In film terms, a cheapquel is a low-budget follow-up to a successful movie, usually released direct to video to cash in on the goodwill created by the original. Of course, sometimes the result is enjoyable in its own right—Toy Story 2 started out as a cheapquel project. With a well-told story and engaging gameplay, Blackwell Unbound falls toward the respectable end of the adventure game cheapquel spectrum, even though the corners cut during production make their absence felt and turn the overall experience into something less than it should have been.
Blackwell Unbound is the third game in little over a year from Wadjet Eye Games, Dave Gilbert’s one-man development studio. In The Blackwell Legacy, young New York City writer Rosa Blackwell inherited a ghost called Joey Mallone, who for generations had acted as a "spirit guide" for the women in her family. Together they took up the task of bringing unhappy ghosts to their final rest. Blackwell Unbound jumps some thirty years back in time, introducing Joey’s previous partner (and Rosa's aunt), Lauren Blackwell. On one summer night in 1973, Lauren and Joey must solve two separate cases, and then uncover the sinister connection between the ghosts' stories.
The break in chronological order is due to the game's origin; namely as a couple of flashback sequences that were cut from The Blackwell Convergence, the forthcoming Blackwell sequel, for reasons of length. Gilbert, in an effort to "use every part of the buffalo," took the leftovers and turned them into a game in their own right. The result is a shorter Blackwell installment, a little something to keep fans busy while they are waiting for the next full episode in the series.
Where Legacy spent a great deal of time on background exposition, Unbound adopts a much snappier pace, throwing players right into the action. As the game starts, Lauren and Joey have already checked out a number of leads, and only have a couple of things left to cross off their list before they call it a night. Inevitably, those stray leads quickly bloom into full-blown investigations. Blackwell veterans will no doubt hit the ground running, but newcomers to the series may not have the background knowledge to fully appreciate everything that goes on. So if you don't know what the deal with Joey's magic necktie is, you should probably seek out The Blackwell Legacy first. The game nevertheless comes with a tutorial feature to get novice gamers up to speed on the pointing and clicking.
Less exposition means that the balance of puzzles to conversation has also shifted, making this game a more active experience. I completed Blackwell Unbound in 2 ½ hours, an hour less than the first game took me, but that's not because there is significantly less to do. There is almost the same amount of actual game here; the shorter play time is mostly due to having fewer and shorter non-interactive conversation scenes. The effect is a more compact, and in some ways more enjoyable, game.
The gameplay by and large eschews typical inventory puzzles, instead emphasizing conversation challenges and the gathering of clues. In a neat twist, players can freely switch between controlling Lauren and Joey, and must figure out how to combine their unique abilities to solve the situation at hand. This adds a whole new dimension to the puzzles, and turns Joey into a more integrated part of the game.
Unfortunately, the notebook system that worked so well in the first game is completely undermined here. Instead of serving as a concrete artifact for reasoning about your investigations, the notebook is reduced to little more than a list of dialog topics. There are only two occasions in the whole game where you have to combine clues in the notebook, and one of those is painfully contrived. Worse, there are many important clues that simply aren't entered into the notebook, and which you have to remember on your own. This makes otherwise reasonable puzzles seem astonishingly unfair, and forced me to keep my own notes outside of the game, which rather defeats the purpose of an in-game notebook.
Once you catch on that you can't trust your notebook, the puzzles aren't particularly difficult, and if you get stuck on one case, you can work on the other one for a while. The two investigations proceed independently and in parallel, and can therefore be solved in any order. This bit of non-linearity gives a satisfying feeling of freedom.
The plot is fairly standard ghost story stuff for the most part. Dave Gilbert, as writer and designer, keeps things moving briskly and wisely chooses not to dwell on familiar details longer than necessary, so it is all quite entertaining. One of the cases, involving a riverside promenade haunted by the sound of someone playing saxophone, even achieves a surprising degree of poignancy. Similarly, a set of dream journals strikes exactly the right balance between hinting at future developments and remaining strange and mysterious. There are some fine examples of adventure game writing here, and they clearly show the potential this series has.
Only at the end, when the game tries to tie everything together, does it fall to pieces somewhat. The conclusion is clearly part of Gilbert's overarching plan for the Blackwell series, but it feels awkwardly shoehorned into this game, and is not particularly gripping in its own right. Consequently, the grand climax chokes on lengthy exposition and unconvincing twists. It all hinges on one character doing something that doesn't make any sense, either rationally or based on the character development up to that point. It is an uncomfortable and unsatisfying ending to an otherwise agreeable story.
While there's a strong focus on the plot, the setting feels underdeveloped. Many stories that are set in the past overdo the period references and the retro design. Blackwell Unbound underdoes them. Although the game takes place in 1973, at the very height of the Watergate scandal, no reference to this, or to any other events of the time, is made. The fashion, hair styles and décor may be intended to establish the era, but with the low-resolution, cartoony graphics, they don't come across as particularly old-fashioned. The game could just as easily be set in 1993, or, with minimal modifications, in 2003. The effect is not to make the action timeless, but rather to unmoor it from its environment, as if it took place in a bubble rather than the "real" world.Continued on the next page...