen which the designers apparently thought would be sufficient. There are a lot of areas where it’s necessary to command the game to describe the scene; in fact I’d say everywhere you can go it’s necessary to do that.

If you are of the persuasion that modern games are too easy and are being “dumbed down” then I advise you to play Personal Nightmare. It will either become one of your favorites or it will swing your opinion a hundred and eighty degrees. This game goes against so many modern principles of design it’s almost like it’s from a different planet, or the year 1989.

To its credit it does a lot of interesting things, or at least tries to. It has a story that develops in a faster version of real-time. Characters walk about their scripted routines and events occur when they are supposed to occur, not when they’re triggered by the player. If you miss your chance to act at a given moment, then that chance is gone forever. The game is of the adventure genre, and so is all about fitting items together at just the right place and the right time. But rather than be completely transparent in its rigid logic, it allows the player to pick up and use a lot of random items, some of which are useless to your progress, or worse, detrimental. These steps taken toward a more realistic and immersive world are commendable, but are not very well executed and end up making an already hard game many times more frustrating.

Nowhere is it written that designers have to make games easy, but there is a difference between being challenging and being downright frustrating. Personal Nightmare requires incredible amounts of trial and error to even get the hang of how its system works. This isn’t helped by the real-time nature of it, so every time you start over you can’t just easily speed through everything to the point where you died.

Its dynamic environment isn’t very well represented visually or textually, putting far too much unnecessary work on the player’s imagination and suspension of disbelief. A lot of the most important actions aren’t ever hinted at, not even as a button in the game’s GUI. Also, there’s a random chance that at almost any point in the game a monster will appear in front of you and kill you instantly.

This game has me split. One one hand, if I were in the designer’s shoes then it would probably look fantastic. The realism and immersion that their design documents suggested was most likely fantastic, achieving things that even modern games fall short on. But on the other hand, my experience with this game was terrible. All of its great ideas are poorly implemented and there are few redeeming qualities. This game has aged terribly, and I can see why no one seems to remember it today. If only its blueprints fell into the right hands at a modern developer. I’m filing it with games that most need to be remade.

Maybe I simply don’t have what it takes to indulge in a survival-horror point-and-click text adventure, but I could not finish this game. I don’t know how far I got but I can tell you I was embarrassed by my lack of progress. After wandering around aimlessly and dying repeatedly I eventually decided to do the unthinkable: look at a walkthrough. What I then read amazed me, the solutions to all of the game’s “puzzles” were so unintuitive and arbitrary that I was genuinely amazed that anyone was even able to create this walkthrough. I knew at that moment that I was simply unable to beat this game, so I stopped trying. This may put me in a position where I don’t have the “right” to publish a review of the game. If you believe this then by all means forget everything I’ve said and go play through it yourself, see if you disagree with me.

Personal Nightmare advertises itself with “It’s as if you are living through your worst nightmare and unable to wake up.” While this game certainly is a nightmare, it can be woken from by pressing Esc, which is exactly what I did.

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