The Blackwell Deception Review (PC)

It was actually frustrating to start The Blackwell Deception. Not because it required drivers or a patch or anything, but it was just so pushy. Its own Start Menu and Programs folders? A Quick Launch icon? Bit cocky for an indie adventure game, ain’t ya? It also hates the Steam overlay and has no in-game graphics options, so I was stuck with the native 640x480 resolution (who even remembers that resolution?!) because I didn’t realise that the Settings were only available from the Start Menu. The way I was playing there are games from 1995 that make The Blackwell Deception look like arse.

My mood was not improved by finding that the game offers no explanation for people new to the series. I knew that there were previous games in the series, but it took a ‘net search to find out that this is actually the fourth game in the Blackwell saga. Feel free not to advertise that fact in-game guys, I’m sure you don’t need the revenue. Therefore, everything I’m about to tell you I weaned myself from various points in the game. It would’ve saved some confusion at the start, but oh well…

Joey’s a ghost, you know

The Blackwell Deception is a point ‘n’ click adventure, if you couldn’t tell by the screenshots. You play two characters – Rosa Blackwell, a medium, and her “spirit guide” Joey Mallone, the ghost of a ‘30s private detective. Together they solve ghost-related crimes and help spirits move on to the afterlife. So yes, it’s kind of like the TV show Randall & Hopkirk: Deceased (the original anyway), but deeper. Their current assignment is to check out a haunted yacht, but that will quickly move to a more sinister and personal investigation – for both of them.

The way these two characters come across actually makes a hugely innovative spin on the adventure game genre. Rosa, being alive, can talk to everyone and handle things, but Joey can go anywhere and interact with ghosts (of which there are a fair number). Developer Wadjet Eye has cleverly avoided making Joey just a Max the rabbit-esque “regular usable object”, as the play-time divide between the two characters felt pretty much 50/50. Impressive considering all Joey can really do is talk and blow.

The innovations don’t stop with the characters either. Rosa’s smart-phone is used to great and regular effect, putting this as one of the few proper modern adventure games out there (if you want to use a phone in Broken Sword for example you have to go back to your apartment, and that’s just for calls). Rosa can keep and compare notes on it in a manner very similar to the underrated Discworld Noir, using those notes as if inventory objects on people and the world around her. She can also call numbers and, with the biggest shock, even use a Google-like search engine to find vital details about people and places.

This search engine is really quite impressive for an indie adventure game. You have to type things in manually and, if relevant, something will pop up. It does suffer from adventure game logic occasionally though, as does the rest of the game. For example, I’d figured out that the initials “STP” referred to the temping agency the person I was talking to mentioned, but typing in “STP Temping Agency” into the ‘Oogle’ (cute) app got me nothing. However, combining the notes “Temping Agency” and “STP” made Rosa automatically search for it. A little annoying, but that’s the only time it fell down for me – the rest of the time it worked whenever I needed it.

Jeremy here’s not been feeling well. He’s a little pale

With all the innovative phone and ghost use the inventory puzzles that allowed the genre to stagnate are thrown almost entirely out the window. You can combine items, but I only had to do it once in the entire game, and there are only a few items that can be picked up to solve puzzles – and some of those are keys. Consequently puzzles are solved using just Rosa’s phone, Joey’s ability to go anywhere and blow on things, and talking.

Does that make it sound easy? Well, it’s not. It’s quite tough, but without the stupid amount of inventory items that characterize the genre you have to rely on genuine puzzle-solving ability. The clues are all there and there’s very little wastage, so if something is relevant it will get highlighted. Once a location, note or phone number isn’t needed anymore it’ll disappear, so you know for sure when something is useful. There is some truly fantastic design on show in The Blackwell Deception, allowing the game to flow and still stump you now and again.

All of which would be for nought of course if the main story was crap, or if the characters were unlikeable and/or irritatingly voiced (see The Whispered World). Fortunately The Blackwell Deception gets these right too, astonishingly well in fact. The slight confusion at the beginning quickly drops away to reveal quite an interesting and well-written bond between Rosa and Joey. Most importantly they have their personal weaknesses which are smartly played out over the course of the game.

In fact the whole thing is just incredibly well-written by the standards of any medium. Whether game, book, film, TV show, theatre, radio, ballet, or hand puppets, the tale told in The Blackwell Deception is expertly plotted. It allows the characters to build, has genuinely funny character humour, emotional moments are believably poignant, pushes the player on to the ending, and has a hateful but understandably human villain. The supernatural angle never overwhelms the reality either, so it always stays relatable – mostly because it all comes down to everyday themes, most notably the fear of death.

One of the more emotional moments in the game

I don’t know how, but the voice acting and music are excellent too. Normally I’d turn off voices in a little adventure like this (did I mention The Whispered World?) but here I was very happy with what I heard. The voices for Rosa and Joey in particular I’m glad to say are spot-on. Rosa has a definite world-weariness yet still can joke around, and Joey sounds like a ‘30s detective but stays on the right side of cheesy. They’re both hugely protective of the other, and their actors convey their characters’ emotions well.

Despite my earlier sneer at the game for irritating me so much at the start, I did end up being hugely impressed by The Blackwell Deception. It’s seriously one of the best adventure games I’ve played in years that has words in it (I’m looking at you, Machinarium). It doesn’t just tell a good story, it’s tightly plotted too. If this were a film or book people would be going crazy about it. They’ll just have to go crazy about a point ‘n’ click adventure instead. It may look a little ‘90s, but if you want to experience an intelligent, cleverly designed game that makes you think (with both story and puzzles) I advise you to pick it up. If you’re looking for a good story, you won’t regret it. And it’s got crime-solving ghosts in it, which automatically ups the score.

Top Game Moment: A rather touching sequence involving two ghosts dancing in a nightclub. The music’s surprisingly catchy. I’m a fan of Epileptic Fish now.

Game advertisements by <a href="" target="_blank">Game Advertising Online</a> require iframes.