The Blackwell Legacy review
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.
Those who have played Bestowers of Eternity will certainly notice how closely these early sections of The Blackwell Legacy resemble the original game. Although the puzzles are new, the story is almost identical, and much of the same dialogue is used verbatim. This is not really a problem, as it means that those who have played the earlier game finally get to see what happens after the abrupt ending, and others get a fresh experience throughout. However, if the recycled material seems to drag with endless exposition, be assured that the game becomes more dynamic once you get to the newly written bits. Unfortunately, and maybe because of the transition from old to new material, the story suffers from a jarring discontinuity. At the very beginning, the game goes to great lengths to establish Rosa as a shy loner. She has no family left and apparently no friends. The premise of the first puzzle is that she doesn't know any of her neighbors and is too shy to approach a stranger in public. However, later on she abruptly (and implausibly) becomes an investigative reporter, a job she doesn't enjoy but that suddenly equips her with greatly improved people skills. The effect is that of a somewhat major personality change.
The point-and-click interface used is simple and effective, having been pared down to two actions: Look and Interact. It is an intuitive system, but veteran adventure gamers may be surprised to find they cannot use inventory items on the environment (though objects can still be combined in the inventory). Instead, Rosangela will simply perform the appropriate action if she is carrying a useful item. This is not a severe restriction, however, because there are only a few inventory puzzles in the game.
Rather than conventional "use-x-on-y" gameplay, The Blackwell Legacy relies on a number of puzzles involving Rosa's notebook. When Rosa learns something in a conversation or from examining her surroundings, she writes it down as a clue. She can use these clues in a number of different ways: ask people she talks to about them, discuss them with Joey, research them on the Internet, or even combine them to produce new clues. This gameplay mechanic will be familiar to people who played The Shivah (or Discworld Noir, which Gilbert credits with the idea). The Blackwell Legacy improves on The Shivah's interface and makes the system a core part of the gameplay. Collecting clues in a notebook is not too different from collecting items in an inventory, but it does eliminate the far-fetched combinations and uses of objects that sometimes give adventure games a bad name. That is not to say that the game is altogether realistic. Several of the problems and solutions still require a healthy suspension of disbelief.
The puzzles are good overall, with a nice mix of easy tasks and more difficult challenges. The notes perhaps dominate too much; whenever a puzzle of another type comes around it feels like a breath of fresh air. The real issue, however, is that there aren't enough of them. The game is quite short (it took me only 3 ½ hours to complete), and most of that time is spent going from conversation to conversation, with little real interaction. Occasionally you have a choice of responses, but there is no genuine freedom; except for one or two cases, the conversation continues the same way no matter what you say. For the same reason, the game feels very linear, although as a matter of fact it includes a couple of slightly different paths (which cause some minor variations in the ending).
So far, this review has hedged both its praise and criticism, but when it comes to the graphics there is no need for ambivalence. They are gorgeous. Many adventure games, certainly those from smaller developers, struggle to create modern visuals on a low budget, and end up looking cheap and dated. By instead adopting a retro style reminiscent of classic LucasArts and Sierra, The Blackwell Legacy really shines. The graphics are the product of a number of different artists, including Chris Femo (Enclosure) and Ian Schlaepfer (Apprentice, Super Jazz Man). The low resolution (a VGA-like 320x240 for most elements) might strike some players as old-fashioned, but taken on its own terms it is an unqualified success. The backgrounds are vivid and detailed, and the characters amazingly dynamic and expressive both in their poses and in how they are animated.
The animated conversation portraits deserve special mention, as they really help communicate the characters' emotions and personalities. The only way they could be better is if they were lip-synced to the voice clips. In fact, everything from the painted title screen to the mouse cursors, from the map to the inventory items, looks great. Had this game been released in the early nineties, it would have been one of the best-looking titles on the market.
The music, on the other hand, is something of a mixed bag. The style varies, but can generally be described as orchestral with an electronic overlay. Many of the tracks are beautiful—the main theme in particular—and most are at least interesting. However, the choice of music for each location often sounds a bit off, and rather than adding to the mood it becomes intrusive, and after a short time grating. Even more annoying is a glitch where the music skips a beat backwards when changing rooms. This is a problem with the AGS engine, and more likely to occur on slower computers.
Bonus features consist of a "blooper reel" of outtakes from the voice recording sessions, which is unlocked after completing the game, and a commentary track by Dave Gilbert. The commentary, in particular, is a great feature which increases the replay value of the game no end. Other developers take note!
The Blackwell Legacy can be purchased as a 178 MB download from the Wadjet Eye Games site for $15 US. A (more expensive) physical shipping option is promised but not yet available. Is the price a bit high for a game this short? Maybe. For those who enjoy the game there should be no cause for complaint, but since there are some potential reservations, it may be a good idea to try out the helpfully provided demo first.
I wanted to love The Blackwell Legacy, but in the end I was only moderately impressed. Had the story been more compelling, I might have had more patience with the wordy and non-interactive way it is told. Still, this is certainly not a bad effort. Both the writing and the puzzles are of high quality, even if the balance between them is off. The game is professionally executed in all respects, and has a quirky indie charm (especially evident in the bonus features) that raises it above merely average. Others may not be bothered by the issues I had, and will savor a game that recalls such classics as Gabriel Knight and The Longest Journey. There's room for improvement as the series moves forward, but with Rosa and Joey, the legacy is in good hands.