I can’t remember exactly where I first heard of the “Blackwell” games, but I think that I saw something online about the second game in the series (“Blackwell Unbound”) last spring.
The second game in the series looked exactly like my kind of thing – 1990s-style pixel art graphics? Check! Cynical chain-smoking protagonist? Check! Film noir cityscapes? Check! Vintage fashions? Check! Horror? Check!
Naturally, of course, I … did nothing. Seriously, it wasn’t until a few months later that I saw a collection of the first four “Blackwell” games (titled “The Blackwell Bundle”) on special offer on GOG back in November.
I originally bought it purely on the strength of what I’d seen about the second game. However, I soon read that you’re supposed to play the games in order, so I decided to check out the first game instead (“The Blackwell Legacy” – which is very different to the second) and this is what I’ll be reviewing today, since I have a lot to say about this game.
Before I go any further, I should probably point out that this review will contain some PLOT SPOILERS, but I’ll try not to spoil the ending or too much of the main plot.
Anyway, let’s get started:
“The Blackwell Legacy” is a short paranormal horror/ psychological horror/ detective “point and click” game that is set in New York in 2006.
You play as a newspaper journalist/critic called Rosa Blackwell who is having a terrible day. For starters, her aunt has recently died after suffering from dementia for twenty-five years.
From her aunt’s doctor, Rosa learns that this dementia is hereditary and that it involves a strange fixation with the name “Joey”. Soon afterwards, Rosa’s editor calls her and asks her to investigate a mysterious suicide at the local university. Naturally, being a horror game, it soon becomes clear that there are supernatural elements afoot…
One of the very first things that I will say about “The Blackwell Legacy” is that it takes a while to really get started, and you shouldn’t judge it by your first impressions. Although I’ll talk about the gameplay later, this is one of those games that is more about storytelling and characters than about gameplay.
About the first third of the game is taken up with Rosa’s crappy day, and this part of the game has a very “realistic”, mundane and depressing tone. If I wasn’t so curious about the second game, and if I hadn’t already bought four of the games, I’d have probably stopped playing it there and then. Luckily, I didn’t.
Although this game starts out in a slightly dull and depressing way, it slowly draws you in through the strength of the characters, the game’s creepy horror elements, the intriguing backstory and the mysterious main plot. After a while, you’ll want to keep playing to find out more about what’s going on.
But, make no mistake, this is a horror game. Even though there are retro graphics and a friendly ghost, it’s still very much a horror game. This game has a subtle undestated creepiness to it that slowly builds up throughout the game. Not only that, there are also a couple of scenes which – whilst not exactly jump scares– certainly contain creepy plot twists.
I don’t want to spoil too much about the story, but it’s one of the game’s main strengths. Although the game is fairly dark and depressing in some parts, it takes a surprisingly mature attutude towards life, death and humanity in general – which is on a par with “Doctor Who”, Mike Carey’s “Felix Castor” novels and Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics
In terms of characterisation, this game is surprisingly good. Not only is Rosa a well-developed character, but her personality also influences how you can play the game too.
This was one of the first things that really surprised me about the game – unlike most “point and click” games, you don’t play as a bold, wise-cracking extroverted “adventurer” in “The Blackwell Legacy”.
For starters, Rosa actually uses common sense and she often refuses to do the kinds of vaguely sociopathic things that adventure game protagonists usually do without even a second thought….
Rosa is a much more introverted, slightly reclusive, socially awkward and cynical character and this is actually reflected in the gameplay.
In fact, one of the puzzles early in the game involves Rosa finding an indirect way to talk to someone she hasn’t met before, because she (quite understandably) feels too awkward to talk to her directly in a crowded street. At first, I was a little freaked out by this scene because it seemed a bit too much like real life to me.
Likewise, when Rosa talks to other characters, you’ll be given the choice of how you want to respond. Instead of always giving you several possible lines of dialogue, the game will sometimes actually ask you what emotion you want to express (with no way of knowing how the other character will react). Again, this was a surprisingly realistic thing that caught me totally by surprise.
But, after a while, I came to understand what makes this game so brilliant. It’s a game both about and for more introverted people (like myself).
Even most of the horror in this game comes from within the characters – rather than from an external force. This focus on introverted characters and introverted storytelling in general is such a rarity in computer games that I really wasn’t sure what to make of it at first.
In terms of gameplay, this game is something of a mixed bag. The game’s mechanics are fairly simple and not too unintuitive (eg: you can connect clues together using a notebook, which will give you more dialogue options etc…) and most of the game’s few puzzles aren’t that bad when compared to other “point and click” games.
In fact, I actually managed to solve one of them without resorting to a walkthrough. And, yes, I’m terrible at adventure game puzzles – I play these types of games mostly for the story and characters, rather than the puzzles.
Thankfully, there aren’t too many puzzles in this game – since the bulk of the gameplay is spent talking to people, investigating and reading things.
I’m not exaggerating about the “reading” part – at one point at the game, you have to read a 25 page document before you can progress. It’s very interesting and it contains a lot of backstory, but twenty-five pages! In a computer game!
However, although this game contains a compelling story and lots of splendid characterisation, it doesn’t have that much interactivity compared to many “point and click” games. Sure, you can walk around, talk to people, look at things and use items – but there aren’t really a gigantic number of locations and you can often only look at a small number of things in each location.
Sure, the limited amount of interactivity with the environment makes the puzzles slightly easier, but it makes the gameplay less enjoyable. Still, this game is more about storytelling and characterisation than gameplay.
Graphically, this game is pretty cool. Although it contains a slight graphical glitch (where Rosa will briefly look blurry when moving between the foreground and background), I absolutely loved the 1990s-style pixel art graphics in this game.
However, many of the settings are kind of mundane and ordinary, although the game certainly includes a few cool locations too:
The game also contains digitally-painted graphics and the art style in these illustrations is just the right mix of cheerful and slightly creepy.
I don’t know if this was intentional or not, but combining such “cheerful” artwork with such a creepy story certainly adds to the unnerving atmosphere of the game:
In terms of length, I completed this game – using a walkthrough for many of the game’s few puzzles- in about three hours. However, although this game tells a self-contained story, it’s kind of like the first episode of a TV show and quite a bit of the game is spent setting up the premise and backstory for the rest of the series.
All in all, even though this game didn’t make a great first impression on me, it quicky grew on me. In some ways, it’s one of the most original and unique adventure games that I’ve played.
“The Blackwell Legacy” is a much more introverted game than pretty much any other computer game I’ve played, it’s also a surprisingly creepy horror game and it left me intrigued about the other games in the series. Yes, the gameplay certainly isn’t anything spectacular – but it doesn’t have to be, it’s just the vehicle for telling a fascinating story.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a four.