Black Mirror III review
Adventure Gamers Awards
In a thrilling capper to the dark, haunting Black Mirror series, Cranberry Production has brought forth a fantastic “final chapter” in Black Mirror III. The opening cinematic thrusts you into the midst of an escape from a fiery scene of death, as Darren Michaels is racing through the woods carrying a burning torch. Those familiar with the climactic but abrupt ending of Black Mirror II will know what Darren is racing from. Newcomers should really run out and play the first two games to bone up on the series’ rich history, as anyone who hasn’t will only know that a fire is raging at the Black Mirror Castle. This places them at the same disadvantage as Inspector Spooner, who wants to know what Darren has to do with the blaze, as well as several murders in and around the town of Willow Creek. Either way, all players will be rewarded with a vastly satisfying adventure that spins a fascinating tale that takes us into the mind of someone who may be slowly going insane.
Like its immediate predecessor, you’ll play this game as Darren, an American physics student with dark ties to the castle. Now calling himself Adrian, here he must navigate his way through hounding policemen, secret notes from anonymous benefactors, surly townsfolk, and a tangled, tragic family history. With no tangible link between Adrian and the recent crimes, he is eventually released from custody after someone mysteriously pays for his bail. Seeking to prove his innocence, Adrian explores the sleepy yet sinister town of Willow Creek for evidence that will prove someone else was behind the murders.
Willow Creek is a place that hasn’t really moved forward at all in time, and the history it wallows in is bloody. The town square is still encircled by old timber-framed buildings, with dark swinging wooden signs, but in the three weeks since the finale of the second game, it has undergone a variety of changes, including the opening of an out-of-place modern café, the closing of a town fair, and the addition of a psychotherapist’s office. The village is surrounded by an ominous autumn forest with bare trees arching menacingly over the paths. The neighboring town of Warmhill, which despite its comforting name houses all of the town’s dead in a spooky cemetery, is back from the first game, and you’ll be able to roam the woods and grounds surrounding both towns, as well as a mid-renovation Black Mirror Castle itself. The castle is now ramshackle and burned out, hulking darkly at the top of its hill. It has lost some of its grandeur now, as you’ll notice spent fireworks and used cans left behind by vandals outside the usually imposing front gate. With all of the exploring you do, the interactive map comes in handy, as it allows you to instantly travel to major locations once you’ve discovered them.
Once again, these environs are rendered in a grim and realistic style, with nary a ray of sunshine to be found. In fact, the only real sunlight I can recall is the light streaming through a church’s stained glass window illuminating mourners at a funeral. The prerendered backgrounds can be as unnerving as they are gorgeous, with depth and detail everywhere you look – even when you don’t want to look, like at the decrepit mansion looming in the woods, where hints of hideous human experiments and torture seep through the crevices. The building is home to blood-splashed tile floors with drains for fluids, and in sickening contrast, another level is littered with empty pizza boxes and beer bottles amid the grotesquerie, the sign of a truly callous human being living there. Elsewhere, in a fantastic use of color, Lady Victoria, the ailing Gordon family matriarch, sleeps in her bed illuminated by sickly green lamps, her huge oak bed swathed in blood red covers while red curtains keep the light out from the outside. Every color choice adds to the sick miasma that hangs over the scene.
Small ambient animations set against these 2D backdrops ramp up the creep factor. Many shed light on a character’s psychology or set the mood of a scene: The flickering TV screen in a drifter’s hideaway flashes a sex line phone number, and a Newton’s cradle swings back and forth hypnotically in the psychotherapist’s office. Character animations add realism and interest to each scene as well. Dr. Winterbottom smokes her cigarette as she analyzes Adrian, and Denise, the two-timing waitress at the Willow Creek café, chats with Adrian while her reflection wavers behind her in the modern glass backsplash. There are some shortcuts in the animation, however. For example, when Adrian has to do something complicated with his hands, the screen may go black or he’ll move to a difficult-to-see location. Some of these cutaways are tastefully done: Adrian will thankfully block the player’s view of a torture film as he stands in front of the television watching in horror. Other animations you may wish were hidden from view, such as when Adrian snaps off a corpse’s body part (yes, it’s necessary, and yes, you’ll need it).
