Rosa Blackwell had a number of powerful headaches one day. They grew stronger and stronger until a smart-ass ghost straight from the past jumped into her house through a window. Since then the literal headaches disappeared and figurative ones begun as the spirits kept showing up and Rosa had to become a ghostbuster of sorts. She has taken it upon herself to send all the ghost into the light. Oh, and that first guy? That’s Joey Mallone, her supernatural partner in crime.
Despite the abundance of spiritual encounters, Blackwell games never really aim to scare the player. For the most part they are retro-looking point-and-click adventures more concerned about spinning an entertaining detective yarn while keeping you clicking than presenting a modicum of challenge. In other words, they are old school in visuals and tense in story but smooth in gameplay.
Also, despite the narrative hook not being the most original ever, the writing is very sharp throughout the story. There’s definitely no words wasted and characters are brought to life seemingly without effort. It’s keen and incredibly well-paced as the build up for finale in each of the four games is perfectly executed – the stakes raise and the suspense heightens until the mysteries are revealed and ghosts sent to afterlife. There’s more too – even though every game in the series has a self-contained story, various subplots are continued and a larger mythology is being built in the background.
But enough about the merits of the fine games. The aspect that actually interested me a lot (aside from the story) is the evolution of the series. As I mentioned, there are four games, and they have all been published 1-2 years apart. So that leaves a lot of time for upgrades, changes, maybe even experimentation. Theoretically, there’s no space for revolution as games are built in the same engine, but there’s definitely some evolution going on. I’ve played them one by one and made some notes:
The Blackwell Legacy (2006)
The first part in the series is the weakest. It’s an origin story, so it’s mainly concerned with laying the foundation for the future. As a comic book reader, I’m deadly tired of such slow introductions. We all know the guy from the cover will show up and you’ll go on an adventure together. Just get on with it! Also, the main character Rosa is significantly different from the usual game protagonist material – she’s a nerdy writer type. And in theory, variety is good, but shyness really overcomplicates simple things in adventure games.
Legacy is also low-budget through and through. It’s obviously visible because of the low-resolution pixel artwork but also audible. Voice-actors hadn’t yet gotten into their characters one hundred percent and it often feels they aren’t talking to each other but just delivering their lines. The recording equipment wasn’t ideal either because occasional hisses and other bzzts are heard throughout. Besides when characters talk their animated portraits show up in corners of the screen and the lips movement is completely random. It looks quite ridiculous, but my brain somehow shut it off after some time. I don’t know if that’s healthy.
Overall, the game took me around 3-4 hours to complete. It was very straightforward and easy. Unlike in other games of this type, items are used automatically when needed and it’s mostly dialog-driven. No puzzles to be seen either. I had encountered one obstacle in my playthrough where I couldn’t communicate to the game what I knew I had to do. In retrospect, though, I think it was my fault. Lastly, the cool part about the game’s ending is that it lets you to make a couple of choices in dealing with your final encounters. The uncool part is that there is one very over the top element in that ending that just doesn’t fit the narrative at all. But the whole thing was a lot of fun anyway.
Blackwell Unbound (2007)
This is a sequel that is a prequel – a second released game in the series but the first in the story chronology. It changes one of the protagonists to the aunt of Rosa – Lauren – and allows you to control Joey the ghost too. That’s a great addition to gameplay (spirits have a different set of skills after all) that also gets expanded in the next two parts as Joey doesn’t have all that much to do in Unbound. Importantly, the story is a lot sharper than in Legacy – the characters are more capable and the ending is quite thrilling this time around.
Unfortunately, there aren’t really much left in terms of choice, or playing for that matter. The answer to most problems is ‘use the phonebook to find an address/number.’ And worst of all, the characters’ portraits are no more which made me a bit sad as they were fun despite their madly mad lips.
The music in the game is also a lot better than in the first one. There’s some jazzy sounding tunes that fit the story and add to the atmosphere. The voice recording still isn’t perfect and there is one elderly lady who sounds like a young woman faking an old lady voice (to silly results).
I finished it in three hours and had not encountered any difficulties. Blackwell Unbound is the least challenging part of the series. But its story is, again, really interesting and it plants a lot of intriguing plot seeds for the next game. I’ve flown through it and excitedly jumped into Convergence.
Blackwell Convergence (2009)
This is a proper sequel to the first game that also feeds on a lot of plots from number two. Moreover, this is my favorite part of the series in terms of story. Even though it’s as short as Unbound (2-3hrs) it’s got a denser narrative that also juggles themes of death, success and art while exploring some New York history. That’s a really satisfying and tasty mixture of elements.
The portraits return and the hilariously desynchronized lips with them. Also, the previous games required the player to mix topics in the notes to get clues, and that’s got removed. Before it wasn’t used to great effect because there were very few topics available, but it was a nice variation to the gameplay. So its disappearance was a shame.
The other nitpick I had was the game was reeeaally eager to help me out. Blackwell Convergence is easy enough by itself, but it wants to be even easier. The hinting and winking goes clearly out of hand at times as some important phrases are repeated just to make sure, you’ll know what to do.
Blackwell Deception (2011)
The latest game in the series is also the longest, clocking at five hours. If the previous ones felt like episodes of a TV series, this one is a full movie. It’s also got sharp drawn portraits that do not have moving lips, which may be for the better! What is more, Rosa has gotten herself an iPhone which means easy access to notes (mixing them for clues is back too) and the in-game internet. Now, we truly live in the future! Darn, there are even some real puzzles and conversations that require thought to work out properly. In terms of gameplay design this is a big jump forward for the series. Of course, it never goes too far into the land of ‘use monkey as a wrench’ and instead stays in the realm of relative realism (or as real as it can get with ghosts bouncing all over the place.), which is definitely great.
OK, now let me reiterate a number of important points that may have gotten lost in my trying to be snarky – the games are awesome.
That is all.
[The Blackwell games usually get sold together and rather cheaply – the normal price of the bundle is $15 (on GOG) and they are now in promo on Steam for around $5. And here’s the official site – they have different pricing and confusing naming, but there are demos for each of four games. I like demos.]