Review for The Blackwell Convergence
Adventure Gamers Awards
Ghost stories have long been a source of great fascination. The mystery of what happens after death has been explored many times before, but despite the differences between ghost stories across a variety of media, they generally fall into two categories: either the ghosts are angry and dangerous, or they're melancholic lost souls in need of something to help them "move forward". The Blackwell Convergence, the third installment in the flagship series of Wadjet Eye Games, falls into the latter category. But while the premise is nothing new and the game boasts few serious puzzles and only a smidgen of challenge, the interesting characters and impressive production values of this indie title hold strong enough to keep the series moving forward itself.
Blackwell Convergence picks up six months after the first game left off (the second episode was a prequel set decades earlier). Spirit medium Rosangela Blackwell and her ghost buddy Joey Mallone are now in a regular groove of tracking down wayward spirits and helping them let go of the world and literally move towards the light. If it sounds like I've skipped over important story details in that statement, consider it a caution. Convergence drops heavy references to events of the previous games, but doesn't elaborate on them or take any significant time to bring new players up to speed, making existing familiarity more important here than in other series. Additional background isn’t strictly necessary, however, and a quick tutorial level demonstrates the abilities of both Rosa and Joey, whom you can switch between throughout most of the game.
After helping the ghost of a businessman who plummeted off a skyscraper, the two head off to a sparsly attended pre-opening gala of a new art gallery. There they meet up with Rosa's neighbor, who introduces Monique, a film producer with a ghost story to tell. Monique thinks she heard a dead actor calling her name while jogging through Central Park, and this is enough of a lead for Rosa and Joey to investigate the actor's ghost, which is where the story really begins. The pair gradually uncover a string of mysterious deaths and it's up to them to get to the bottom of the mystery and stop more deaths from occurring. Along the way, they'll also have to deal with a malevolent figure from Joey's past and a more benevolent one who hints that she's going to be heavily involved in Rosangela's future.
The interface is highly reminiscent of most older 2D adventure games. Right-clicking on a hotspot examines it, while left-clicking attempts an interaction. Inventory is stored in a bar across the top of the screen, where you can examine any of Rosa's items or click them on the environment to solve a puzzle. It's worth noting that this is the first time the Blackwell series has allowed you to actively take an item from your inventory for manual use rather than automatically using objects in the correct context. As in the first two games, you also have a notebook which contains topics you discover throughout the game. Holding the cursor over each topic will reveal facts known about them, and the notebook updates as you find more information. Many interviews also allow Rosa to pull out her notebook and ask about any details she's uncovered so far. Otherwise, conversations with other characters (and even between Joey and Rosa themselves) consist of clicking the desired topic from a list, which is standard fare for the genre but offers far more optional choices than most games.
Notably absent for fans of the first two games is the ability to use the notebook to combine clues. In the past, some puzzles were solved by realizing there was a connection between two notebook topics and combining them. In Convergence this function has been completely removed, leaving the notebook to serve only as a simple topic list. This takes away some of the challenge of investigating, as Rosa and Joey no longer need any help to make connections between clues. This omission is strange, because the device worked very well and was becoming something of a trademark of the series, so I was sorry to see it absent in a game that could have used more puzzles in any case. The interface does still allow you to switch between Joey and Rosa at almost any time in the game at the click of a button. This is a major factor in solving puzzles, as Joey's abilities as a ghost and Rosa's abilities as a living, breathing person naturally differ quite a bit. Joey can walk through closed doors, blow ghostly cold drafts, and ruin electronic reception. Rosa's abilities may be more mundane, but the ability to be seen by living people and manipulate physical objects is important in almost any investigation.
One fun twist is that by switching between the two characters, you can get completely different observations of the same things. The differing perspectives and styles of the characters are a large part of what makes the game interesting. Joey is a wisecracking but bitterly cynical ghost who looks to be from the early to mid-twentieth century, judging by his ghostly garb. Rosa naturally contrasts him by being a somewhat socially inept but well-meaning twenty-something aspiring to be a writer. The two have no choice but to put up with each other and at times the whole situation feels like a cross between a silly sitcom and a buddy movie. But as precarious a premise as this scenario seems to be, both the writing and voice acting do a good job in preventing their interplay from going over the top.
Where the characterization shook me a little was in the development of Rosa. The character has a new voice actress this time around, and while I found the replacement to be better than the original, Rosa now feels quite different and about ten years older. The closeup of Rosa's face shown during dialogue has also been updated to make her look older as well. Perhaps this is just my own personal reaction, but I felt my brow furrow when the narrative casually revealed that a mere six months separated this game from the last time we had seen her. That isn’t the only way she’s changed, either. In The Blackwell Legacy, Rosangela behaved like that nerdy girl in high school who kept her head down and sat by herself every lunch. Now she feels merely a little bit shy. One could argue that this is meant to show her social development over time, but I don't see how a forced living situation with a decades-old ghost would improve either Rosa's social skills or her peace of mind.
