Review: The Blackwell Deception

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Even as today’s modern gamer mentality fights to bury it, the point-and-click adventure genre is here to stay. Particularly now that the indie gaming scene is so in vogue, small development shops and one-man home developers are keeping adventure gaming alive and kicking. Dave Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Games is one such indie studio, stoking the fires of original and creative adventure game development with recent favorites like Puzzle Bots and the Blackwell series.

I did get a chance to play Puzzle Bots last year, but I am just catching on to the Blackwell series with the latest installment released earlier this month, The Blackwell Deception. Fortunately, while there is some carry over with the characters, from what I understand the games are self-contained enough to not require prior experience with each passing installment, so do not fear jumping into this new chapter blind as I did.

In this instance, The Blackwell Deception tells a supernatural murder mystery as seen through the eyes of spiritual medium Rosa Blackwell and her ghostly sidekick Joey Mallone. Confused spirits of victims scammed by a shady street psychic are being left behind after strange deaths are uncovered, each linking back to a mysterious man known only as Gavin. These spirits don’t yet realize they are dead, and so to ultimately get to the bottom of the plot Rosa must first help them recognize their passing and pump them for clues before aiding in their final transition.

The Blackwell Deception is a blast from the past; a throwback in all ways to the 1980s and 90s ‘Golden Age’ of Sierra and LucasArts classics like Leisure Suit Larry, King’s Quest, Maniac Mansion and Sam & Max Hit the Road. In no way does it compete with those titles, but it’s a successful homage and modern extension of that era nonetheless. The 2D graphics do look that old and that ugly by today’s standards, but the pixelated, aliased sprites are key to this game’s retro charm. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Like those adventures from yesteryear, Deception is an adventure game built upon a sturdy foundation of quality writing and storytelling, strong character performances, and smart puzzle design. As an indie game with budget limitations, there are inconsistencies, particularly in the voice acting department with certain actors/actresses playing multiple roles, leading to a few characters that all sound exactly the same despite significant differences in age and personality. However, that is an admittedly nitpicky complaint, and for the most part the acting is solid, especially for the two main characters. The score is absolutely perfect too, blending jazzy detective themes and dramatic pieces to set a unified atmosphere befitting a supernatural mystery.

Gameplay similarly unfolds in traditional adventure game fashion. Traveling from a spirit-driven yacht out at sea to the seedy streets of present day late-night New York City, you guide Rosa and Joey along with points and clicks of the mouse, examining the environments for important evidence, using items in the inventory to solve puzzles, comparing and matching notes to uncover new clues, and chatting through dialogue trees like an old text adventure to bring all the pieces together and push the story forward.

At any given time, you can switch control between Rosa and Joey. As Rosa, you can interact with physical objects, talk to live NPCs, and use her phone—the MyPhone (see what they did there?)—to make calls, check email, track notes, and use the Oogle (another one!) web browser to search for addresses, phone numbers and other pertinent information based on other clues you’ve gathered. Things are a bit different with Joey. As a ghost, he is able to search areas undetected and pass through walls and doors, accessing areas and viewing items Rosa is unable to. He can also use his cool breath to blow objects off tabletops or to give nearby characters a chill.

Figuring out the best way to combine their unique talents is often the only way to solve the mystery at hand, and from start to finish the puzzles are incredibly balanced and well thought out. Not one single time did I find myself stumped by some obscure, nonsensical conundrum or stuck doing the old hotspot mouse-over hunt, tediously attempting to find some nondescript object of interest buried within a cluttered background. There is a remarkable cerebral quality to the game’s puzzles that forces you to think like a detective and pay attention to even the subtlest of clues, be it a post-it note stuck to a computer monitor or an unassuming poster on the wall of a student’s dorm room. You may miss these things the first time over, but any good sleuth knows that the most important clues are often found on the second pass. Once you figure out the final piece of each puzzle, everything clicks into place in a satisfying way.

Even though it’s a $15 digital download, The Blackwell Deception feels like a full-sized adventure game. I didn’t keep track of a specific run time, but playing over the course of the past week I’d estimate that I got at least six hours out of the game, maybe even a little more. Plus, the developer stuck in a neat commentary mode, and I’ve been enjoying going back through some of the early segments clicking on thought bubbles placed around the screen to have Dave Gilbert personally explain various design aspects for a scene or to listen to funny voice acting bloopers. Little touches like these are what separate indie productions from the big-budget blockbusters from greedy publishers all too eager to sell bonus features as DLC.

You won’t find anything innovative or cutting edge in Wadjet Eye’s latest, but The Blackwell Deception is the type of game that knows what it is and is secure in its old school ways, coming from a developer that you can tell is confident in his ability to tell a simple yet engaging story, intertwine it with smart, thoughtful game design, and let those fundamental components stand on their own. That’s exactly the quality I look for in any great indie game that I play, and The Blackwell Deception certainly is one of those.

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Pros:
+ Compelling supernatural murder mystery storyline
+ Smartly designed puzzles
+ Pixelated 2D sprites exude retro charm
+ Musical score sets the mood beautifully

Cons:
– Certain voice actors are noticeably reused for multiple characters

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games
Developer: Wadjet Eye Games
Release Date: 10/12/2011
Genre: Mystery / Adventure
ESRB Rating: N/A
Players: 1
Source: Review code provided by publisher

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About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!