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.Continued on the next page...