A snowy New York night on the wrong side of town, too many ghosts and not enough coffee: it can only be the latest instalment in the Blackwell series. Not only the latest, but also the last, as Blackwell Epiphany will be the fifth and final game in Wadjet Eye's supernatural series. This preview is based on an early look at the first half of the game, and so far it's shaping up to be the best yet.
For anyone new to the Blackwell series, perhaps a brief recap is in order. As the curtain rose on the first game, The Blackwell Legacy, we met Rosangela "Rosa" Blackwell, a struggling writer and journalist grieving for her recently-deceased aunt Lauren. Little did she know that, along with the usual family heirlooms, she had also inherited the family ghost: a hard-boiled character named Joey Mallone who looks and talks like he's stepped (or floated) straight out of a Philip Marlowe novel. As if that wasn't enough to deal with, her aunt's legacy went still deeper: thanks to a quirk of genetics Rosa is a Bestower, able to guide restless spirits to move on into the light with Joey's help. In many cases, these spirits don't even know they're dead yet, and it's Rosa's job to uncover the circumstances that led to their demise to jog their memories and help them come to terms with their situation.
Initially reluctant, Rosa gets drawn into her new life and comes to see that it (and not writing) is what she was born to do. For all his tough-guy act and grouchy manner, Joey has a soft spot for Rosa (or Red, as he likes to call her) and the pair make a good team. Rosa can do all the usual adventure-type stuff, talking to people and picking up anything that's not nailed down, but she's often stymied by little things like locked doors. Insubstantial Joey can go anywhere, drifting through walls and doors with ease, but can only interact with the world by blowing on it and conjuring up the gentlest of breezes. He also forms a link between Rosa and the recently departed, using his tie to join them and help her to pull them into the next world.
By the time we reach the opening titles of Blackwell Epiphany, Rosa has become an unofficial police consultant, called in to assist with anything weird and unexplained that comes across their desks. Her contact is Detective Sam Durkin, a grumpy, pragmatic cop who doesn't know much about her world and is more than happy to keep it that way so long as she gets results.
Especially if you're new to the series, you're probably thinking that none of this sounds particularly remarkable, and it would be easy to see the set-up as clichéd. Mediums who help spirits into the light, struggling writers, wisecracking assistants, grumpy cops: we've seen it all before. And yet, as the series has gone on, a warmth and humanity has shone through that has helped me to empathise with Rosa and Joey and transcended all the genre tropes. Rosa, in particular, is awkward and unsure and has obviously struggled to grow into her new life and deal with the intensity of the circumstances it forces her to confront.
As the series has gone on, the stakes have been getting higher and the stories more tangled and convoluted. As befits the climactic episode, the stakes this time could not be higher: in the early minutes, Rosa witnesses not just a man being murdered, but his very soul being torn apart. The comfortable certainty, in previous instalments, that even in death the soul lives on and goes to a (hopefully better) place is shattered. This is a world where people rush anxiously into death in the hope that their soul will make it into the light in time, and it's Rosa's job to find out why. A local church group has been helping people to find new direction and purpose in their lives; does it also harbour a dark secret that's killing them too?
The Blackwell games have always been strong on story, but this one packs a particular emotional punch. One especially memorable (and tear-jerking) scene involves a young dead girl, aged about ten or eleven, still diligently practising a mournful piano piece and stopping to tell Joey about her toys. The sound of that piano echoing through the whole building, counterpointed with her happy chatter, still brings a lump to my throat.
As the conclusion to the series, Epiphany draws on a number of threads and themes from previous games but, while I'd very much recommend playing them in order, it does also work as a standalone game. Series regulars will remember that this isn't the first time we've seen Detective Sam Durkin or the spirit guide Madeline, and nor is it the first time that Rosa has seen a soul destroyed. There are hints, too, that Joey's origins will finally be revealed, along with his connection to the Blackwell family. All these things, though, are peripheral to the main plot: having a background in the series helps ground some of the events, but isn't essential.
The story may be the main draw here, but that's not to say the puzzles are neglected; they may not be overly remarkable, but they feel more cohesive and logical here than in some of the previous games. As well as traditional inventory and dialogue puzzles, Rosa has a notebook (okay, cellphone note app) of people, places and concepts that can be combined to generate new insights. This has been a staple of the series since the start, and after a few wobbles along the way it's used well here. Her smartphone is a bit smarter this time too: as well as making calls and searching the internet, it can download files from websites, view photos stored on a flash drive and even install new apps. This adds welcome variety to the puzzles on offer, and overall this game strikes a better balance than some of its predecessors.
Graphically, the game represents a return to form after the slightly disappointing Deception. This is still an unapologetically retro game, but it makes every pixel count. Streets glisten with the light from reflected streetlamps, snow is piled up on the sidewalks, light spills out invitingly from windows; it's all beautifully atmospheric, especially combined with the weather effects. In the early scenes, snow is falling heavily, wind is howling and Rosa leaves tracks in the snow as she walks. (Joey, not surprisingly, does not. When the young dead girl asks why, he tells her that's because Rosa is "heavier than she looks.") There's more going on in the background, too: cars drive by, people are silhouetted against windows, paper rustles in the wind. These are little things, but they really help bring the world to life. When Rosa says that she's "cold, wet and tired" you can really empathise with her and feel the chill of a New York winter in your bones.
Wadjet Eye's games have always featured strong voice work, and this one is no different, with all the series regulars returning to roles that now feel comfortably familiar. Likewise, the smoky saxophone themes are well done and give the game a noir feel that fits Joey's vintage charm.
We've been promised that this will be "the longest Blackwell yet". That's hard to judge based on this preview, but it took me around three hours to complete what should become the first half of the finished game. One criticism of earlier entries has been their relative shortness; this one looks like it will be, if not excessively long, at least a meatier experience.
The bottom line is that this is classic Blackwell. If you're already a fan of the series, you'll find all the elements you've come to know and love present and accounted for, with a little extra coat of polish and a few of the rough edges smoothed. If not (and where have you been?), you might find the game's retro style a little off-putting at first, but if you give it a chance you’ll likely find its strong storytelling and solid puzzles will win you over. Either way, Blackwell Epiphany looks set to end Rosa's journey on a high, and I for one can't wait for its release on April 24.