Spotlight: Blackwell

Blackwell is a series of video games that, I must admit, I found myself surprised by.  I stumbled across them one random day around a year or two ago while browsing for some new games to play and I didn’t think too much of them at first, but I marked them down as a future possibility.  Fast-forward to now, and I’ve played through four of the five games in the series.  And I have to say, they are up there with some of my more favorite adventure games.

 

Blackwell Legacy, first game in the series.

Blackwell Legacy, first game in the series.

 

For those unfamiliar with the term “adventure game”, allow me to explain.  Adventure games are video games that are primarily story-driven with an emphasis on puzzle solving and exploration.  Most of them don’t involve combating enemies (at least in the usual sense).  Now, adventure games can refer to other games with combat in them, but for our purposes this is the definition we’ll go with.

Now, on to Blackwell.

Playing through the Blackwell games feels like playing through a good novel.  Each of the four games I’ve played so far have all been paced very well (each of them clocking in at around 3-4 hours, although the fourth game took me a little longer).  They don’t drag themselves out too long, but they always leave you wanting more.  Which, to me, is a very good thing.

The story of Blackwell goes like this: you play as Rosangela Blackwell, a struggling writer who at the start of the series works for a small-time newspaper.  As the first game opens up (Blackwell Legacy), Rosa finds out about a death in her family.  Her aunt, Lauren, has passed away after spending roughly two decades in a mysterious coma.  Lauren was the only family she had left, as Rosa’s parents both passed away in a car crash early on in her life.  But there’s something strange going on.  The doctor reveals to Rosa that Lauren was muttering the name “Joey” shortly before she passed.  Soon after, Rosa begins suffering headaches that get worse and worse as she tries to go about her day.  They get worse and worse until, upon returning to her apartment, she suffers a massive one before the sudden appearance of a ghost who calls himself Joey.  Joey reveals to her that she is a medium, a person who can communicate with ghosts.  He also reveals that he is, as he calls himself, the “Blackwell legacy”.  He has followed the family from generation to generation for some time.  Joey tells Rosa that it is now her task to help lost spirits “move on”, as in guide them to the afterlife (or whatever awaits them).

Her aunt Lauren was the one before her.  And now, it becomes Rosa’s turn to take up the family calling.

Initially I thought the games were going to be mostly standalone affairs that dealt with cases Rosa would work, but I was surprised once again.  By the third game, there is definitely a thread being woven throughout them.  Characters and events have impact on the series as a whole rather than just on their individual games.  But I won’t go into greater detail here for fear of spoiling things.

 

Blackwell Unbound, the second game where you actually play as Rosa's aunt Lauren investigating a case back in the '70s.

Blackwell Unbound, the second game where you actually play as Rosa’s aunt Lauren investigating a case back in the ’70s.

 

I will say this, I was pleasantly surprised by the voice acting in these games.  It’s nothing absolutely stellar, but it comes across as believable which is more than I can say for most adventure games (I’ve already talked about The Black Mirror and its hilariously bad English voice acting).  And the characters as well are very easy to identify with.  Rosa and Joey, although they don’t always get along, do genuinely care about each other and you can see that caring deepen through each successive game (even in Blackwell Unbound when you play as Rosa’s aunt Lauren, you get the sense that although they butt heads sometimes, Joey and Lauren do like each other).  But what I was most surprised by were the ghosts themselves.

You see, in Blackwell‘s universe ghosts usually don’t know they’re dead.  They’re typically roaming around thinking they’re still alive and living their lives like nothing happened.  To help them move on, you must first convince them they’re dead.  This involves finding out all about who they are and what happened in their lives.  It’s basically a pretext for some in-depth character study, although it works very well.  But what I found myself most surprised by was how each ghost was actually sympathetic in some way.  In the beginning of the fourth game you’re tasked with investigating a yacht that for some reason keeps untying itself and drifting away.  You quickly discover that a ghost is the culprit and learn that he was the previous owner of the boat.  You also learn that he was involved with a bank robbery, as there is a hidden cache of money on board as well.

 

Blackwell Deception, the fourth game.

Blackwell Deception, the fourth game.

 

But the thing is, he robbed the bank because he felt cheated.  The bank unceremoniously fired him after he worked there for thirty years.  Combine that with the fact that his wife died of cancer, and you can see how his world got torn apart so quickly.  It doesn’t exactly justify what he did, but it makes you feel for him all the same.

And that’s the thing with Blackwell that I like a lot.  The world isn’t just rosy and happy, nor is it dreary and depressing.  It’s full of shades, conflicting moralities, characters who are just trying to find their ways in life when their life meets a sudden end.  It feels…real in a lot of ways, despite the supernatural trappings that it has.

 

Convergence, the third game, starts with you talking to the ghost of someone who apparently committed suicide. It's also one of the few moments in the series where you can handle the situation in a couple of different ways.

Convergence, the third game, starts with you talking to the ghost of someone who apparently committed suicide and is now stuck reliving that final moment…stuck facing that final decision.

 

But enough about the story.  How do the games play?  Well, I’m pleased to report that, compared to most adventure games, the puzzles are all fairly logical (some people have complained they’re a little too easy, but honestly I prefer that to puzzles where the only reason I can’t solve it is because I haven’t swiped my mouse over every little speck on-screen).  I only got stuck a handful of times, and all it really took was me thinking about the situation differently.  Better yet, the puzzles actually make you feel smart.  For example, in Unbound you need to talk to the son of one of the ghosts over the phone.  But he won’t talk to you unless you know his mom’s apartment number.  Now, if you’ve done your homework, you’ve been given the two pieces of the apartment number and you can enter it correctly.  The thing I like about it is that it never gives you the full number in an obvious manner.  The pieces come about from your conversations with the ghost, and it’s up to you to put them together.

In a way, the games make you feel like an amateur detective.  You have to find clues and put them together in a way that makes sense (you can have Rosa/Lauren look at her notes and combine clues to see if they fit together in any manner, which is sometimes necessary to uncover the next place to go or a person to talk to).  And hey, if you get stuck in the later games you can actually talk to Joey and plan your next move, which usually results in you getting a clue to help you progress.

 

The games are very well-written as well. Sometimes unimportant objects to the story will still result in some sharp pieces of dialogue.

The games are very well-written as well. Sometimes unimportant objects to the story will still result in some sharp pieces of dialogue.

 

I could go on and on about these games, but I’ll just finish it here by saying this: if you’re a fan of stories and characters in your video games, Blackwell is a great series for you.  The sharp writing combined with the above-average voice acting (especially for adventure games) makes them a joy to play.  And they’re short games too, usually clocking in at only a few hours, which helps keep the pacing fast and interesting.  The puzzles all make sense within the game world as well as logically (no pixel-hunting here, if you know what I mean).  But don’t just take my word for it.  Try them out yourself.  You can buy the first four games in a bundle (on Steam as well as Good Old Games).

I look forward to playing the final game whenever I get around to picking it up.

 

Well that’s all I have for this week.  Check back next Wednesday for another post, and as always, have a wonderful week.

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