The cinematics aren’t cutting-edge, but they are good enough to capture the tortured character of Adrian, his haggard face aged by the soul of Mordred, the ancient Gordon family ancestor who now torments him. The cutscenes are generally short, adding tension and background story where necessary, such as replaying Adrian’s haunting memories with an increasing number of secrets revealed during each playback. Some of these are definitely not for the faint of heart, as violent images spring forth from Adrian’s disturbed mind: a flash of a stabbing pencil or the downward swing of a pillow used to suffocate.
Black Mirror III makes equally great use of sound. Whether it’s the whistling of wind through forest leaves in counterpoint to the sighing of violins, or the grinding of stone upon stone as you push open a sarcophagus, the background effects really add depth to the experience. At times when it seems Adrian is in danger of losing control, you’ll hear the thumping of a heartbeat, which never failed to quicken my own heartbeat as well. The music throughout is subtle and evocative of the overall grim tone of the game, with somber piano tunes and violin strings moaning in the background.
Despite the occasional glimpses of backstory, the amount of background provided is minimal, and new players could find themselves lost in a storyline as deep and involved as this one. How does Adrian relate to the ghoulish Mordred? In the last game he discovered some unsettling secrets about his family history and personal identity that are beneficial for players to already know. The game also relies on established relationships that Adrian now has with many Willow Creek natives, such as Tom, an angry pub owner, and Ralph, a childlike tortured soul. Similarly, certain settings such as a ruined academy and burned-out lighthouse will have a lot more resonance for players familiar with the first two games. However, the story told in Black Mirror III stands well enough on its own, and discovering what Adrian’s true destiny is and what the ancient Gordon curse has to do with him and his current troubles will be interesting to both new and returning players alike.
Much of that is due to the writing, which is full of cynical, dark, and often funny observations. Inspector Spooner comments on a colleague’s bird-brained observation about a murder victim: “Yeah, maybe she was cold and set herself on fire – for god’s sake, am I the only one with a brain around here?” Adrian, exhausted by the town’s fixation on his role in the murders, puts his own special sarcastic twist on a potential venture: “Yeah, right next door is the Black Mirror Special Café with Ritual-Blood cappuccinos and Latte Morbidato.” And the always colorful hotelier Murray notes that he’s a “business man, not a murderer; a small but absolutely fine distinction.”
As in previous Black Mirror games, these side characters are nicely fleshed-out and make for a colorful cast to interact with. They all seem to be scheming and distrustful of Adrian. And he definitely can’t trust them. The kindly psychotherapist who prescribes Adrian’s medication seems to want to help him, but she was close friends with the creepy Dr. Hermann from Black Mirror I, who may have been involved in cruel and deadly experiments. And then there’s my personal favorite scene-chewer, Murray, whose shark-like capitalistic tendencies remain intact. Always out to make a buck, he attempts to profit from murder mania, selling tacky souvenirs. His enterprise has extended to the town’s murder museum, which he now owns and uses to sell severed head replicas, burning castle models, as well as logoed items like a Samuel Gordon rucksack and lighter.
The substantial twenty-plus hour adventure takes time to delve into the psyches not only of Adrian, but also those he encounters. Darren Michaels started off as a cynical and aimless young man in Black Mirror II, but as Adrian he develops into a haunted, haggard one in Black Mirror III, who struggles with issues of identity and power as he tries to find the final answers to the Gordon family curse and the infamous Black Mirror. The inspector who hounds him at the beginning of the game dallies with the café waitress and is hot-headed enough to have gotten himself thrown out of a big city beat and be stuck in the boondocks of Willow Creek. And relationships in this game are never simple. The café waitress may be serving Inspector Spooner his favorite donuts, but she also has a fiancé. Even Lady Victoria doesn’t know whether to trust Adrian’s version of the events that start off the game.
You’ll learn all about these complicated character backgrounds by speaking with them. The voice acting is generally good, but can be hit or miss at times. Adrian, with his Boston accent, moves smoothly from cynical to sinister and back again; Murray is weasel-like with his high-pitched, nasally whine; and Dr. Winterbottom’s husky voice hints at years of smoking and experience. Other characters are not as successfully portrayed, as evidenced by a meeting between a rather lifeless Inspector Spooner and his stilted and bored-sounding mistress, and by the slow-as-molasses cadence of Valentina, Victoria's nurse, whose difficult-to-place accent comes and goes. You’ll want to exhaust all icon-based conversation choices with each character you meet, as they’ll often give you clues about what to do next or who to speak to. This is helpful in such a wide-ranging inventory-based adventure, where your next step may not always be obvious. Also useful is the journal Adrian keeps, which keeps track of objectives and often gives you subtle clues about your next move.
