Thoughts on Blackwell

Blackwell is a series of classic point and click adventure games from the New York -based developer, Wadjet Eye Games. There are four episodes available: Legacy, Unbound, Convergence and Deception. I picked up first three of them in a bundle from Indie Royale. I'm not a fan of adventure games, but people said these are pretty good, so I just fired up Blackwell Legacy one day. And immediately fell in love.
Blackwell games are centered on Rosangela Blackwell, a shy and closed-in book reviewer from a small newspaper. One day Joey Mallone appears in her life. He's a ghost of (apparently) private investigator from 1920s. Actually, we don't know anything sure about him... which makes things interesting. He says he's bound to Rosa, he can't leave her and that they have to seek for ghosts and help them get to "the other side". Actually, he seems to have a connection with other women in Blackwell family: he haunted Rosa's aunt Lauren and her grandmother. They ended up in a psychiatric hospital... So, Joey and Rosa seek for ghosts haunting various places in NY and help them get to the "other side". These ghosts rarely remember why they're dead; they mostly don't even know they're dead.
You solve ghost cases by investigating what made them die, and sometimes you get to know more about your family and Joey.
Does it all sound dull? Or maybe like a ghost story for teenage girls? I read a few reviews before playing and though exactly that. I was so wrong!
The first thing that hit me was the writing. It's excellent. Dave Gilbert (head of Wadjet Eye and author of Blackwell games) isn't very wordy, but somehow manages to slip lots of personality between every character's lines. People in Blackwells are actual people, not just clue-dispensers or obstacles. Voice acting helps here and is mostly good, though some lines seemed kinda off (but just a few ones). Dialogues are witty and genuinely funny at times. I enjoyed every conversation a lot. In Blackwell Unbound you get to play as Rosa's aunt, Lauren, who is a slightly depressed and constantly smoking lady. Her arguments with Joey are even more entertaining.
The story itself is truly engaging. It feels like a tv series, with separate cases being episodes - and with a bigger story involving main characters, which is spun over all of them.
Then there's a subtle, jazzy soundtrack, perfectly fitting for late-night strolls through NY. Art direction is a little different in every game. I liked it the most in the 3rd one (Convergence), it reminded me of Gabriel Knight. Beautiful backgrounds and character portraits were a pleasure to watch. That's why I was disappointed to see Deception's (4th one) art, which is more upbeat and comic-like. Actually, that's my only complaint about Blackwells: I'd like them to be somewhat darker. Unbound felt a bit like that and I'd love to see more sinister elements in the other ones as well.

I finished the first three, immediately bought the fourth one and finished it as well. After playing I felt that I actually like adventure games. I tried a few others (5 Days A Stranger, Technobabylon) and was frustrated - but it helped me to understand why I liked Blackwells so much.
Gilbert strived to minimize all the things that annoy me in point and click games. Let me write them down:

  • pixel hunting - clickable objects in Blackwell are rather big, and if something important has to be small (like a key), it's always somehow highlighted.
  • lots of items and item combinations - puzzles in Blackwell are mostly based on gathering clues, not items. If you hear about something new, you can talk about it with others and look it up on the web (Rosa has a computer and can use Oogle search). You rarely have more than 3-4 items. Then there's the notepad. Rosa collects all the clues there and it acts somewhat like a second inventory. You can use these clues in conversations (that is: ask people about them). Clues can be combined to form new ones; I liked that, it made me feel like I'm actually figuring things out by myself. Very cool, but underused feature!
  • lots of locations and backtracking - I hate to find and item in Room 1 and have to go to Room 10 to use it. Blackwell solves it by using a city map - from this "hub" I can go to any location, which consists of 1-2 screens. Additionally, if a location is not needed later in game, it just disappears from the map. Nifty!
  • nonsense puzzles, like use matches on cheese to build a helicopter. Puzzles in Blackwell are... I wanted to say that they're easy, but it's not true. I'd call them intuitive. And even if you get stuck, using everything on everything is actually doable, because you have just a few items and locations at a time.
  • interface - most point and clicks use some form of the SCUMM standard: you have a few standard actions (look at, use, pick up, talk) and apply them to items/characters on screen. I hate it. Let's say there is a room, doors are locked and there's something shiny on the floor. Click to show action menu, click "Look at", click on the item. It's a key. Click, actions, click, "Pick up", click key. Click to show inventory, click key, use, click door. Action menu, use, door. Opened!
    Blackwell uses a very simplified interface: right mouse button means "look", and the left one means "use". "Use" is the most obvious action on given object: talk to people, open door, pick up item etc. Also, to open the inventory I just need to hover the mouse at the top of the screen. These facilities might seem minor, but they make a big difference to me.

Gilbert understands the genre, but improves greatly upon its flaws. I can't recommend the Blackwell series enough... They're a bliss to play, don't miss out on that!
You can get them on Steam, GOG, Desura and directly from Wadjet Eye.

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