The Blackwell Deception
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Release Date: 12 October, 2011
Price: $14.99 (buy here)
The Blackwell Deception is the fourth in the series of point and click Blackwell games, following on from Legacy, Unbound and Convergence. I admit to never having played the previous titles but have played and enjoyed Gemini Rue, a sci fi noir adventure by the same developers but completely different in tone. Where Gemini Rue runs on suspense and an impending sense of disaster, Blackwell is more driven by the relationships of its characters.
It’s a pleasure to see this genre still alive, and for this game in particular how central character and story are to it’s success. In a world dominated by behemoth blockbusters where high definition graphics and fast action rule, it’s refreshing to sink into something that is unafraid to really devote time to it’s characters and story.
There is a developer commentary provided which can be turned on via the pause menu. Bloopers and commentary are accessible from speech bubbles on screen and automatically play at certain points in the game.
Rosangela Blackwell is a medium living in New York city. Accompanied by her spirit guide Joey, a cynical ‘rat pack reject’ of a ghost, she must investigate supernatural goings on and help wandering spirits to move on from the world.
In Deception, customers of street psychics start turning up as ghosts, and when one of Rosa’s old friends draws her into the case she finds herself responsible for tracking down the culprit. Along the way mysterious hints at Joey’s past begin to appear, and the ghost must contend with his own misgivings about his former life.
It could be a cheesy, horrible cliché of a setup, but the cynical shouldn’t let a story centred around mediums and ghosts put them off. Everything is very much grounded in reality and apart from the ghosts themselves there is little in the way of supernatural fluff.
The quality of this game is all in the execution of the characters and the strong writing, and they make sure the somewhat unexciting plot is still engaging.
Throughout the game Rosa and Joey encounter a number of ghosts, and these characters lend a point to the puzzles – often quests to find information on the people they were before they died – and drive along the main plot. Together Rosa and Joey must convince them that they are dead, only then can the spirit move on. Although the process of getting them there is a little bit absurd – Joey’s tie is somehow the go to object for this – sending on the ghosts can be surprisingly poignant. It’s not anything that will draw a tear , but the ghosts finally realising that they have died and acknowledging Rosa’s help adds a bit of emotional weight to the gameplay .
Both Rosa and Joey are playable characters, which adds an interesting layer to the puzzles found throughout the game as players must juggle two characters with different abilities to solve them. Joey is invisible to other living people and can get away with things that Rosa cannot, but she is the only one who can pick up solid objects and have conversations with the living. More often than not the puzzles that I took the longest to solve were difficult because I forgot to take advantage of the different abilities of the characters.
The lead characters definitely grow on you. Rosa is an unusual protagonist - socially awkward, droll and very much alone. I’m a complete cynic and don’t believe anything to do with ghosts and psychics, but instead of feeling hostile or superior to Rosa I genuinely liked her. Her character is a smart bit of writing that lends a realistic weight to the supernatural proceedings.
Joey is interesting in that he provides a different perspective on events. Where Rosa sees a laptop, Joey sees a ‘Strange Case, ‘Penelope’ is ‘Old Broad’. He injects some of the more obvious humour into the game and has some great reactions to player actions. Try to pick up an object with the ghost – “Give me just a second. I’m going to add that to my list of things I cannot touch.” He can be a bit clichéd in his reactions, but the gradual unveiling of some of his past reveals this as a character trait rather than a weakness in the writing.
The humour is more sarcastic and downbeat than that of other genre staples, but Blackwell Deception definitely has it’s own charm. The Blackwell world is one that despite it’s supernatural leanings is ultimately grounded in reality, with the humour stemming from the personality of the characters rather than absurd situations and people.
To add to that feeling Rosa has a ‘MyPhone’, and can use various apps to compare case notes and search for clues with ‘Oogle’. It’s a well placed bit of detail that harnesses the story to a place and time – Rosa and Joey are in the now, in New York. Including a search engine does throw up the odd problem, as Oogle by necessity has to be limited to keep certain puzzles in check. The MyPhone also functions as the hub for the game, and players select locations from it’s screen rather than traversing a map.
The settings are lovingly done, and New Yorkers will no doubt recognise the odd location such as the High Line. Listening to the provided commentary definitely helps the immersion, as it details the origins of the various locations and fleshes out a bit of the history of the series and its characters for those who may not have played the games before.
The commentary also inadvertently functions as a help system! In that respect it’s perhaps something to keep until a second playthrough – there can be the occasional spoilers for plot points as well as puzzles.
The puzzles can be deceptively simple, and surprisingly the solutions that would be blindingly obvious in real life can take a bit more effort to come across in game. Objects that you have from the beginning of the game only become significant later on and things can feel a little disjointed- the plot is not as tightly woven as it could have been. Links between sections are a little tenuous, and pursuing certain details can leave players feeling a bit lost in a sea of information that doesn’t feel very significant to the overall story. As likeable as the main characters are, certain sections cry out for a little bit more structure and direction.
It can get to the point where you know what you need to do to continue, but have to blindly try everything to get to the point where the game recognises that things can move on. One case needed me to find an old acquaintance of a ghost, and I had figured out which NPC she was, and could approach her in game. As a last resort I had to Oogle her name to get the story to progress, but it didn’t feel like a logical step in the sequence.
The game runs to a decent enough length, which will of course depend on how often you get stuck with the puzzles! The story can be a little slow in developing, but the key moments and eventual outcome are well handled and satisfying. The characters definitely make their mark, and I would have no hesitation in returning to the Blackwell universe.
Audio and Visuals:
The graphics are dated but charming, and suit the world of Blackwell perfectly - story and character are king here. Something about point and click adventures almost requires a retro feel, too modern a presentation would take away from the charm of it and lessen the ability of the player to form their own impression of the characters. It’s simply an older style, and the game never feels lessened because of it. Environments are richly detailed and are full of red herrings that add detail to the story but may not play an active part in it’s development. Small and subtle touches like changes in lighting and background music can build some drama, and everything holds together very well despite the difference in style between character portraits and level environments.
Character expressions are taken care of by the clean cut character portraits and believable voice acting. Things never feel forced or over the top – Joey is never too slick, Rosa never too serious. The characters are carried off incredibly well and feel like actual people. Even minor characters are well done, and though they may only have a few lines in the entire game, there isn’t one that feels out of place or rushed.
The Blackwell Deception is a very strong addition to the point and click genre, and the series definitely one that any fan should have in their collection. It is a slow burner of a game that lives on subtlety and well drawn characters rather than a particularly dramatic or suspenseful plot, but the the humour and the writing is strong enough to carry it through. The puzzles can feel a bit directionless and the structure doesn’t always help the pacing of the story, but despite the low key feel the Blackwell Deception can still pack some emotional punches where it counts.