Review(s): The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, and Blackwell Convergence

By Sean Clancy 14 Jul 2014 0
"Yeah, take that Monique! And you too Future Device Which I Assume Can Hear, and Understand, Me!" "Yeah, take that Monique! And you too Future Device Which I Assume Can Hear and Understand Me!"

The Blackwell games are jazzy slices of paranormal New York biography, punctuated with the beats of a '50s P.I. procedural. Wadjet Eye Games' functionally traditional point-and-click series is unabashedly heart-on-sleeve with its tale of a reluctant medium coming into her own as the latest bearer of the Blackwell family legacy. Which is ghosts, by the way.

Rosangela, like her aunt and grandmother before her, is meant to find wayward spirits unaware of--or unwilling to accept--their own demise. She then works to shuttle them off to the afterlife, either by forcing them to confront the unreality of their own ghost-ness, or by basically tricking them into walking towards the light.

Rosa does this with the help of a blue-suited, wise-crackin' Depression-era spirit guide named Joey Mallone, for goodness' sake. Really. These are serious tales. Really.

The Blackwell games are a five-strong series that launched on PC and recently concluded there with April's release of The Blackwell Epiphany. The first three games (The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, and Blackwell Convergence) arrived en masse on iOS earlier this month.

The first title in the series, Legacy, introduces Rosangela as a somewhat stereotypical lonely New York writer, a socially awkward homebody [ouch! --ed.] whose first challenge in the game is convincing a replacement doorman that she actually lives in her apartment building -- like any real New Yorker, she's never spoken a word to her neighbors. By the conclusion of the third game, Convergence, she's hatching a plan with her otherworldly partner Joey Mallone to advertise their spirit-saving services online (on "that internet box," as Mallone calls it), for all to see.

Mallone is, of course, the perfect mismatch for Rosangela, a Sam Spade detective-type who, despite his grave occupation as a modern day Charon, isn't above leering at a good-looking (also: still living) woman, or roughing up a spirit which refuses to play ball. While Blackwell Legacy has several puzzles which require clever use of Joey's limited ghostly powers--interfering with wireless signals, generating light breezes--it's Unbound which first introduces the ability to switch between a living Blackwell (Aunt Lauren Blackwell, in the '70s-set prequel) and Mallone. Joey can scout out restricted areas and peek at items which Lauren/Rosa can't reach, as well as weigh in on a situation with his own world-weary cynicism. The best, and rarest, Mallone puzzles don't involve his phasing through a locked door or futzing with a TV remote, but rather using his often perceptive reads to better interrogate a person of interest.

AVATAR. Roll credits. AVATAR. Roll credits.

Rosangela, meanwhile, is more a student of the big picture. With a journalist's eye for details, and the threads which connect them, she's the go-to for dealing with the livings' problems. The Blackwell games, instead of relying on the hackneyed adventure game non-logic of "item plus item equals... solution... I suppose," shunts most of that typical point-and-click guesswork into Rosangela's notebook.

Our protagonist jots down, say, a fragment of a name, plus the name of that person's mother; combine the two in the notebook and Rosangela/Lauren can deduce that the two share a surname, or that X character knows Y, and so on. The usual comic scramble to combine a melon-baller with everything in the room is replaced with a more believable (but no less desperate) scramble to piece together a narrative from a series of clues--though there are still some puzzles which demand a speedy trawl through one's inventory.

Lauren Blackwell's prequel tale in Unbound begins with our chain-smoking lead swearing off her "last" cigarette of the night. For the rest of that installment she'll light up another when left alone long enough, and in a delightful touch those cigs will appear in her inventory before she snuffs them out and moves along at the player's behest. Ghost-busting is a stressful occupation, and the Blackwell games make clear that Lauren and Rosa are constantly trying (and often failing) to balance their own lives against the obligations of medium work.

Primarily, though, the Blackwell games concern themselves with history. Not in a grand sense, on the level of nations, but rather the histories of individuals, and the way those histories have a tendency to echo beyond their owners' lifespans.

Bear in mind this is the list of potential ghost-activity for all of New York City. Bear in mind this is the list of potential ghost-activity for all of New York City.

