The Blackwell Deception review
Adventure Gamers Awards
New York City is the city that never sleeps – perhaps doubly so if you happen to be a restless spirit trapped between this world and next. Fortunately, Rosangela Blackwell (likely NYC’s only legitimate medium) and her ghostly spirit guide Joey Mallone are in the business of offering spiritual aid to the dearly departed who don’t even realize they’re dead. Building upon previous series instalments, Blackwell Deception offers these unlikely spiritual investigators a new set of challenges to overcome and dramatic new events that reveal more and more secrets about the spirit world and the Bestowers of Eternity. Their latest adventure offers some familiar challenges along the way, in addition to some new twists that keep the storyline interesting and fresh.
If you’re new to the series (as I was when I began), the fourth Blackwell game – but only the third starring Rosa – continues the ongoing story of a young woman who has inherited a wisecracking ghostly companion. Joey is a spirit from the early twentieth century and looks the part in his translucent fedora and suit. He has somehow been drawn into an afterlife of servitude, helping spirits of this world move onto the next, and has been inextricably attached to the Blackwell women throughout the generations. With her rare ability to see ghosts, Rosangela is the latest to inherit Joey, and she has had to come to terms with her unusual legacy in order to avoid an inevitable descent into madness.
Following on from previous episodes, Rosa has now turned her abilities into a job, complete with fluorescent new business cards. At the beginning of Deception she is working just such a contract, investigating a vacant yacht that unmoors itself every night and starts motoring into the New York harbour. This initial task provides a tutorial for new players, though it’s by no means a pushover to complete in its own right. On completing this assignment, Rosa receives a call from her old friend Jeremy, who is a newspaper reporter and needs help on a story that he is close to breaking. But Rosa arrives at Jeremy’s apartment only to discover that he too is no longer with the living yet is blissfully unaware of the fact. Intrigued and dismayed, Rosangela plays along with Jeremy’s request until she is able to learn more information and help him on his way. Her investigation quickly leads to an unidentified contact who may have been the key lead Jeremy was following.
Despite being a ghost story, Deception actually plays as an interactive drama and detective story, which leaves you with a metaphorical (or metaphysical if you prefer) trail of bread crumbs that slowly reveals a deeper tale of intrigue and murder. As more and more of the plot is revealed, you’ll find yourself embroiled in the world of phony street front psychics (they’re everywhere in NY, apparently), in which clients visit a particular shop and then later appear dead from seemingly natural causes. It’s your job to find the clues to the mystery behind their deaths, help those who have passed on, and wrap up the case before more even more victims are taken – possibly even yourself.
The unique relationship between both Rosangela and Joey not only provides some amusement through their frequent banter but also impacts the gameplay itself. The strength of this partnership comes from both characters working together with their varied abilities, unable to ever move very far from the other. Rosa can interact with both the dead and the living but is naturally blocked by physical obstacles, whilst Joey can’t openly manipulate real world objects (a fact he sarcastically reminds you of whenever you try to pick something up…), though in spectral form he is able to explore locations which would otherwise be closed. Joey also has the ability to project small gusts of wind (blowing!) or using his (ethereal) tie, which acts as a mechanism for helping spirits move on. One recurring challenge is helping spirits to understand that they have passed away. This is normally done through conversations about their lives or presenting objects to jog their memories.
Deception plays well as a standalone game, so even if you’re not familiar with the rest of the series a whole, it is relatively easy to pick up. There are some references to previous characters and events, but they aren’t essential to the game in any way. There is a brief return of one character in particular from Blackwell Convergence whose role will require some familiarity to understand, but on the whole you can move through the story comfortably from start to finish without any knowledge of the previous games. Another notable point is that Deception is considerably larger than any of the previous Blackwell games, delivering up to ten hours’ worth of play time.
As with its predecessors, Deception includes excellent voice acting to complement its quality script, flowing naturally and effectively demonstrating a variety of emotions such as amusement, anger and suffering. There’s also a good range of background music for each scene, such as a snappy jazz tune in Rosangela’s apartment and appropriately eerie scores for some of the more supernatural moments. There’s very little to criticise here, though there are some minor issues related to volume changes between scenes, leaving players walking into areas where the music is suddenly much louder than the previous scene. In general, however, most players won’t even notice this and it takes little away from what is an overall an excellent effort.
