With only rare exceptions, each year inevitably brings a new mystery for amateur sleuth Carol Reed and her legion of fans to solve while taking in the sights of Sweden. Shades of Black, the eleventh entry in indie developer Mikael Nyqvist’s long-running series, will definitely appeal to veteran players by sticking to its immersive photographic slideshow presentation and providing a bevy of puzzles to solve along the way, ranging from rather clever diversions to ones that we’ve seen way too many times before. Yet while all the familiar elements of the Carol Reed formula are intact, along with a few kinks tossed into the proceedings by paying surprising homage to the popularity of E. L. James’ erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey, a barely-there story noticeably brings down this particular experience.
Since her last adventure, Carol has been trying unsuccessfully to find a publisher for a book she wrote about one of her previous cases, The Blue Madonna. Her hopes are lifted when she is contacted by Albert Edison, a publisher who initially rejected her book. Rather than changing his mind, however, it turns out he would like her help locating Gerard Black, one of his clients. Black has gone missing after a young woman was found murdered in a local park, with pages from one of the author’s previous works in her mouth. Edison is understandably concerned, given that Black’s own wife was murdered six years ago, and asks Carol to uncover his whereabouts.
Very early in the investigation it becomes clear that the killer had been in touch with Black, taunting him with notes and poems hinting at his or her identity while leading to further clues scattered around the town of Norrköping, where the series takes place. Most tasks that the player performs, such as gaining entry to Black’s home, figuring out how to charge a tablet computer to access a flash drive, and exploring a wildlife park, serve to uncover another clue from the killer, or reveal further leads toward Black’s current location.
The resulting “follow the breadcrumbs” gameplay is executed well enough, but the story that links it all together lacks genuine intrigue and has pacing issues. After a promising start, the mid-section is a relatively dull affair, since many revelations that could have injected some much-needed life into the plot are either underwhelming or are saved for the all-too-rapid climax. And while there are a few moments throughout the game where Carol seems to be in danger, these have little impact since, as usual for the series, you cannot die. While puzzle lovers won’t likely mind the story’s shortcomings, I had hoped for a more engaging plot that simply never materialized amid the puzzles and exploratory gameplay.
That’s not to say that everything about the story and characters is doom and gloom. In a gutsy move hinted at both by the 15-and-up age rating and by the title of the game, Shades of Black features elements inspired by E. L. James’ popular (and somewhat controversial) romance novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Without straying too far into spoiler territory, at one point in the game a dominatrix named Mistress Allegra requests Carol’s help in locating certain items she lost during a recent harrowing experience, in a sequence that amounts to a brief fetch-quest in exchange for information that could help Carol in her investigation.
Worries that the series has taken a turn for the smutty can be put mostly to rest, however, as the interaction with Mistress Allegra is very tongue-in-cheek and worth a few laughs, and the one item that ends up in inventory for an extended period of time, vaguely referred to as a set of “clamps,” would likely only raise eyebrows if you knew what it was used for. Still, there are other items of a sexual nature encountered throughout the game that, while ultimately relevant to the plot, may be cause for concern if you are accustomed to playing this series with younger players. In any case, while the developer deserves kudos for trying something different, it all feels very tacked-on and out of place, probably due to the attempt to remain as non-graphic as possible.
Other characters such as Bigge and Carol’s friend Stina make appearances when you need something that can’t be gleaned directly from the environment, such as an item or necessary information about where to go next. Accordingly, dialogue is utilitarian and you’ll only interact with each character a handful of times. As usual, conversations with the characters are portrayed by real actors using a series of still images, and accomplished by choosing topics from a notebook-style list that appears onscreen. The facial expressions seem more natural and expressive this time around, which helps to alleviate the sense of awkwardness I generally associate with this technique.
The series’ hallmark first-person photographic presentation will be instantly familiar to fans, with each location once again stitched together from images of places in and around Nyqvist’s native Norrköping. Feeling like a “virtual tourist” was my favorite aspect of the previous game, and Shades of Black ups the ante with some really unique real-world locations to visit, including a silver mine that has been turned into an underground hotel suite and a turret housing a 19th-century cannon that uses sunlight as an ignition source. Other interesting locales include homes to explore and a secluded retreat with unusual moss-covered cabins. Given the lackluster story, the standout quality of the locations helped to alleviate the boring parts with a very enjoyable sense of exploration.Continued on the next page...