This is not a fuzzy, warm remembrance. The spirits of the Blackwell games often leave behind just as much pain as was brought about during their own deaths. These ghosts either breed further tragedy through their own sad confusion--as does the unwitting "Deacon" in Legacy, whose constant pleas for help eventually drive his victims to suicide--or are simply revealed to have lived tragic, uneventful lives cut short by chance, such as the odd collection of murder victims in Unbound and Convergence.

Legacy is a game about friendship, as the standoffish Rosa comes to better know her neighbors (well, one neighbor) while working a case at a college dormitory. Its is a familiar caricature of New York where people living in the same building, even the same floor, don't know each other, and one where the best options for getting by are laying low or pretending to be someone else; the puzzles reflect this widespread anonymity, and when Rosa has to really dig to find out the name of a deceased woman's boyfriend, or lie about her own name (using several different names) to an security guard, it's not hard to believe that people really can be willfully oblivious to what's going on around them. Reaching out to another person--or ghost--is dangerous, if only because coming to know someone means coming to have certain responsibilities towards them as well.

And yet the tragedy of Blackwell Legacy is, ultimately, the dissolution of a close friendship between three students, with each characterized as defining herself--at least partly--through her friendship with the other two. The supernatural force which strikes at these students hits so hard precisely because it hits their collective identity. The one lasting positive in the tale is the sense that what's been lost over the course of the game--that friendship, as it existed among the living--was truly valuable.

Dude studies those crazy yellow peas, the purest distillation of madness. Dude studies those crazy yellow peas, the purest distillation of madness.

As are the ties which bond families together, in Blackwell Unbound, or the obligations of an artist to the viewing public in Blackwell Convergence. The former sees Lauren Blackwell investigating the last days of a jazz musician estranged from the former band leader who had fallen in love with his sister, and the unfortunate tale of an mother whose progressive agoraphobia irrecoverably severs her relationship to her son. The latter reintroduces us to a present-day Rosa more comfortable with her medium duties, working an apparent heart-attack case involving a little-known stable actor for an independent production house.

The second and third Blackwell games are the better titles, frankly, with Legacy functioning as the expository introduction. Unbound and Convergence establish a lived-in world for Lauren and Rosa to pound the pavement in, with stories and characters--such as the courtly New Yorker journalist Joseph Mitchell and Beat bohemian Joe Gould, fictionalized takes on the actual writer and his most famous subject--carrying over between installments. These titles are fairly short, as well, each taking no more than a few hours for reasonably well-seasoned point-and-click aficionados. They work well together though, and I can't imagine getting as much satisfaction out of the briskly paced second and third games if I hadn't had most of the major points laid out for me in Legacy. Unbound and Convergence don't bother to explain themselves at all.

But, hell, do they know how to stick the knife in and break it off. Legacy, too. Sure, the puzzling's often clever, and the technical trifles of porting from PC to touchscreen are all fine (aside from one crash at the conclusion of Legacy, where I was able to interact with an object which I clearly shouldn't have been able to yet). At their worst, these games can get somewhat bogged down enumerating the arcane regulations associated with the medium biz.

"The planning board really ought to fill in these potholes. And, you know, work on reconnecting the road back to the mortal plane of existence." "The planning board really ought to fill in these potholes. And, you know, work on reconnecting the road back to the mortal plane of existence."

But... it's like this: there's a moment in The Blackwell Legacy where you realize why the spirit of a deceased college woman is haunting a city dog park. It's because she really loved dogs, of course. The shock wasn't this ultimate "why," but that I had failed to realize the "why," even though I was supposedly learning everything I could about this woman. It's this realization which finally helps Rosangela and Joey guide the spirit to her rest--the realization that she's not just a collection of notes in a notebook, but a person, with goals and fears and friends and- oh, wait.

She's dead now. Just dead. The Blackwell games posit that every death leaves behind a heap of aborted goals, bitter relatives, ex-pals and countless other lingering indignities heaped on top of that final indignity. Many ignore or hide away from these remainders, but people like the Blackwell women--writers, journalists, musicians, painters--are compelled to cull and clean up these sticky bits of ectoplasm. Fated, maybe. Or cursed.

The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, and Blackwell Convergence were played on a 3rd generation iPad for this review.

Review(s): The Blackwell Legacy, Blackwell Unbound, and Blackwell Convergence

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