Black Mirror is back with a new retelling of the story. Does it improve on the old series, or does it fall short of expectations?
Developer: KING Art
Publisher: THQ Nordic
Release Date: Nov 28, 2017
The Series Revamped
THQ Nordic and KING Art Games have released a new version of the Black Mirror adventure game series, this time focused sometime around the beginning of the 20th century in Scotland rather than the 1980’s or 1990’s. For this new version of the series, we have a more console centered take on the adventure game genre with fully acted cutscenes and none of the pixel hunting or mind-melting puzzles based on inventory combinations that most adventure game veterans are familiar with. The question is, will previous players as well as newcomers to the franchise enjoy it or not?
We begin with a John Gordon, a father plagued by some hidden force which leads to his unfortunate and painful demise. Shortly afterward, his son David Gordon is introduced as our main protagonist. David has been living in India for the better part of his life and comes to the manor, named Sgathan Dubh House, to see to his father’s affects and take ownership of the house. We’re greeted by Lady Margaret, a stocky butler, and a creepy lawyer for the estate. From here, the story moves on with some mystery about the manor as we delve into the dark history of the Gordon family with murders, rituals, ghosts, druids, and more. I won’t go into more detail since adventure games are primarily story based, but for the most part, David has to come to terms with the evil his family has let fester over several generations and try to save the day.
Truthfully, I enjoyed the story. I’m gauging this by the fact that I never got tired of it. Often times with adventure games I find myself slowly losing interest as I go through the motions of inventory combinations or pixel hunting. It can ruin a game for me and sometimes and I’ll even nod off while playing if the story doesn’t move along at a decent pace. I had none of that here. Several years ago I played Black Mirror II and I generally prefer this story, even though the last quarter of Black Mirror II was pretty damned good. I give high praise to the main voice actor for keeping me engaged. The voice actors give the story more depth than it might otherwise have.
There are a few jump scares and some definite moments where I went WTF. In all, it’s mostly entertaining in a good gothic sense. It felt similar to watching a half decent gothic show on the BBC or PBS. Was it amazing? Absolutely not. Did it retell the game stories from before? Not at all, this is a new take on the series. My only complaint is the ending could have been more dramatic. There is so much to work with there, yet it is not as deep and horrifying as I expected. There are some slowdowns with the Lady Margaret chats, but other than that I think the story is written fairly well. I loved the Rory character and his small tale as well as David’s realization of the meaning of his father’s sacrifice. Now the story is much shorter than Black Mirror II, but I think the pacing makes up for it as it doesn’t drag on much. Black Mirror averages about 6-8 hours to complete, I honestly felt done by the time it was over and that’s all I look for when I finish a game. If I feel done, then it has done its job and didn’t forcibly make itself longer for no reason. I do feel , towards the end, that some of the scenes were a bit jarring due to abrupt transitionsly and a few things even felt off kilter, but as I said before, it didn’t overextend itself. Take that as you may.
Here, we have a mostly 3D modeled game with prompted button items that appear when you get within the vicinity of them. You’ll see some nice dynamic shadows, background artwork, well rendered environments, and some fairly decent animated cutscenes that hammer home that this game is aiming to redefine itself at the beginning. The characters themselves are where it does not shine, with what seems like character graphics from a generation and a half ago. I’ve seen mid-level RPG’s with more detailed characters. Two things will stand out, and whether or not it is annoying depends on what your expectations for a game of this caliber happen to be.
Firstly, there are long loading scenes from area to area. Sometimes it is just 5-10 seconds, and sometimes over a full minute on a standard disk HDD. This happens repeatedly throughout the game, all the way to the end. I have to say it does break up the pacing and emotional pull of the storyline. Does it break the game? It depends on how impatient you are. I can wait 10 seconds with no problem. If you can’t, then you will be sorely annoyed. The one scene that took over a minute did annoy me quite a bit as I wasn’t sure if the game had simply stopped working or not.
Secondly, and in my opinion, more significantly, the in-game animations for dialogue can get really bad. I’m talking animatronic mouth-opening like a goldfish in need of fresh water bad. In some cases, the characters are not even looking at each other within a full scene, almost like they are afraid to make eye contact. Does it ruin the game? I don’t think so, but it definitely makes the game less enjoyable and gives the impression that the studio simply did not have the time and resources to make more mouth and facial expressions which at least kind of follow the scripted words. It honestly wasn’t too bad until the doctor showed up. After that, it definitely went south to the point that I would rather pan out and not see characters talking rather than another close up of a mouth simply opening and closing mechanically when they spoke. Once you get to a decent cutscene though, it clears up a bit with character faces using a wider palette of expressions that make it more realistic. The thing is, not all cutscenes are decent. I know in-game animations are never ideal, but it didn’t come off very well.
What makes up for the poor character animations in-game is the voice acting. It’s very good, better than the majority of adventure games to be frank. I wouldn’t put it on par with say TellTale or Dontnod, but it’s of a high quality that really makes the story more engaging. The sound effects are also decently done, except for some footfalls that occasionally sound a bit too loud. Perhaps that was on purpose for the gothic undertone, though. If you end up on a repeating dialogue, you can press buttons to avoid it. The only one that got on my nerves was one of the last puzzles in a winding room with symbols. I honestly turned off the dialogue until I was finished there.
