It’s been more than two years since we last met up with psychic medium Rosangela Blackwell and her spiritual ghost guide Joey Mallone. But New York is the city that never sleeps for both the living and the dead, and much has happened since then. New crimes have been committed, more people have died, and yet their ghosts still linger behind, clinging to a remnant of their earthly lives, unable to let go and unaware that they’ve even passed on. Still among the living in NYC, fortunately, is developer Dave Gilbert, who’s been hard at work on Blackwell Deception, the fourth installment of the popular indie series. The game is nearing its final stages of production, and I recently had the chance to put the latest mystery through its supernatural paces.
Deception begins with Rosa and Joey arriving on a yacht that’s been mysteriously unmooring itself and setting sail each night with no crew aboard. This self-contained scenario acts as a brief tutorial, introducing the basic mechanics of tabbing to switch characters, right-clicking to examine and left-clicking to interact, though if you don’t accidentally happen to sweep the cursor to the top of the screen, you may not notice that’s where the hidden inventory bar is stored, let alone that you begin with a few items already in it, like Rosa’s cool new glow-in-the-dark business cards. I say “items”, though of course Joey can’t pick up any actual objects; a fact he sarcastically reminds you of every time you direct him to try. His lone “inventory” (apart from his spiritually-conductive necktie that only Rosa and other ghosts can touch) is the ability to physically manifest little breaths of air – enough for the living to feel mildly but not enough impact anything but the smallest of objects.
While there are a few inventory obstacles scattered throughout the game, much of the adventure relies far more on the ability to effectively use Rosa and Joey’s abilities cooperatively. Unlike many games whose dual protagonists are all but cosmetically identical, here the differences between them are crucial. Rosa is repeatedly stopped by locked doors and barriers, where Joey can simply zoom right on through to snoop around inside. The problem is, he can’t do much once he’s there except have a look around. He can talk with other ghosts, however, and his interactions lead to some interesting new developments this time. Did you know ghosts can be shot? I didn’t until now. It can’t kill them, of course, but apparently it stings a lot. Joey also gets a chance to flirt with a young woman at a nightclub. I’d say he even “dances” with her, but c’mon, this is Joey. She does all the dancing; Mr. Mallone has NO moves at all.
While Joey is the eyes of the outfit, Rosa is the hands, as only she can tangibly interact with the world, collecting items, entering codes, and researching information. Thankfully, Rosa’s caught up with the times and bought herself a smart phone, so no more slogging all the way back to her apartment to use the computer. Along with receiving emails, the “Oogle” search function returns once again. This is important in following up several leads, though I was disappointed to find many entries registered zero results (though for gameplay purposes, that’s undoubtedly better than its namesake’s millions of useless ones.) The ability to combine notes is back as well, which is as simple as clicking two separate clues to see if they’re connected. It’s easy to forget about this feature, and some combinations are less intuitive than others, so it’s important to be thorough in examining your leads whenever new ones present themselves.
There are many leads to follow this time, as the bodies soon begin to pile up. An old news journalist pal of Rosa’s asks her to help him research a story about a cult leader who seems to be causing numerous deaths around the city, though none are ever directly linked to him. Several are connected to a clearly fraudulent psychic (pretty easy to tell when you’re a real one), from whom our protagonists learn of a wildchild university student found cast away in a dumpter, though presumed dead from natural causes; and a smitten lass still pining for a lost lover who wanted nothing more to do with her even before she died. Another elderly woman isn’t dead yet, but she’s inexplicably turned against her family and been put in a nursing home. Weaving your way through each individual case makes up the bulk of the game, though there are still more deaths best left to discover for yourself. Along with the main investigation, a bit more of Joey’s backstory is fleshed out in the process, relating to how and why he died, though as yet providing no definitive answers.
Dialogue puzzles make up the remainder of Deception’s gameplay. In fact, dialogue in general is important, as you’ll spend plenty of time talking to people, including a New York detective working a related case and a would-be boyfriend of one of the deceased. You’ll even get to interact with a giggling little baby, though for obvious reasons, he doesn’t have much to say. Some conversations have optional lines, though you never know where a vital topic may be lurking, so you’ll likely want to exhaust them all and return again when you’ve discovered new information. Rosa and Joey can also talk to each other about the clues they’ve procured, though the non-linear nature of the story means some details are discussed out of sequence, at least for now. The “plan the next move” option effectively works as a hint guide, but the clues can be a bit vague, so you’re on your own (well, the two of you, anyway) for the most part.
As expected in a Blackwell game, the characters are all well written in a believable way: Rosa continues to be a conflicted blend of insecurity and determination; Joey is as razor-tongued (and funny) as ever; and the many victims are in equal parts hostile, confused, suspicious, and fearful. Not all roles were fully voiced in the preview version, but most were and the performances are once again solidly delivered. Rebecca Whittaker returns from Convergence to voice Rosangela, while Abe Goldfarb is still going strong as Joey. Each line is fully subtitled, however, so you can easily skip through if you’d rather read ahead. The music in Deception plays only sporadically, once again displaying a tendency towards soft brass and piano jazz, though the style and tempo dramatically ramp up in a nightclub and at least one other tense scene.
Unfortunately, the nature of the investigation doesn’t allow for the most scenic of New York vistas, as you’ll spend most of your time in fairly nondescript interiors like business offices and apartments. It’s all done in the series’ usual retro pixel art style, occupying various degrees of screen real estate. Smaller locations fill only a central square, while hallways run in a letterbox-type format, and a few fill the entire screen. Character portraits during conversations are nicely designed but much smoother than their in-game counterparts, making them seem a little out of place. Special effects are at a minimum, but the light reflects smartly on a New Jersey harbour, and it’s always fun to watch Joey’s ethereal form bob up and down.
Blackwell Deception comes to a suitably dramatic conclusion, offering a unique bit of insight into the nature of Joey and Rosa’s relationship in an intriguing twist. While not ending on a cliffhanger, there’s clearly plenty more adventuring to come, as the two fully commit themselves to further pursuing a grand plot only teased at here. If you’ve enjoyed the series to this point, you’ll no doubt be ready to continue the journey with them, as this game provides more of what you’ve liked so far, and then some. The story is parceled out very slowly and it’s still somewhat limited in scope, depending far more on thorough sequences of research and conversation than varied, substantial gameplay, but as a character-driven supernatural drama, there’s plenty of bright lights here. Still not convinced? Then while we wait for the game’s release next month, let’s head behind the scenes for a little one-on-one interview time with designer Dave Gilbert himself.Continued on the next page...