This development of Rosa isn’t bad, merely different, but I do feel like we've missed out on seeing her transition from her old self to her new one. During her rapid transformation, Rosa also seems to have left the newspaper job she had and gives no indication I could find of working a new one anytime over the several days that pass in Convergence. Perhaps this is meant to indicate how busy she's been with her ghost-freeing extracurricular activites, but I don't see how she affords her Manhattan apartment rent with those. The ghosts she frees seldom tip.
Despite my personal misgivings about the central character, the dialogue is still fun. The voice actors all do an excellent job, several of them (including Dave Gilbert, the series creator himself) playing multiple roles. In fact, the acting even surpasses the quality of many adventure games with much larger budgets behind them. There's a good variety of characters to be found, from Rosangela's Indian neighbor to the perky gallery owner to Joe Gould, an actual historical New York eccentric. Rosa and Joey have some great back-and-forths, and Joey's sardonic comments (which only Rosa can hear) offer continual entertainment. There aren't any major laughs or amazing dramatic performances, but each character has a personality that comes through clearly and the conversations are never boring.
The music throughout the game is a mixture of jazz tunes, and they set the backdrop perfectly. From the striking opening credit theme to the simple tunes in quieter places like Rosa's apartment, there's never a moment I felt the music was jarring or out of place. Each location has its own repeating theme, but since you'll rarely stay in the same place for more than a few minutes at a time, the music never becomes redundant. The soundtrack to the Blackwell games has always been above par, but the jazz tracks are especially good in this title.
Equally impressive are the graphics, though as before they come with the caveat of being intentionally retro-styled, like the VGA classics of the early ‘90s. The previous title in the series, Blackwell Unbound, actually took the series a step backwards graphics-wise. There were no closeups of characters for conversations, and all the artwork was fairly pixelated. As important as it was for background, however, that game was meant to be a secondary spin-off for the series, so a few cut corners were understandable. By contrast, Blackwell Convergence is gorgeous. The animated closeups have been revamped, the environments are beautiful, and there's even a solid attempt at weather effects this time around. Rosa's overhauled apartment in particular shows just how far the graphics have come, along with new scenes such as a local bar and the base of a lighthouse. The improvement really shouldn’t come as a surprise, as much of the artwork for this game was turned over to an external studio, but the decision to invest in the upgrade has really paid off. Convergence really is a big step forward for the series.
Where the game gets a bit drab is the puzzles. The Blackwell series has always put more priority on story than challenge, and there's nothing wrong with that, but most of this game's investigations simply involve asking every available character about every item in your notebook. This opens up new locations or topics, and we have Rosa and Joey rinse and repeat until all options are exhausted. The very first puzzle involves nothing more than exhausting all necessary conversation choices with the ghost. To the game's credit, some of the choices available will lead him to the next world a happier person than others, although the story will continue just the same either way, with no tangible reward for helping him the best possible way. This happens again towards the end, with multiple solutions to a problem at the game's climax. While one is clearly the "right" way, the "wrong" one takes you to the same ending with only a changed line or two of dialogue to indicate you made any difference at all. Player choice is always a good thing, but it’s a shame its impact is so minimal here.
Most of the remaining puzzles involve either using one of Joey's ghostly abilities at the appropriate time or trying to find people, places, or things with the search engine on Rosa's computer. The search engine isn't a bad idea in and of itself, but it's the solution to roughly half the puzzles in the game. After a while the web searches become part of the same rinse-repeat cycle, and more variety would definitely have been welcome.
The heart of any Blackwell game is its story, however, and here the plot is a thinly-strung trail of seemingly disparate people and places that lead us to the "convergent" end, but it takes a few rather unbelievable jumps along the way. I can let some of it go, such as the fact that Monique's ghost story is so flimsy that I can't believe a confident film executive would bother repeating it. But at one point another character starts talking like a completely different person and names key clues and places that Rosa and Joey need to hear. This split-personality moment is certainly creepy, but it's also completely unjustified. There's absolutely no reason given why the person would suddenly start talking like this and then have no memory of it seconds later. The series is episodic, so maybe an explanation is still forthcoming, but in this game it feels more odd and out of place than mysterious and foreshadowing. Fortunately, despite such occasional vagaries, the overall story is highly enjoyable and kept me engaged the whole game, as eventually the connections between the plotlines began to draw together.
It's easy to nitpick the plot holes and easy puzzles, but the bottom line of any game is whether or not it's entertaining, and I had a lot of fun playing The Blackwell Convergence. Wadjet Eye is pretty much Dave Gilbert and whoever he can get to help him, and it's really quite remarkable to see how far the series has started to come. A New Yorker himself, Gilbert clearly loves the city he lives in, a fact reflected by using real locales and people to create a game world that’s so inviting to visit. If you've never played the other Blackwell games, I do recommend you pick up the first two before trying your hand at this one, as the games really are meant to be played in order. They're more episodes in an ongoing series than individual games, and each one clocks in at only about 3-5 hours of play time, but the low price tag at the Wadjet Eye website reflects this accordingly. Players who want meatier puzzles will find this latest installment to be only light adventuring fare, but if what you like about the genre is story and characters first and foremost, then The Blackwell Convergence further establishes this series as a solid bet to get into.