Indie developer Alice & Smith’s The Black Watchmen emerged on the scene last fall with lofty ambitions. Not only did it seek to merge the immersive real-world interaction of alternate reality games with more traditional puzzle-adventures, it represented just the first installment of an ongoing series. Remarkably for a freshman studio, the first season was a resounding success that exceeded all expectations.
The story cast players as an agent in the eponymous clandestine organization, tasking them with fighting paranormal phenomena together with other agents around the globe. A content-laden game of research- and collaboration-based puzzles was bolstered with the opportunity for real-world interaction with the game through optional phone calls, package deliveries, and live events in which players could meet face-to-face with characters from the story. Even with a few minor missteps, the result was a uniquely immersive experience that provided tremendous value even at the lowest level of interaction.
Season two, subtitled Enduring Conflict, is very much a “second verse (almost) same as the first” affair, refining rather than reinventing the wheel. All of the positive qualities that made its predecessor a standout title are still present in this second outing, such as a narrative filled with supernatural evil and cloak-and-dagger subterfuge, puzzles that require a diverse array of real-world knowledge to solve, and collaborative ARG elements that blur the line between the game world and real events. With several of the issues that held back the first season being alleviated or eliminated this time around, along with the addition of a few new puzzle types and a shocking end-of-season live event, the second season showcases the series’ fantastic potential for both veterans and newcomers alike.
The story still revolves around a global network of agents battling occult forces, but the first season’s adversary has given way to a new and seemingly more powerful foe. As with last time, new sets of missions were released every few weeks over the course of several months, but unlike the previous season, where each mission set was used to introduce a new puzzle type or gameplay mechanic, the missions here have a much more varied feel from the start. A few sets have a unique theme, as well, such as some early missions in which players battle demonic forces inspired by H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which fans of the iconic horror writer will no doubt appreciate.
One complaint I had about season one was that I felt out of the loop at times regarding the story and the motivations behind certain plot points. Usually this was due to my playing the game after the season’s live events were over, each of which affected subsequent missions. Having been able to participate in several of the live events this time around, I found the story much easier to follow, but I can also report that the few times I was not able to participate didn’t hinder my experience as much as it did before. The game forums and other avenues for communicating with fellow players (such as IRC chat), as well as the structure of the story itself, have had time to mature, leading to better chronicling of events for those who need to catch up.
Interface-wise, not much has changed, which is a good thing considering the highly-polished setup already established. Incremental updates tweaked functionality or appearance occasionally throughout the season, but for the most part the client is almost identical to how it looked and performed last season. The slick, minimalist interface still acts as mission hub for your web-based research and puzzle-solving tasks, allowing you to select from various available missions in a campaign. At any time, players can switch between campaigns from either of the first two seasons and a few sandbox campaigns that feature player-created missions, although for now this is a largely under-utilized feature due to the rigorous approval process.
Music and sound effects appear unchanged as well, which is either a non-issue or a slight disappointment, depending on your point of view. For me, it doesn’t really matter; I turned the music off early last season and never turned it back on except to see whether something new had been added this season. The only sound-related item that has changed somewhat is the voice acting, primarily owing to the mission briefing videos featuring some new talent. While there are a few familiar voices in the cast, several new actors change things up, though as last time they are mostly functional in purpose.
Most puzzles take the same general forms too, asking you to gather information about some new aspect of an investigation by decoding Morse code-like patterns in a sound file, locating a building on Google Maps based on data provided by the agency, or investigating a real-world website created for the game in order to uncover details about an individual or organization under scrutiny, among various other tasks. Most of the puzzles require research into diverse topics including science, religion, languages, and history, but if you become truly stuck you always have the community, including the official game forums, to help guide you to the solution.
A frustrating issue encountered last season was that certain missions required extremely specific terms or formatting (hyphenated words, for instance) for puzzle answers to be accepted. That issue has been almost entirely eliminated this season, with more variations in terms being recognized and the format of the answer being provided when a specific term must be used. The downside to this approach is that the difficulty curve is, in some cases, massively reduced, though newcomers might find the smoother learning curve more enjoyable. For several puzzles I could simply guess the answer without any other information than the format of the term and a list of possible answers, like a list of stock exchanges or building names.
This ends up being a highly acceptable trade-off, however, given that it alleviates the problem of either knowing the answer and not being able to figure out how the parser expects you to format it, or unwittingly having the right answer and overlooking it because you didn’t format it properly the first time you tried. With this solution in place, the few very challenging puzzles I encountered were satisfying to solve because I didn’t have to worry about whether I’d know what the answer was when I arrived at it. In the end, this small change made each challenge feel surmountable, and I only needed to consult other players a handful of times.
There are a few new puzzle types that take advantage of the web-centric nature of the game, adding more traditional minigame-like activities into the otherwise research-heavy structure of Black Watchmen. Accessed via their own dedicated websites, the first such task you encounter consists of a game board-like grid representing a radar map of a cave into which a light-averse creature has fled. One square represents the agent you must move around the map, and then, based on the creature’s movement patterns and information provided by each round’s radar sweep, try to find and trap the entity. Although there are clues as to how to complete it, overall the game is a frustrating exercise in trial and error, ending more often than not with the agent being attacked and killed, resulting in having to start all over again. Luckily, this particular game is not representative of the new game types as a whole, which makes it all the more unfortunate that it is the first impression players have of the second season’s minigames.
The other two puzzle types introduced this season are much more intuitive than the first, consisting of STINGER, a Unix-inspired command line interface used to hack fictional computer systems, and CLAM, a data-collection and decryption game. STINGER is used when you are given tasks like gathering incriminating evidence from the computer system of a particular individual. While the text-based interface is likely a love-it-or-hate-it feature because you MUST type each command correctly in order to successfully complete a task, this feature enhances the realism, and at times I felt like I was actually snooping around someone’s computer.Continued on the next page...