Saturday, 9 January 2016


Being the kind of kid who liked everything that went bump in the night, I was immediately drawn to the series of early-90s VHS board games known as Atmosfear (or Nitemare in some parts of the world). With a new expansion coming for the next couple of years, it quickly reached the top of my Christmas list each yuletide season. A few years ago I stumbled upon this CD-Rom oddity that moved the party away from the TV set to the monitor screen. Needless to say I was very intrigued...

Playing the board games now, I realise that their appeal is very limited. Winning the originals at least consisted of little more than a lucky dice throw while hoarding a mass of useless cards. The aim is to collect six keys before the VHS runs out all the while the video host known only at The Gatekeeper barks orders and insults at you. Each player can choose from a sextet of horror staples known in the game as Harbingers. You could choose from some recognisable monsters such as a zombie named Baron Samedi, Elizabeth Bathory the vampire or Anne de Chantraine the witch. These three had their own expansions which included a new VHS and a different set of the useless Time and Fate cards. Ultimately, they're rather lacklustre games with the only redeeming feature being the terrifyingly made-up yet hilariously acted videos. Naturally the ten-year-old me found them beyond awesome.

The Third Dimension, released in 1996, is based on the previous year's physical re-make of the first game. Now called Atmosfear throughout the world, it added a very welcome strategy element to the game. The separate keys are now hidden in each of the six new worlds known as Provinces, themed to that of each of the Harbingers. These Provinces could be placed in any order on the hexagonal board, already adding a previously unheard of variety to the previously samey game-play. The paths now branch off, which means you can tactically plan your moves - something the original's circular path sorely lacked. The six differently coloured keys now have magical abilities unique to each character which can change your strategy upon each collection. The video was updated too, but it's basically the same type of thing.

The PC game is an adaptation of this version, with some notable omissions. Disappointingly, the video itself is gone, removing most of the guilty pleasure the series is known for. Instead of the impressive make-up, all that's left of The Gatekeeper is some barely animated glowing eyes. Gone too are the blank avatars known as Soul Rangers - a new addition to the board game which is how everyone begins as. The lack of FMV is sad as the technology did exist. In fact in 1996 video sequences were still considered a selling point. Perhaps the developers didn't include them because they didn't want to cannibalise sales of the tabletop. A Couple 'A Cowboys designed both versions so that may have had something to do with it.

Unlike other board game translations, there is no enemy AI for a single player game, instead asking you to find the keys and take on the Gatekeeper on your own. It is 100% designed to be a digital board game, and not a video game based on the physical release. The manual even recommends that you drag your desktop into the living room for the ultimate playthrough. The contents of the box also reiterates my point. While it contains the standard manual and game on CD-ROM, it also includes a poster-sized map of the game field which can be used as a makeshift board. Also contained withing the satisfyingly large box are some character cards for each of the six players. Important information is contained within these pamphlets such as what ability is gained from each of the magic keys.

An audio CD is also included to listen to while the game is being played. This is vital to add atmosphere to Atmosfear as the game itself doesn't have music. None at all. So, if you're unlucky enough to be missing everything bar the game CD, you're screwed out of 90% of what makes this game fun with friends.

Luckily modern technology is such that if you want an "ultimate playthrough", it's easy enough to set up, even if you have only the digital version. Here's what I recommend:
1)  Install the game itself on a laptop - the larger the screen the better. Place it on a centralised table so all of you can see. If you're able to hook the laptop to a TV do that instead.
2) Play the included audio CD (in MP3 format) from your favourite device and include surround sound if possible. Failing that, just play the file on your laptop in any media player before you run the game.
3) View the character cards (in PDF format) on your smartphone or tablet, with your calculator app also open to record your power points. Make sure your opponents can't see what you have!
4) If you have the original PC game, place the large poster-sized map on the floor to use as a game board. You can also print the PDF file over several pages if you're so inclined. Use the player pieces from the board game (or other random pieces) to move along this makeshift board. This will be a top-down representation of what you see on-screen so make sure you know where you moved to. This isn't necessary, but I think it adds to the experience.
5) Turn the lights down and the sound up and try to not act scared of a game aimed at kids in front of your friends.
To look at the game running, you may be mistaken for thinking that you've stumbled upon one of the many Myst clones. You may move around the board in first person, collecting keys to progress, but this is definitely not an adventure game, even if the inviting pre-rendered graphics are rather pretty. The viewpoint allows for some interesting environments of the somewhat enlarged and maze-like Provinces. It adds a major - and possibly deliberate - disorientating effect making an intelligent use of your map a must.

Just like the board game, The Gatekeeper will randomly pop up. The charm of the video is gone, as all you see of your host is some barely animated eyes glowing in the dark. He doesn't pick on any single player with name-calling or use cheap shock tactics, but instead introduces some mini-games. They are little more than luck-based guessing games but you can potentially win some free power points.

That's right, points! Does that mean we're getting into some Dungeons & Dragons territory? You're damned right we are maggots! Although extremely basic (and in need of a bit more fleshing out in my opinion), this is the single best reason to play this over the 1992 original. Before, each Harbinger played in pretty much their own self-interested bubble, affecting no-one else in your rush for keys. Now you can actively hinder your opponents by being as big a bastard as you want! In the videogame, click on the Harbinger symbol on your character screen before your turn to fight.

The fighting itself is not neally as exciting as it sounds. You are presented with a bar that represents your accumulated powers points in percentage. Your numbers are not represented on screen at any time, so unless you want to be surprised, you'd have to keep a record of how much you have. For example, 30% of 100 points trumps 50% of 50. Unless each player is keeping a record, you have no way of knowing who's the strongest. This is completely different in the physical realm where numbered cards are used for your attack and defense. Be careful, though. Each version requires you to discard your played cards or points which could leave you open to attacks from other players. The consequence for losing can be harsh and is difference for each attacker, for example losing to Elizabeth Bathory will turn you into a vampire, loyal only to your maker. Compared to other computer games of the era like those based on the Dungeons & Dragons universe, it's an incredibly basic system with the consequences being more important than the fight itself. As a video game, it's rather lame, but taken as a board game meant for many players in the same room, it becomes a very fun element.

And that's the only way to play this game - as if it were a board game with a large group of friends as you can muster (well, a maximum of six). Compared to other tabletop games converted to the PC or console, it emulates the unique fun of that medium quite well. The problem, however, is that it fails as a video game, proving that the two are vastly different forms of entertainment. If you have the board game it's based on and the ability to play a VHS, you're better of playing that but The Third Dimension works as second alternative.

To download the game, follow the link below. This custom installer exclusive to The Collection Chamber uses DOSBox running Microsoft Windows 3.1 to get the game working on modern systems. Manual, Character Cards, Map & Audio CD included. Tested on Windows 10.


Atmosfear is © A Couple 'A Cowboys
Review, Cover Design and Installer created by me

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