Adventure Gaming Unbound
September 5, 2007
Devotees of Yesterday’s Salad may remember a game that I recommended a while back called The Shivah. As the freshman effort of developer Dave Gilbert, The Shivah was an all-too-brief gem of an adventure game (in the mold of the classic adventure games by Sierra and Lucasarts) with an unusual premise: players helped a grumpy Rabbi solve a murder mystery. Although the graphics were unlikely to wow most gamers weaned on games like Tomb Raider Anniversary and Bioshock, they were clearly drawn with effort and care, and were bolstered by both enthusiastic voice acting and an engrossing plot.
Buoyed by the positive response from critics and buzz from the independent gaming community, Gilbert decided to jump head-first into game development, founding indie startup Wadjet Eye Games. The results of his efforts are the Blackwell Legacy, and its sequel Blackwell Unbound, which was just released yesterday.
The Blackwell Legacy follows the early (mis)adventures of Rosangela Blackwell, a young writer-come-medium, and her sarcastic spirit guide Joey Mallone, as they try to help troubled souls find their way out of this world (and to stop haunting the living). A kind of spiritual successor (no pun intended) to the Shivah, the Blackwell Legacy retained its predecessor’s strengths, such as well-developed characters and solid voice-acting, while improving on both the graphics and remedying the somewhat clunky user interface of the previous game. And as a further boon, it may qualify as the greatest creative endeavor to have been undertaken in a Starbucks’.
And as luck would have it, Blackwell Unbound continues this trend upward. Taking place a generation before the Blackwell Legacy, Unbound chronicles a night in the life of Rosangela’s aunt Lauren Blackwell, who also had a habit of trawling around the streets of Manhattan at wee hours of the night, looking for the spirits of the recently departed and/or disturbed. Apart from a dynamite cigarette habit, Lauren Blackwell clearly has a lot of experience dealing with the weird and eerie, which really comes through in her relationship with Joey (and their occasionally caustic banter). Her characterization is especially salient when contrasted with the surprise and incredulity with which Lauren Blackwell encounters everything around her in Legacy.
Unbound also shows a little more maturity from a technical standpoint. The voice acting is more than an incremental improvement over that in Legacy, and the haunting music (both atmospheric and otherwise) by Thomas Regin plays into the story and setting perfectly. The interface is also polished further in ways that make gameplay smoother; for instance, players may also switch control from Lauren to Joey throughout, rather than trying to recruit Joey indirectly via dialogue. The greatest achievement, however, are the graphics.
Inked (pixeled?) by cartoonist/developer (and fellow WordPress blogger) Erin Robinson (who is also responsible for the superb Spooks), Unbound‘s characters jump out with excellent coloring, worthy of adventure classics like Sam and Max Hit the Road and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Little touches of animation, such as Lauren’s omnipresent cigarettes, help the player see the figures on screen less as graphic representations and more as characters come to life.
The only criticism of Unbound that easily comes to mind is its length. Easily completed in an evening, the game could use some more difficult puzzles, or better yet, a little more dialogue. A lot of thought has obviously gone into the characters, and it is hard to play the game without wanting to know a little more about the history and motivations of its protagonists than is provided. While Legacy was of comparable length, it had a wealth of documents; letters, photos, and otherwise; which both served as necessary exposition and enriched the world in which the game takes place.
In all, for less than going to see a movie, playing Blackwell Unbound is a wonderful way to spend an evening. We can only hope that Mr. Gilbert and Ms. Robinson continue their brisk pace of game development (word has it that another chapter is in the works). To paraphrase Mary Johnston (or perhaps more ominously, Emperor Palpatine), we will watch your careers with interest. •