I Saw Black Clouds review
Wales Interactive has made a name for itself publishing interactive films in recent years, and Ghost Dog Films’ I Saw Black Clouds is the latest addition to an increasingly impressive library. Where this psychological FMV thriller most stands out is its strong plot coupled with real player agency and high replay value that will keep you coming back in order to uncover as many details as possible. There are no puzzles to be solved, but those looking for a cinematic choose-your-own-adventure game with a good script and fine acting will find plenty to keep themselves entertained here.
I Saw Black Clouds puts players in the role of Kristina, a woman whose friend Emily committed suicide not long ago. A request by Emily’s mother leads Kristina to discover her late friend’s diary, which references a girl who went missing from a local mental health clinic where Emily was seeking treatment, and suggests that Emily knew what happened to her. From there, the protagonist slowly begins to peel back the layers of a dark mystery that Emily had uncovered about her hometown, where ghostly happenings and all-too-tangible tragedy collide.
The story is the most crucial aspect of any interactive film, and in this area I Saw Black Clouds succeeds quite well. I was most impressed by the way the paranormal and the real are woven together in unexpected ways, yet still manage to remain convincing and coherent. The disappearance of Emily’s friend seems to be related to the spirit of a woman named Agnes that is said to haunt the town, but the ambiguity about the exact nature of the ghost, and its connection to Emily’s suicide, kept me guessing as to the true nature of the events surrounding Emily’s death. Naturally, as one might expect, not everything is as it seems. One particularly dark revelation ratchets up the tension so much that, quite frankly, I was surprised it works as well as it does. There are a few spooky moments along the way, but the horror elements are quite mild, making it a more accessible title than those looking to outright scare their audience.
As you uncover more information, issues of trust arise regarding Kristina’s friends and acquaintances, and ultimately the plot had me pondering the motives of most of the characters, including the protagonist herself. Is Jack, a fellow patient who knew Emily, really interested in finding out what happened to her, or is he after something else? Why is the headmaster at the school where Emily taught so defensive when discussing her? Does Kristina know more about her friend’s death than you, the player, are privy to? These and other questions kept me pressing forward through the game’s twists and turns. Although not perfect by any means, the narrative, and the way it plays out, is quite compelling.
The production team deserves kudos for snagging a talented cast to portray the various characters, with Nicole O’Neill (known for her roles in Penny Dreadful and Red Sparrow) starring as Kristina, while Rachel Jackson plays Kristina’s friend Charlotte. Both are quite good, though Jackson’s performance as an “everywoman” feels just a bit more natural than O’Neill’s, whose delivery is slightly wooden on occasion. Larry Rew (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans) gives an especially subtle and enjoyable performance as Alexander, a wealthy but temperamental clinician whose family history and rumors of ghostly hauntings at his manor may have important implications for Emily’s death and Kristina’s investigation.
The other actors do their jobs quite well, though none are as impressive as these three. It is noteworthy, however, that unlike many live-action videogames, neither the script nor the performances ever become overwrought, and unintentional comedy is avoided. Frankly, this feat alone elevates I Saw Black Clouds above a myriad of peers, and goes a long way to showing that such issues within the FMV subgenre can indeed be overcome with better writing and casting choices.
Those hoping for some semblance of puzzle solving will be left wanting, as the sole interactive elements in I Saw Black Clouds are the dialog and action choices you make throughout. These choices are time-limited by default, but an optional settings adjustment lets you take as much time as you wish to make a decision. I welcomed this ability and frequently made use of it, though the time limits I encountered before switching were generous enough not to be frustrating. Player agency provides real opportunities to change the way the narrative unfolds, and I was impressed by just how significant some options turned out to be. Even when a matter seems relatively minor at the time, bringing up a certain topic or withholding information can change what you discover and how you go about the investigation altogether. This leads to fairly different playthroughs, revealing new storyline branches, distinct dialog, and even whole other locales. This encouraged me to replay the game, and at approximately two hours per playthrough (less if you skip through scenes you have already viewed), starting over is not a particularly troublesome task.
Unfortunately, while there are four different outcomes, having gotten three of those four I found the differences between them fairly underwhelming, consisting primarily of modified dialog in the closing scenes. While some endings are perhaps more satisfying than others (this was certainly the developer’s intention, though questionably successful), they don’t seem to provide any greater insight into the preceding events. Once you’ve made a number of different choices and seen the major permutations of the storyline, only completionists are likely to care whether they’ve seen all possible finales.
Which ending you see is determined by a set of statistics, accessible via the game menu, whose values respond to your decisions throughout. These include Kristina’s character, such as her strength and morality; her level of acceptance, denial, and guilt; and the quality of her relationship with two particular characters. Figuring out just how the statistics influence which outcome you receive is something of a challenge, and I finally resorted to a walkthrough after a couple of attempts, having failed to figure out how to unlock other endings. It’s an interesting idea to increase replayability, but making the statistics more obviously relatable to certain decisions and results would have made this system far more intuitive.
There are a few issues in I Saw Black Clouds that don’t seriously impact gameplay, but nevertheless could have used some polish. One glaring problem is that several scenes seem to lack associated lines of dialogue for Kristina after you respond to a question by another character, which made for a few awkward moments. In addition, some dialog appears to have been written as though you’ve made specific choices earlier on. For instance, at one point Kristina mentions that she “saw a ghost,” a reference to a previous incident in which your choice of actions determines whether Kristina actually does see a ghost or merely senses a presence. The latter occurred in my first playthrough, making the reference to seeing a ghost a bit confusing until my second time through, during which the original scene played out differently and the ghost in question really appeared.
Throughout the game, you will visit a church, a manor, a pub, and an abandoned mental health facility, to name a few of the more memorable locales. With a clearly limited budget to work with, however, flashy effects are pretty much absent, and the locations are somewhat drab. While it is mildly disappointing that more interesting sets and effects aren’t utilized, the made-for-TV quality of the production is an improvement over the vintage titles I’m most familiar with from the mid-nineties that helped give FMV a bad name.
The musical score, a mix of ambient and orchestral tunes, is rather forgettable, with a few notable exceptions. Pulsing ambient drones and the occasional piano or orchestral texture punctuate dramatic moments, but the atmosphere is never overloaded with melodramatic audio. The soundtrack’s highlight is Michelle Bee’s downtempo pop vocal contributions, sung by Victoria Tew and featured in a few key scenes throughout the game. They lend a trendy, contemporary beat that perfectly suits their respective scenes, such as those that take place at the pub.
Overall, I Saw Black Clouds manages to be a solid interactive film, with a compelling story that merges the realistic with the supernatural. It features a decent script and boasts above-average acting that avoids devolving into melodrama and unintentional comedy, although a lack of polish holds it back somewhat. The plot will keep you guessing as to the nature of the mystery, and while gameplay is minimal, player choice can dramatically change the way events unfold, and the relatively short length adds to its replay appeal. It’s a shame, then, that the multiple endings are a little disappointing, with not much variation between them compared to the differences your choices effect throughout the rest of the game. It’s certainly not the slickest production around, but I wager that fans of FMV games and interactive films will enjoy their time with it.