Blackwell Bundle Review
By Lloyd Parker -orient
In the past six months, over 5 million dollars has been pledged to veteran adventure game developers via Kickstarter. While we wait for those high-profile projects to come to fruition, a more tangible point & click renaissance is currently taking place, thanks in no small part to Wadjet Eye Games, creators of the Blackwell series.
Before their successful plunge into publishing with Gemini Rue and Resonance, Wadjet Eye were mostly known in adventure game circles as the one-man-team behind the Blackwell series, headed by Dave Gilbert. Recognized for his sharp writing and interesting narratives, Dave became a forerunner in selling and distributing retro-style adventure games.
The Blackwell Bundle is a collection of all four Blackwell titles: Legacy, Unbound, Convergence, and Deception. The first game begins with protagonist Rosangela (Rosa) Blackwell scattering her auntie Lauren’s ashes into the sea from the Brooklyn Bridge. Rosa’s solitary life as a downbeat freelance writer gets flipped on its head soon after with the arrival of Joey Mallone, her new spirit guide, who was passed down to her from her dead aunt.
Joey is a wise-cracking ghost from the ‘30s whose cynicism is only outweighed by his blooming loyalty to Rosa, or “Red”, as he fondly calls her. In the Blackwell fiction, ghosts can only “move on” from this world when they come to terms with their death and the reasons behind it, and, according to Joey, it is Rosa’s job to help them do exactly that.
In each game you will convince a handful of spooks that they are no longer alive, unraveling the mystery of their death in the process. Take Allen for example, a depressed businessman who is threatening to jump from his office window, oblivious to the fact that he’s already hit the pavement. Once you find Allen’s obituary and confirm his identity, you’re free to probe him through a selection of dialogue options. If you berate him long enough on his failed business and failed marriage, he will eventually attempt to jump, only to find himself floating in mid-air, and that’s when it hits him.
Dialogue puzzles make up a large percentage of the gameplay. The clues you find by clicking around environments are often added to your notebook, which you can then use in conversation to unlock new lines of questioning. The more traditional inventory puzzles (use key on door for instance) are typically enhanced by the dual character system; you can switch control of Rosa (or Lauren if you’re playing Unbound) to Joey at almost any time. Being a ghost means objects are untouchable to you, as Joey will frustratingly point out if you try to pick things up, but it also has its perks, namely walking through doors and general snooping around. Joey can also blow on things which comes in handy on the odd occasion.
These aren’t the types of adventure games that are peppered with difficult stand-alone puzzles like safe-cracking or code-breaking. In fact, if the main reason you play adventure games is for the cerebral challenge then the Blackwell series may not be for you. There are clever puzzles that require some chin-stroking to overcome (and some I couldn’t even conquer without a walkthrough), but the game’s priority is always the story.
Speaking of which, the narrative constructed throughout the series is not one of globe-trotting grandeur as in most adventures, but instead tells a more personal tale, focusing on the Blackwell family lineage and their connection to the afterlife, if there is such a thing. With the passing of each ghost, Rosa and Joey’s relationship grows stronger and more endearing, while the mysteries behind the next plain of existence deepens.
While the whole bundle has a distinctly lo-fi look, each game has a slightly different visual style, from Legacy’s clean-cut pixels to the gorgeously painted backgrounds of Convergence. The second game, Unbound, lacks background detail and the fourth game is a noticeable downgrade from the beautiful Convergence, but if you’re fine with low-resolution graphics in the first place, then the visual inconsistencies shouldn’t be too much of a deterrent for you.
Wadjet Eye set the standard for indie adventures by including voice acting in their games, and it would be difficult to imagine them without it. The quality of acting varies, and despite a few grievous missteps (no, please, not a young person doing an “old lady” voice), the main characters are convincingly portrayed, with Abe Goldfarb delivering the standout performance as Joey Mallone.
Of course, every recorded line would fall flat if it wasn’t for the sharp pen of Dave Gilbert, whose writing combines light-hearted, comedic moments with an air of melancholy that perpetuates throughout the New York setting and it’s ghostly inhabitants. There are points when the dialogue doesn’t adequately mask the hints being dropped for the player, which results in some conversations feeling a little stilted and “video gamey”, but by and large the quality of the writing is far better than in most indie adventure games (and most commercial adventures, too).
Ghost stories are a well-covered genre in the realm of adventure games, but there are none quite like the Blackwell Bundle. A smart and passionate piece, this collection of traditional point-and-clickers will sooth your soul with its soft jazz and endearing main characters. It does little to further the genre, nor does it try to; its only goal is to deliver a great story and with that it exceeds admirably.
If you’re partial to shorter gaming experiences that lie on the easier side of the adventure game spectrum, then this is one indie bundle you’ll most definitely want in your collection.
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