Black Mirror II review
The stunning finale of 2003’s original Black Mirror appeared to conclude the tragic tale of the accursed Gordon family in dramatic fashion. Yet seven years later, a sequel has indeed arrived, and as Black Mirror II invites players on another suspense-filled journey back to the haunting environs of Black Mirror Castle, it gets a lot right. Now in the hands of an entirely new developer, Cranberry Production, the game's dialogue, animation, and most especially the voice acting are all improvements over its predecessor. And for those who have never played the original, this game is a solid suspense adventure in its own right, with lush 2D backgrounds, fantastic use of sound, and a dark, disturbing atmosphere. It rarely excels in any particular area, and a few drawbacks like recycled conspiracy clichés, too much backtracking, and an overly abrupt ending keep it from true greatness, but there’s nothing that should stop you from enjoying most of the ride.
The new (and at first seemingly unlikely) protagonist is Darren Michaels, a physics student from Boston, spending his summer in Biddeford, Maine with his ailing mother. At the start of the game, players will spend plenty of time helping Darren make it through a few stultifying days as an errand boy for Fuller, the sleazy photo shop owner. While performing these duties, you’ll meet some local residents like a blind veteran who runs the town’s junk shop, a troubled couple who own a 1950s-style diner, and a whole host of other New England characters, many with some kind of secret to hide.
Then a summer squall blows into town in the form of the mysterious Angelina, a beautiful British student. She stops by the shop looking to have her picture taken and immediately captures Darren’s interest. In her wake is an equally mysterious stranger who seems to be tailing both Angelina and Darren. The three engage in an increasingly dangerous game of cat-and-mouse that eventually rips open the town’s closely-held secrets and raises the stakes for all involved. Eventually a series of events whisks Angelina across the pond to Willow Creek in England, and as Darren investigates what happened to her, he discovers his own growing connection to the town he’d never heard of before, and soon he’s off to England to save the damsel in distress.
As returning players are well aware, Willow Creek has seen its share of tragedies over the years, many seemingly tied to the Gordon family, owners of the Black Mirror Castle. The latest round of grisly murders occurred twelve years before Darren appears on the scene, and a brief tour shows that the town has since fallen into sad times. Darren checks into the town’s hotel, Gordon’s Palace, but far from a palace, the old hotel is actually a renovated sanatorium where gruesome experiments were once performed on the inmates. The proprietor tries to pawn off one of the cheaply-made souvenirs he’s ordered to capitalize on the fleeting moment of bloodlust exhibited after the murders; this is only the first glimpse into the warped mindset pervading the dying village these days.
Here Darren meets a whole new cast of characters, including a drunk issuing ominous warnings and the sister of one of the earlier victims. She’s the nervous but sweet town librarian, yet she may know something more about Darren than she lets on. There are also two brothers, the abusive bar owner Tom and the simple-minded Bobby, who watches over the town’s “murder museum”. Many of these folk seem like innocuous small town bumpkins, but Angelina is nowhere to be found, leaving only messages behind that hint of dangers Darren may face as well. As he struggles to find out what any of this has to do with him, his search eventually leads him all the way to Black Mirror Castle.
Helping to bring these two worlds to life, the use of ambient sounds is fantastic, adding depth to many of the scenes. The deep lowing of foghorns, the slap of water lapping against wooden docks, seagulls cawing overhead, all serve to create an appropriate seaside feel to Biddeford. When you’re in the police station, you can hear phones ringing and the glub, glub of the water cooler. Later, the background sounds of a children’s television show blaring from the main room of a dilapidated estate in Wales add to the surreal disquiet you feel as Darren attempts to escape danger. The game’s music, with skittering violins and haunting piano melodies, is also used judiciously to add feelings of unease, breaking silent periods of exploration whenever the tension mounts.
Like the original Black Mirror, the impressive 2D artwork is highly detailed and punctuated with ambient movement: wind that causes trees to sway against a heavy gate also swirls fog into an open door, and cascades of ivy sway slightly in the ruins of an old academy. The backgrounds themselves are continually evocative of a place: brightly colored Colonial-style storefronts with striped awnings jut out on the coastline of Biddeford, while tacky lobster plaques hang in the diner. The setting turns darker in Willow Creek, drawing from a palette of green, rust brown, and grey as you explore run-down remnants of a troubled past.
The lack of cinematic cutscenes throughout the game is disappointing, but the in-game 3D character modeling and animation are serviceable. The artists get little details right, like the bruise on someone’s face who has just had an altercation or water marks on Darren’s clothes as he comes in out of the rain. A lot of the time, characters are viewed only from a distance, making it difficult to see facial expressions accurately, but during key moments the camera moves in for close-ups, which are really quite good at conveying emotion. When Darren breaks down over someone he cares deeply about, I felt his tension and grief as he hunched over and covered his face with his hands.
Speaking of characters, this brings us to the issue of voice acting, which is a huge improvement over the first game. Darren’s Boston accent may hit you over the head a few times with its heavy-handedness, but the actor does a fantastic job with this prickly character. He starts off as an angry misanthrope, but over the course of the game, you realize that it’s a front, a shell developed as Darren grew up feeling isolated. As the layers peel back, his voice manages to convey what seems like real kindness to other characters, as well as genuine pain when confronted with heartache of his own. Along with Darren, many of the side characters, like the disgusting Fuller and junk shop Eddie, are excellent as well. Listening to Fuller’s slimy voice oozing disdain towards Darren sent shivers down my spine. Some of the other supporting cast aren’t as successful. The town gossip who runs the Biddeford tourist shop has a horrific New Jersey accent, and the new Black Mirror Castle maid has a British accent that made me cringe every time she spoke.