The visual quality is more difficult to assess. The game once again uses the distinctly retro 320 x 200 resolution, but here the visuals appear like a combination from the first and third games in the series, incorporating more of the original look from Legacy’s sprites and characters (albeit with a slightly more cartoonish presentation), whilst using the more detailed backgrounds present in Convergence. The style is reminiscent of VGA pixel art games, but unfortunately they don’t seem to quite have same impact this time around, lacking the crispness and vivid colours of the previous game. This is especially true in terms of sprite design for both Rosangela and Joey, which appears slightly more pixelated and lacklustre in comparison. There are high points graphically, however, such as the character portraits during conversations, which are now depicted in a clear high-res style, and certain elements are handled better than before, such as the map screen, which is now much cleaner and less confused than in previous games. The unapologetically old-school look certainly won’t be for everyone, especially as many scenes are framed by large black borders, but Deception is still aesthetically pleasing given its self-imposed visual limitations.
The interface requires no such caveats. Deception uses a simple, intuitive control scheme, as the left mouse button is used to pick up items, complete actions and interact with other characters, while the right button examines. Hover the cursor over the top of the screen and the menu bar appears, from which you can select your notes, inventory, and buttons to change the playable character. Alternatively, switching between protagonists can be accomplished by pressing the Tab key, which is convenient because you need to frequently change. Clicking on many of the supporting characters brings up conversational dialogue that provides a number of threads to choose from. Clicking on Joey or Rosangela while playing as the other also triggers a conversation, which allows for some quirky discussions and presents you with some insight as to the next place you may need to search or how to complete an objective.
The puzzles are fluid and well-designed, and obstacles start at a relatively easy pace and become harder and harder over the course of the game, culminating in some particularly tricky challenges towards the end that require lateral thinking to overcome. There is nothing too obscure or random to halt your progress, as everything has been logically plotted. The puzzles also walk hand-in-hand with the storyline, often directly related to the problem at hand. For example, if you need to learn more about a character, you’ll investigate an item that’s relevant to them, travel to a location they visited or talk to a person they once may have known. From these investigations, you will glean bits of information that can be cross-referenced by combining notes on Rosa’s smart phone. Notes are automatically recorded after you have discovered a vital clue or met a new person, which can then be accessed as additional topics in subsequent conversations. The “myPhone” also allows you to do internet searches and check emails (and make calls, naturally), which are crucial in discovering new leads to follow. In previous episodes, you needed to return to Rosangela’s apartment, making this update a very convenient time-saver.
Deception also offers some excellent scripting and character-driven cinema that draws you into the story. It’s easy to identify with the personality of the characters both through the clever dialogue and dramatic cutscenes. One of the people you meet is Penelope Haines, an old eccentric who has distanced herself from her family in order to reach out for her ‘higher calling in life’. She provides some interesting clues along with some bittersweet dialogue in the process. There’s also Detective Durkin, who is currently investigating Jeremy’s death but at times seems more a hindrance than help. He delivers a variety of deadpan responses, most of which allude to you being a little offbeat and meddlesome. Then there are some of the more ‘unique’ spirits you encounter, like a young woman who continues an obsessive love interest beyond the grave. All of the characters have unique, believable personalities to some degree, and when combined with the often witty and sarcastic personalities of Joey and Rosangela, it makes for some pleasurable interaction.
With its interesting plot, strong characters with superb voice acting, and cleverly integrated gameplay, Blackwell Deception is an enticing adventure that plays very smoothly and is a good example of how puzzles and scripting in an adventure game should work together. These points may be enough to convince those who aren’t fans of the retro style to overlook the low resolution graphics. It’s also the longest Blackwell instalment game to date, though I still felt the experience drew to a close a little too quickly. This is due in part to the limited scope of story, which sees you frequently revisiting the same handful of offices and homes over and over, and because so many of the puzzles are driven by character interactions, which means there’s less in the way of exploring for items and clues. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean you’ll progress rapidly since the clues lead you almost immediately to the next task.
With a little more challenge and visual polish, this could have been a truly great adventure, but instead settles for being another solid supernatural mystery. If you’re not impressed by VGA-style pixel artwork in 2011, you may wish to try to the demo before parting with your hard earned cash exclusively at the official website, but if you’ve been looking for an intriguing, nostalgia-tinged, character-driven ghost tale and are happy to spend $14.99 for the privilege, then Blackwell Deception may very well be the game for you.
Perhaps the best game in the series to date, Blackwell Deception is an enjoyable retro title and a well-rounded effort that’s easy to get into and hard to put down, though it’s limited somewhat by its own lack of ambition.