"Get through the light, quick!" are not words you traditionally associate with a ghost story, but then death is usually the end of one’s problems, not the start. In The Blackwell Epiphany, New York City's premier paranormal detective duo have to contend with someone (or something) who's not just killing people, but destroying their very souls. What follows is a high-stakes game of cat-and-mouse in a world where desperate people seek help in preserving their spirits for the afterlife. The Blackwell games have always been known for their storytelling, but this one really ups the ante and delivers a gripping and emotionally-charged finale that sends the series out on a high.
For those of you who haven't been following along since Rosa and Joey's debut in The Blackwell Legacy, here's a brief overview. Rosa, thanks to a rare quirk of nature, is a Bestower, able to see and help restless spirits move on to the next world with the aid of her ghostly Jazz-age sidekick, Joey. It's a role that has been passed down through the Blackwell women: first her grandmother Patricia, then her aunt Lauren and now Rosa. It hasn't tended to end well, though, as both her grandmother and her aunt eventually suffered nervous breakdowns.
Rosa and Joey make a good double act. Rosa can do all your typical adventurer stuff, talking to people and picking up anything that's not nailed down, but she's stymied by locked doors and ghosts can be reluctant to talk to her. Joey, on the other hand, can't touch things and can only interact with the world by blowing on it (conjuring up a light breeze), but he can drift through walls and doors like they aren't even there. So long as he doesn't stray too far from Rosa, that is; they’re stuck with each other, much to their mutual frustration.
Initially reluctant, over time Rosa has come to, if not exactly rejoice in, then at least grudgingly accept her role as Bestower. What started out as an annoyance has, over time, come to be her calling. She helps ghosts to move on because "it's what we do." She's even become a (strictly unofficial) police consultant, helping Detective Sam Durkin with anything weird or spooky that comes his way.
As the final game opens, we find Rosa and Joey on just such an assignment, out on a bitterly cold and snowy New York night with only a cup of coffee for company. The police have raided and shut down a local crack house, but a young actress was found dead and (as it turns out) she's still haunting the building, unaware that anything's wrong. (This is a familiar Blackwell theme: the ghosts they encounter are usually unaware of the fact, and have to be made to remember their deaths before they can move on.)
Soon after, Joey and Rosa have barely made it back onto the street before a masked gunman appears. Is he going to shoot her? As it turns out, no, but without spoiling the outcome, what happens instead is even more disturbing. Deeply shocked, Rosa vows to get to the bottom of it, but all she's got to go on is an unidentified body and the mysterious final words of a dying man. Even her friend Detective Durkin has clammed up, on orders from the top.
This is confident storytelling, and really shows how far writer Dave Gilbert has come since Legacy debuted with an officious stand-in doorman who wouldn't let you back into your apartment. Indeed, the early part of Epiphany in particular is very well put-together: the initial scenes at the crack house, like the pre-title vignette in many Bond films, do a great job of setting the stage and introducing you both to Rosa and Joey and the game's controls. Then, just as you're congratulating yourself on a job well done, the main plot kicks off with a bang and shakes the comfortable certainty of long-time players. Nothing and no-one is safe anymore.
For about the first half of the game, this confidence continues as we're drawn deeper into the case and find out more about the mysterious Grace Group that's helping people to find their true purpose in life, but may also be destroying them in the process. It all leads up to a genuinely powerful moment that leaves Rosa standing over a dead body with the police breaking down the door. Unfortunately, having worked so hard to build up a sense of tension, threat and urgency, the game suddenly lets all the air out of the tires. It's like one of those Saturday morning serials where every episode ends on an apparently impossible cliffhanger with the hero plunging to his death, only to start the next episode with a shot of him diving aside at the last moment and carrying on with his day. The shift is similarly anticlimactic here; all the suspense evaporates and you're suddenly back to your day-to-day ghosthunting, with the wider mystery taking a backseat for a while.
At this point, you're given two more essentially self-contained cases to investigate before the main plotline swings back into action again. It's a frustrating design choice, as it really bogs down the pace of the game for a while. These are far from being dull fillers, though: considered by themselves, they're delicate little human dramas that touch on some fairly deep themes. Gilbert has a great eye for the everyday dramas of life and many of his characters are memorable. From the TV news anchor desperate to leave her past behind to the brother and sister striving to deal with childhood abuse, these feel like real people, but it's all done with a light touch that stops the game from feeling preachy or hard going. The only problem is that he can struggle a bit with the bigger picture, the overarching story that knits all the smaller ones together. After waiting so long even to introduce them, then focusing on them to the exclusion of all else, it takes quite a while for the momentum to start building again and much of the early tension is wasted.
Unfortunately, too, when the revelation of the big bad does finally arrive, it comes totally out of left field. The justification makes perfect sense, but there's just no way to see it coming, even in retrospect. There are also a couple of pretty significant plot threads that, although tied up, don't really get the airtime I felt they merited. They're not exactly afterthoughts, but they feel somewhat dutiful, like they had to be included despite the fact that they didn't really have any place in the story as such. We finally discover the origins of not one but two of the series’ most prominent characters, and learn a little more about a shadowy organisation that is the antithesis of everything Rosa and Joey stand for. In the case of the latter, it's really too bad that it wasn’t integrated further into the storyline, which could have made for a much more satisfying dynamic.
If all that sounds like pretty damning criticism, bear in mind that I'm judging it by the high standards established in the first act of the game. The second act is still very good, it's just that the pace is a little off, the urgency suddenly removed, and the potential was there for more twists and turns. What we actually get feels comparatively small-scale, but then the Blackwell series has always been focused on human stories rather than grand conspiracies. The last act, when it comes, abruptly kicks things back into high gear and goes all out for the grand finale, providing an extremely satisfying end. If you're a regular, the last scene in particular is just perfect. Seeing it, you realise it couldn't have ended any other way and I needed to take a moment of quiet reflection as the end credits rolled before I could pull myself together.Continued on the next page...