The writers have done a good job with the dialogue, as there are a lot of witty lines to support the actors’ delivery. When a disillusioned Darren discusses what he thought would be a glamorous summer job, he notes that “Reality looks a little different – fatter, and more bald.” The hotel’s tasteless souvenirs, meanwhile, are labeled as: “The original soul key . . . summon dark forces and scare the pants off your friends. Lights up in three different colors. Gruesome sound effects; hellish fun. Batteries not included.” The storyline itself is nicely ramped up, particularly when you arrive in Willow Creek: the casually opportunistic way the residents have turned the nightmarish events of years past into a kitschy tourist attraction lulls you into a false sense of security before the real danger begins to emerge. You’ve got the tiny museum with the “Black” room, where cheap animatronics play out murders from the previous game, complete with blood burbling up from a shredder, and the sad postcards highlighting the murder locations around town. The postcards are a nice touch in themselves, doubling as quick travel maps to get you around both Biddeford and Willow Creek.
However, there are a few plot holes along the way. For example, Darren investigates the suicide of a young woman in Maine. He speaks to many people in town about her death, but that storyline is soon forgotten once you leave Biddeford. There are also scenarios that seem far too contrived to suit the story, such as Darren being trapped in an “escape-proof” location with some blatantly obvious escape-enabling objects. Of course, these are merely setups for your typical inventory puzzles, which you’ll carry out with a traditional interface. Right-clicking offers only observations, while left-clicking will interact with objects if applicable. There are quite a few non-essential hotspots to check out, but fortunately most of these hotspots disappear once exhausted. Hotspots can sometimes be difficult to find in the detailed backgrounds, but a highlighter will reveal all interactive objects in each room, which is particularly handy when items that weren’t previously hotspots become active after you’ve triggered some new plot point in the game.
There is also a helpful journal that lets you know what tasks you need to complete. The game lets you pick a difficulty level when you first begin, and at the easier level, the journal even provides hints on how to complete the tasks. I rarely needed it, however, as the game is fairly linear and your next steps are generally pretty intuitive. Unfortunately, there are times when you know you should be able to do something, but can’t until you have spoken to the proper person or clicked the appropriate hotspot to trigger that particular solution. There is also too much backtracking involved. While the map makes it easy to move between locations, some of the puzzles seem designed to maximize your legwork. There are a few too many instances of this kind of busywork that just seemed like filler to me.
Darren’s personal abilities are nicely integrated into the puzzles. He’s a physics student, so it makes sense that he might know how to make welding powder from odds and ends, and he’s a photo buff working at a photo store, so it’s logical for him to improvise homemade developing fluids. As in the first game, he can still die on occasion, but this is never much of an obstacle. The game automatically saves at a point just before you die, and surviving is simply a matter of deducing the correct solution, not fast reflexes or racing against time.
In addition to the inventory puzzles, there are a few slider puzzles, some riddles to work out, encrypted messages to decipher, lock-picking puzzles, several minigames (such as using a facial reconstruction computer program), and a few mazes to add some variety. Some of these can be very challenging, but if you choose the lighter difficulty, the game usually waits a bit before giving you an option to bypass the logic puzzles, which is welcome feature, even if it’s one you may never wish to use. The tunnel mazes don’t offer this choice, but they aren’t too difficult, and actually add to the tension, which is something the developers did very well. The taut suspense stretches to a breaking point in spots, priming you for the particularly creepy moments in the game.
As for the story itself, there isn’t too much new in this tale of cursed bloodlines, secret cults, and unknown conspirator identities. But the plot is nicely developed and taps into some Oedipal themes about fate and whether or not you can escape it. Additionally, the use of reflection as a theme is intriguing. The quiet coastal town of Biddeford is a New England parallel of Willow Creek, the sleepy English village huddled just outside Black Mirror Castle. The anti-social, Nirvana-listening Darren is a younger reflection of Samuel Gordon, the cursed antihero from the original game. Other sisters, brothers, and even actual mirrors play a large part in this story about personal destiny as well, adding a welcome underlying subtext to the main events.
Clichéd though the main storyline may be, I did find it engrossing, and the further I got, the more deeply I became involved in wanting Darren to succeed in his journey. My anticipation came to a screeching halt, however, when the designers blatantly rushed the ending and set it up for an obvious sequel. There are several significant issues that seem particularly shortchanged in the hurried build-up to a finale that offers no choice in the outcome. And there is no denouement, no tying up of loose ends before you jump to the credits, which close with a none-too-subtle “To be continued.”
That said, this adventure could easily give you 15-20 solid hours of gameplay, so there is certainly no rush to reach that point. And ultimately the atmospheric settings, improved acting, dialogue, and some solid puzzling pulled me into the sinister world bubbling beneath the small town New England veneer and its twin reflection in Willow Creek. It may fall short of the true genre classics, but if you liked the first game, you’ll certainly want to ignore the warnings of a character urging you not to step through the mirror this time, and even newcomers who appreciate story-driven, inventory-based adventures should enjoy much of what Black Mirror II has to offer. It’s a funhouse mirror, providing a totally new perspective on a familiar place, but gaze into it once and you won’t want to look away.