If you ask me, adventure games haven't been the same since they abandoned VGA graphics. Modern titles may have impressive, hyper-realistic backgrounds, but they don't match the beauty and charm of those cartoony drawings with their big, blocky pixels. Besides, if 320x200 was good enough for The Secret of Monkey Island and Shadows of Darkness, it should be good enough for anyone!
Well, maybe not. But you have to wonder if perhaps the games back then were so good because they didn't have to spend all their money on 3D models. The Blackwell Legacy wouldn't look out of place next to the VGA classics from Sierra or LucasArts, but does the sophomore effort from Wadjet Eye Games live up to that comparison?
In The Blackwell Legacy we meet up with Rosangela "Rosa" Blackwell, a young would-be writer, just as she is scattering the ashes of her last remaining relative off Brooklyn Bridge. All alone in this world, Rosa is about to make some acquaintances in the next one. Her family legacy, she learns, is a tough-talking ghost by the name of Joey Mallone, visible only to her. Oh, and a serious risk of hereditary dementia. Unless she does what Joey tells her, Rosa will spend the rest of her life in agonizing delirium.
This cheerful story comes courtesy of Dave Gilbert, creator of The Shivah. Before Gilbert created a stir with his rabbinical mystery (and first commercial release), he toiled for years in the AGS community, producing a number of self-made freeware titles with the Adventure Game Studio engine. His first real claim to fame was a half-completed game called Bestowers of Eternity back in 2003. In the three years since, Gilbert has continued to develop the design, rewriting the story and puzzles and bringing all the other aspects up to a professional level. The result is The Blackwell Legacy, which is both a remake and a continuation of the old Bestowers.
The new game has been designed as the first part of a series. In each episode, Rosa and Joey will have to take on a new "case" while uncovering more of the backstory and moving the bigger plot forward. This pilot episode, at least, works well as a standalone story. Rosa starts to learn about the special responsibility that is passed down through the generations of Blackwell women, and the pair investigate a string of suicides at New York University. Both strands of the plot reach a satisfying conclusion, though there is clearly more to be told.
The job description for this kind of paranormal detective work should be familiar by now. Rosa joins a club whose members include Gabriel Knight, Delaware St. John, Ben Jordan, and numerous other occult adventurers. Rather than doing battle with spectral forces, however, she and Joey act as a kind of supernatural social workers, "bestowing eternity one soul at a time." They put ghosts to rest by taking care of whatever keeps them hanging around.
If this setup sounds familiar, it's probably because it is the premise of The Sixth Sense. Or The Ghost Whisperer. Or... well, most ghost stories. To tell the truth, the plot of The Blackwell Legacy is not particularly fresh. It is hard to point at a single element that isn't commonplace, from the struggling writer with the family curse to the terrier with a nose for ghosts. While The Shivah took familiar ideas and put them together in an original way, the clichés in The Blackwell Legacy feel undigested. Gilbert isn't even offering a particularly unique take on them.
If you can get past the formulaic nature of the story, it does prove quite engaging, and there is plenty of drama. Given the nature of this particular case, this is a relatively downbeat game. The writing makes a determined effort to keep the tone from becoming too dark, but don't expect a lot of jokes to lift the mood, as they are rare and come with a bitter edge.
The strongest facet of the writing is undoubtedly the characters, and it is supported by some excellent voice acting. Rosangela Blackwell is a far more interesting protagonist than the cocksure young women who have dominated the genre since, oh, 1999. Pretty but gawky, her independence looks suspiciously like isolation, her wisecracks clearly alienate people, and she displays awkwardness more often than confidence. She is a flawed person, and this makes her more relatable and more vulnerable. By the end of the game, she is a main character you want to spend more time with. Providing the voice of Rosangela, Sande Chen has this personality down perfectly. She is especially good at the bland descriptions and comments that make up the bulk of any adventure game script; not quite so good when called on to express strong emotion.
Next to Rosa, Joey Mallone feels insubstantial. His role as her grouchy mentor offers few surprises, with his demeanor the obligatory "gruff façade that occasionally reveals glimpses of tenderness" (or violence). It is nevertheless the type of part that can be a real treat, but because of how he is written, Joey fails to project much charisma. His jazz-age slang sounds affected, and it's a shtick that gets old very quickly. Given an increased range of emotions to play, Joey may become a stronger presence in future installments, but for the time being he remains a colorless sidekick.
The supporting characters are mostly built around common stereotypes, but subtle touches flesh them out into interesting people. In fact, some of the most effective characters don't even appear in the game, such as a boyfriend notable by his absence, and Rosa's dead relatives, encountered (for now) only in letters and photos. Of the characters you actually meet, a confrontational pre-med student at the NYU dorm stands out. Although this girl, Kelly, is unrelentingly hostile, the writing and acting make her come across as immensely likable. Gilbert again shows a real knack for making players sympathize with unfriendly characters, a skill previously honed in Two of a Kind and The Shivah.
It is a good thing that the character work is so strong, because there is certainly a lot of it! I don't know of any adventure game with so many and such lengthy conversations this side of The Longest Journey. In fact, the first quarter of the game or so is devoted to exploring Rosa's background through conversations with a shrink, talks with a friendly neighbor, and through the aforementioned letters. Although most of this is not idle chatter, it does become a bit tedious, especially because there is so little other gameplay in the early going. Also, it takes too long for the game to reveal information that players will already know going in.Continued on the next page...