The simple point-and-click controls have not changed from the earlier titles. You’ll left-click to interact with objects, make observations, and talk with characters, and you’ll need to right-click to examine inventory items you’re carrying. Hitting the space bar or clicking an onscreen button highlights all hotspots, eliminating the need for frustrating pixel hunting. Once you’ve exhausted all observations for a particular object, you won’t be able to interact with it anymore. This is a nice touch, but it can lead to a bit of confusion at first, as some hotspots stay active for puzzles that may not appear until much later in the game. In an interesting twist for the series, Valentina emerges as a second playable character in time, and the game allows you to switch between her and Adrian as the need arises. Objects you interact with while playing as Adrian will have different commentary when you play as Valentina. Adrian makes observations in his typical cynical fashion, while Valentina may comment more on an object’s history or symbolism. There are some puzzles that only Valentina can solve, or that can only be overcome by working together.
Regardless of the protagonist, you’ll pick up inventory items and store them until you come across a puzzle that needs solving, whether unlocking doors, escaping entrapment, or even something as mundane as paying construction workers. On rare occasions you’ll have to interact with items in the environment in order to prep a scene before the main inventory puzzle is triggered. Although usually you can’t leave the area until you have done so, it can be frustrating if you’ve exhausted your entire inventory and still can’t figure out what to do. This is complicated by the fact that you’ll rack up quite the haul of items. Some will only stay in a certain area – a useful tool you find in one location may be too heavy to take with you, darn. The challenge is determining when you need to combine items, and where and when you’ll need them to solve puzzles. When playing as both Adrian and Valentina, the inventory puzzles become slightly more challenging as you determine what character can use which item at what time, but passing objects between them is as simple as clicking on the other character with the desired item.
Most of these puzzles are well-integrated into the story, and I didn’t find myself picking up quite so many items long before I needed them as I had in previous games. In Black Mirror III, you won’t be able pick up certain items until you need them, but largely for good reason. For example, you may see an unwieldy object that’s far too big to logically pick up and carry around with you. But you’d better remember where it is, as a situation might arise where it’s just the right item to have. Thankfully, the developers have practically eliminated the fetch quest challenges that led to so much backtracking in the second game, but there are times when new items will appear in certain scenes after you’ve visited them. So if you’re stuck, it’s always a good idea to search all scenes again to see if anything new has been triggered.
To add variety, there are some logic challenges such as weight puzzles or (in keeping with the macabre tone of the game) arranging bones into a full skeleton. There aren’t too many of these types of puzzles, and you’ll almost always have a skip button to bypass them after a while. These puzzles add just the right amount of tension without grinding everything to a halt. That is, until one of the final obstacles of the game. In one labyrinth puzzle, navigated by both Adrian and Valentina, there is no skip option available, an omission made all the more frustrating since this puzzle is one of several that reward you with death for the wrong choices. Fortunately, the game’s autosave feature lets you restart such sequences right away, so with a little trial and error you’ll be able to make your way through.
Some players may have been miffed by what felt like an overly abrupt ending to the second game, but this installment resolves all of the Gordon storylines in a satisfying way. Almost too satisfying in that the ending suffers a bit from explain-it-itis. Leading up to the climax, a barrage of explanations about souls and curses are thrown at you in abundance. If the developers had spread this exposition throughout the game, it wouldn't have felt so overwhelming all at once. Still, from the gorgeous art to the eerie soundscape, unforgettable images and disturbing storyline, Black Mirror III feels like a fully fleshed-out finale to a trilogy of stories that delves deep into themes of identity and destiny. I savored the amount of exploration and the detailed recounting of the Gordon history, and was pleasantly surprised by the ability to play as a new character. All of these factors, plus the logical and well-integrated puzzles, combine to make this a fascinating journey that I was sorry to see end. Whether you’re new to the series or revisiting this dark world for the last time, you’ll find this reflection of tortured souls and ancient family curses a mesmerizing adventure that’s well worth a look.
Black Mirror III is a thoroughly satisfying ending to this dark mystery trilogy and an impressive game in its own right.