Blackwell Unbound review
The Good: Entertaining story and puzzles; high interactivity level; excellent music; inexpensive.
The Bad: Simplistic graphics; some poor voice acting; modest production values; ill-conceived ending.
Our Verdict: It's a low-budget title and it shows, but if you can overlook the rough spots, Blackwell Unbound is well worth the (low, low) price.

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...



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Game Info

Blackwell Unbound

Platform:
iPad, iPhone/iPod Touch, PC

Genre:
Mystery

Developer:
Wadjet Eye Games


Game Page »

Worldwide September 4 2007 Wadjet Eye Games

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User Score

Average based on 18 ratings

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User Reviews

Posted by thorn969 on Jul 5, 2014

Somewhat frustrating

Well... the biggest thing that makes this game hard, as mentioned in the review, is that the notebook system is broken. Needed clues aren't... Read the review »

Posted by Antrax on Dec 19, 2012

An annoying sequel to a so-so game

Blackwell Unbound manages to have all the issues of its predecessor, and adds several more. Loraine is an even less relateable character... Read the review »

Posted by emric on May 27, 2012

more blackwell goodness

This sequel is almost as great as the first game in the Blackwell series. The ability to switch between characters at will is a good... Read the review »



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About the Author
Gunnar Harboe
Freeware Writer

Comments

Shany
Oct 2, 2007

I think the problem with actors doing old people’s voices is like with doing accents - unless you get the real thing it will almost always sound unnatural.

Other than that, I don’t think I ever agreed with a review like I agree with this one. Everything was spot on. Thumbs up!

ozzie ozzie
Oct 5, 2007

After a brisk nap wrote:
I’m sorry your message disappeared. I would have liked to hear your comments. If you want to summarize, I’ll see if I can respond to your concerns.

Okay, since you asked for it… Smile

In short, I agreed with you on the graphics. Most of the screen look amateurish, some even a bit unfinished.
It’s true that Joey’s character didn’t change at all between the two games, but then, he’s so old, why should have made thirty years any more of a difference for him!?
I also agree that the occasional blowing into the microphone was annoying.
I disagreed upon the voice acting. You thought Harriet’s voice was bad, I thought it was funny. But then, I also liked Tim Curry as Gabriel Knight. I guess I don’t have the best ear for the english language as a german.
The Countess wasn’t very convincing, that’s right, but it was okay I think.

But there were more serious things. I’m not sure what didn’t make sense for you at the end. Of course, it’s not explainable with real world logic, but since this is a ghost story it works very fine I think. And I thought that the ending had a great emotional power, similar to Syberia and that’s probably saying a lot.

Then, Lauren. You somehow remarked that her smoking habit would make up her whole character. I couldn’t disagree more strongly.
She smokes a lot, but that’s because she doesn’t care about it, which is a result of her self-destructive nature. She seems a bit disillusioned.
And it gets clear why: she will never be able again to lead a normal life.
For example, [hide]when her brother calls her she hangs up immediately. She has the duty to save souls and it may lead to trouble if she doesn’t fulfill it.[/hide]

In the end, she doesn’t care about it anyway and maybe the sequel (or the sequel after the sequel, depends on how you see it) may clear up her future fate.
I don’t believe that Lauren was always like this.

Okay, I am making it long again.
I thought that the relationships of Joey with the Blackwells was very different each time.
It gets clear at one point that Joey is a bit in love with Lauren, but he doesn’t want to admit it. He prefers to tease her most of the time.
At the beginning, Lauren is very mad at Joey. He even jokes about what happened, but they still get along, because they are so accustomed to each other and because they, or especially Lauren, have/has to.

Rosangela and Joey, well it was more a friendship born out of the circumstances, it felt a bit colder. Joey still misses Lauren and Rosangela has to learn how this new duty changes her whole life. Their relationship may change when they get more accustomed to each other, but the difference was more than subtle in my opinion.

Last point: the game wasn’t seventies enough. I’m not sure why it should have mentioned the watergate affair since the story has nothing to do with it!? Maybe it wasn’t even such a hot topic in that month!?
It’s like critisizing a movie which is set in time of the late sixties for not showing hippies. There was still much more than flower power, so why should it?

Ehm, yep it’s shorter than my initial post.

after a brisk nap
Oct 9, 2007

Thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts again. Hopefully they will stick this time.

It’s going to be tricky to get into the details of these points without giving away spoilers, but I’ll try. Our point of departure seems to be Lauren’s character. I don’t think the game portrayed her as a deeply troubled person. She seems more like someone who’s burned out by a tough, thankless job that doesn’t offer vacations. When she chain smokes and mopes around on her balcony, that strikes me as her being stressed and tired more than self-destructive. (Circumstance more than personality, if you will.)

And then, suddenly, she comes up with a “plan” that is clearly suicidal. And after that, she commits a heinous crime. I don’t buy it. Neither action is a reasonable way to deal with the situation at hand, and neither makes much sense based on the way she’s behaved up to that point in the game.

There’s a lot of dialog (too much, in my opinion) that attempts to justify this sudden left turn by bringing in her worries about her powers and what’s in store for her, but the game hasn’t laid the groundwork for it, so it seems like an afterthought.

It’s my view that whenever a story jumps back to an earlier time period, the passage of time and the relationship between the then and the now necessarily become important themes. How have things changed, and how have they remained constant? That’s why I think exploring the characters’ development and the period setting is something close to a requirement. Blackwell Unbound makes only very superficial concessions to the idea that it takes place 30 years ago, and that, in my opinion, saps the flashback of dramatic impact. It becomes mere plot setup.

The Watergate scandal is the standout fact about the time the game takes place in (and it was an extremely hot topic at the time; I checked). It would have been an obvious and easy way to ground the story in its setting. Of course, there are a million other small references that could have worked just as well. Sure, go beyond the cliches, but please acknowledge (properly) that it really was a different time.

That’s where I’m coming from on some of these criticisms. I take it you enjoyed the game. If the issues that detracted from my experience didn’t bother you, that’s great.

sierramindy
Oct 10, 2007

It was a GAME and I played it as such and I very much enjoyed playing it and that ‘s all that counts. I got more than my money’s worth so I’m very satisfied.  I played “The Blackwell Legacy” and wanted more of the same and that is exactly what I got, which is a whole lot more than I can say about a lot of today’s games. All that razzle-dazzle of technology and the game disappears into a disappointing, unplayable, boring, totally frustrating experience. By comparison, the Blackwell games are very low-budget, not very impressive as far as today’s technology goes, but they are so full of something very special that totally appeals to me. I wouldn’t change anything about the way Dave Gilbert makes his games. I can’t wait for The Blackwell Convergence and I trust him and his vision of what he likes and wants in his games. I liked The Shivah too, even though I do not share the Jewish faith or experience.

demigog
Jun 1, 2014

Okay, admittedly this is written 7 years after the game came out, but I’ve got a backlog you know! I thought it was a bit better than the review makes it sound, but the criticisms are reasonable. Though I kind of liked Loren’s chain-smoking. Kind of humanized her, and those cigarettes sure came in handy…. And this was one of the first adventure games I could very nearly get through without a resorting to a walkthrough, probably due to the much shorter than average length. Loved the dialogue and music!



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