I do not advise this game to be played without a controller, not in the least. The keyboard and mouse camera control is atrocious and is both frustrating and cumbersome. With a controller, however, I got stuck waiting for a button prompt maybe three times. It’s very odd that an adventure game has such bad KB&M controls, but it’s clearly aimed at controller use. Is this bad? Depends if you have a controller and like to use it.
I played this game entirely with a Steam controller using a basic Xbox layout. It worked just fine with one exception being the use of inventory. It’s the type of inventory where you can move the item up and down or rotate it. The rotation wasn’t especially good on a Steam controller as I had to fight to keep the rotation angle.
Traversing the environment is easy to get around as long as you use a controller, you don’t have to pixel hunt with a magnifying glass to find an item. Button prompts pop up once you move into proximity of an item. However, there are several instances where I would get stuck on geometry for a bit or jammed up against a chair that won’t allow me to get behind a desk It was occasionally frustrating, I would not say it’s game breaking. The camera angles were so-so, with a messed up scene once in awhile, but again only playable with a controller. If you do not have one, you will have a difficult time.
There is no searching for the right combination of items, it’s done for you automatically once you have the items in hand. It sort of made me question the necessity of an inventory at all, but once you get further in, the inventory is your only means of figuring out some of the puzzles. The annoying thing is that you often have to rotate clues and keys. The clues were not too hard to work with, but the key is a type where you have to reposition the shaped parts almost like a Swiss Army knife. It could be frustrating to rotate the key parts because the button prompts for them would move about a bit too fast, making me move the wrong one often. Also, it would have helped if I knew which way the key fit in the keyhole, up, down, or to a certain side. I believe the little hook has to face down, but I could be wrong. Also, it would have been nice to know that you can’t open the castle miniature until close to the end of the game. I’m not going to mention exactly how long I spent trying to open that early in the game, but I’m a bit miffed that it was not locked off until towards the end.
One of the interesting parts of Black Mirror is that it helps move the story along by interacting with ghostly memories. It’s a bit like Vanishing of Ethan Carter in that regard. You can watch the ghosts from a distance and then get close to them to examine a clue. The problem with this is that once you get close to a ghost, you begin to die. There is no explanation whatsoever. You simply start to die by staying close to a ghost with no indication of what to do to avoid death. This ruined a few game saves for me until I figured out that you must simply walk away from ghosts to prevent death. Yet, you can’t progress until you examine a clue held by a ghost…which causes death. It frankly does not make any sense to me. Why make the one interesting mechanic in the game cause death by getting close enough to examine something? Anyway, once you figure it out you no longer die much, but I really feel it should not have been set up like it is in the first place.
So, let’s get down to it. These type of games are aimed at gamers who enjoy a good puzzle. With the first major puzzle I encountered in the library, I got mildly stumped. However, this was entirely due to not understanding the camera movement with the controller. It did not occur to me that I had to pan to the left and right to solve a puzzle until after I had wasted about 20 minutes. Once I figured that out, I simply read my clues and deduced the solution to get the key to a locked room. The following puzzles were generally moderate in difficulty. A few were simple, but the majority fell right in the middle of hard and easy, which I think it what the studio was shooting for. For adventure game vets, this is no problem and I’d even go so far as to say those veteran adventure gamers may get bored. For casual gamers, you might get stumped when having to decode the symbols, but not likely.
What slowed things down for me was figuring out what to trigger next in order to progress. There was one scene where I was completely at a loss about what to do next until I stumbled upon some papers that I had previously looked at, but this time I could suddenly interact with. These type of things happened a few more times in the game when it’s not apparent where to proceed, making players wander the mansion for long periods of time until they find the missing trigger. While this sort of thing happens in standard adventure games as well, I was at least hoping for an idea of what I was looking for in this updated reboot.
Right here is where I felt the game needs a lot of work. I had a total of five crashes in the game that made me lose my game save. All of them were while I was actively discovering something like the number puzzle in the locked room, walking to talk to a butler, reading text in the cave, clicking on items in the cellar, etc. It is just going to need more patches. Also, the AI would sometimes get stuck on geometry and block me from moving around, requiring me to load a previous save.
Towards the end of the game, there is a section where you must walk through doors labeled with symbols to solve a puzzle. The problem was, every time I walked through a door, the character would automatically turn backwards and walk through the door the wrong way. It was incredibly irritating. I’m not sure if it’s just my controller or not, but I had to move very slowly to avoid walking through the wrong door all because the character would not stay in the same direction after entering the room. Also, when coming into the library, sometimes the protagonist would literally rise from the floor like Dracula. Super creepy and funny at the same time.
For adventure game fans I don’t suggest getting this game. It doesn’t follow the standard point and click genre nor does it have very challenging puzzles. For those who are looking for a more casual experience, this may be interesting to play on a weekend as it is not too long and the story, while not terribly scary in the least, is at least mildly gothic and well acted. My advice is to get this game when it is discounted by at least 50% – preferrably 75% off – or bundled. There is definitely an okay game to be had here, but with all the crashes, camera issues, control issues, load screens, ambiguous ghost instructions, and lack of good keyboard and mouse support, there would need to be some immense patches done to relieve the issues it currently has.
If you are in the mood for a 3D gothic adventure tale that, despite having ghosts, doesn’t come off as being frightening or very challenging it’s something to wishlist and grab during a sale if you fancy the subject matter. The story is interesting, but not engrossing. Older players coming from the previous series will find some neat locations that look familiar, but the original story is no longer in this reboot, so do not go looking for that.