Point and Click Adventure games are a genre that reached the height of its popularity in the mid ’90s, and haven’t really made much of an impact since then. Sure, Telltale has been doing there thing with the Sam and Max games and some licensed adventure games like Back to the Future and Strong Bad, and there have also been some pretty good adventure games on the DS like Phoenix Wright and Ghost Trick, but as far as mainstream popularity is concerned, the classic point and click adventure genre is not what it once was. The closest things to mainstream adventure games are L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain, which are more modern interpretations of the genre than anything Telltale is doing. However, like many popular game genres of days gone by, the indie scene has not forgotten about adventure games, and The Blackwell series is a perfect example of that. The first game in the series was originally released back in 2006, and there have been three games released since then. The most recent was The Blackwell Deception last October, but the whole series has just made its way to steam for the first time, in the form of The Blackwell Bundle.
The first game, The Blackwell Legacy, introduces the main protagonist of the series, Rosangela Blackwell. Her only family, her aunt Lauren, has just died and she is dealing with the fallout. Her aunt had spent the last 25 years in a mental institution for severe dementia, and she learns that her grandmother also suffered the same condition. The only connection between these two cases was the name Joey, and she eventually learns that Joey is ghost that serves as her family’s spirit guide. It turns out that Rosa is a medium, just like her grandmother and aunt before her, and she must help ghosts cross over with the help of Joey. The premise reminds me of The Sixth Sense, crossed with the television show Dead Like Me. I get the Sixth Sense vibe because the ghosts Rosa encounters don’t know they are dead, and she must awaken them to the truth by reminding them of things in their life that were important to them. The Dead Like Me comparison is because, like the characters on that show, Rosa has been chosen to do this, and she doesn’t really have a choice. She and Joey just have to continually help ghosts move on. Joey cannot move on himself, and if Rosa turns her back on this calling, she will go mad just her like Aunt and Grandmother. Just like the show Dead Like Me, these two characters are forced to help lost spirits move on, whether they like it or not.
The second game, Blackwell Unbound, takes place in 1973, and follows Lauren Blackwell (Rosa’s aunt) and Joey as they help a few ghosts move on, and maybe deal with something a little more. The third game, The Blackwell Convergence, is back in modern day with Rosa, as she continues to help ghosts move on. There are direct story beats in Convergence that continue from Unbound, despite the 30+ year gap between the two games. The fourth game, The Blackwell Deception, takes place a few years after Convergence, and has Rosa and Joey helping several ghosts, while also stumbling onto something much larger. The first game is more of an introductory entry in the series, while the next three have direct story beats that tie them all together. I can safely say that the story is by far the best aspect of the game, and is really well executed. The characters are very well written, and it is just overall a very compelling series, story wise. If you have any interest in supernatural mystery type stories, you are pretty much guaranteed to enjoy the Blackwell series.
As far as design goes, all four games in the series as nearly identical, and fall squarely into the “classic adventure game” genre. Each game has anywhere from two to half a dozen ghosts in need of saving, and to do this you must investigate their lives and deaths to find something that will snap them out of their current state and make them aware of their fate. Some ghosts are more lucid than others, but none know they are really dead, so you must figure out the best way to help them. For the most part, this means talking to people, investigating the place of death or the victims home, and cross referencing info through the computer (or phone book in Blackwell Unbound). Information gathering actually feels pretty genuine, and what few classic adventure game “combine item” puzzle there are don’t seem too abstract. From a design standpoint, all the games fall squarely into the classic Lucas Arts mold of games like Monkey Island. In terms of length, none of the games are too long, with the shortest coming in just shy of 3 hours, and the longest clocking in at about 5 hours. All told, you’re going to get about 13-15 hours of game out of the $19.99 bundle.
On the gameplay front, these games are really simple. Like most adventure games, the majority of your interaction comes from clicking on stuff. The game avoids getting into the pixel hunt realm by labeling everything you can interact with as you hover the mouse over it, and you rarely have to combine items or even use items on the environment. The majority of the puzzle solving comes from collecting clues and finding evidence. As you learn new things, you can sometimes combine two clues in your notebook to make a deduction, consolidating two pieces of information into one, more precise notebook entry. Oftentimes, you will be told something by a character, which you then have to look up on the internet or phone book to learn more about. For example, you may learn a character’s name, but to actually track them down and talk to them you have to look up their address first. The game is very simple to play, but it does have some genuinely clever puzzles. I wouldn’t call the game easy, as it will get your brain working, but I didn’t get stuck very often, and the times I did, I was able to figure out the solution before having to resort to looking up a walkthrough.
Graphically, The Blackwell series is the definition of classic. These games all look like old Lucas Arts SCUMM engine games, and this fits well with this style of game. Now, this isn’t some modern looking game emulating the look of classic games, these games look EXACTLY like an old adventure game, right down to the game running in 320×240 resolution. There are some minor visual differences between the four games such as the character portraits and the quality of the background (Deception looks the best), but they are all clearly running on the same engine, and look near identical quality wise. While I find this visual style to be charming as hell given what the games are, if you are unfamiliar with the legacy of adventure games, ’90s Lucas Arts in particular, you will have no appreciation for the visuals at all, and will probably find them very outdated. This is a situation where the developer achieved exactly what they wanted with the visuals, but whether or not specific individuals can appreciate it will vary.
Next to the story, the second best thing about the Blackwell series is the audio. The voice work is absolutely top notch, and far better than I was expecting. With indie titles, you never really know what you are going to get from an audio standpoint, but Blackwell impresses all around. Developer Wadjet Eye Games probably could have gotten away with not even using voice acting, it would certainly have been easier and cheaper for an indie studio like this, but they went the extra mile; not only having 100% of the dialogue be voiced, but voiced very well. The only negative thing I have to say about the voice work is that sometimes the recording quality sounds a bit bad, with very noticeable wind pops. These decrease in frequency with each game though, and other than the wind pops, the sound quality is fine. The music is also excellent, and each game has a similar overall theme, but also some unique pieces to reflect the individual game. For example, Unbound has some very 1970s sounding music that also fits the style of the series as a whole.
With games like L.A. Noire and Heavy Rain showing where the adventure genre could go in the future, it’s nice to play something that shows just why adventure games were great in the first place. These games are just so well written and well acted, that I couldn’t stop once I started playing. The gameplay and design may not be anything new, but it is a tried and true and formula executed on very well. With over 12 hours worth of compelling story content at a cheap price, mystery fans are sure enjoy this series. If you’ve never played any of the Blackwell games before, now is the perfect time to jump in. The Blackwell Bundle is available on Steam for $19.99, and includes all four games in the Blackwell series released thus far.
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