Written by  :  Terrence Bosky (5472)
Written on  :  Feb 02, 2005
Rating  :  3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars3.17 Stars

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You can't go home again

The Good

The death of his grandfather, William, brings Samuel Gordon back to Black Mirror, the family's ancestral home. Although William was considered a kook and his death most likely a suicide, Samuel is investigating the matter. Samuel is convinced that the death was no accident and that the mystery's answer lies in the research William conducted, sequestered in the castle's tower. But will uncovering ancient family secrets bring new light to the matter or shroud the Gordon family in doom?

Black Mirror is a third-person, point-and-click adventure game set largely on the sprawling grounds of Black Mirror Manor including an asylum, the church and its grounds, and the town of Willow Creek. The game begins immediately after William's funeral and Samuel is reintroduced to his estranged family and meets the household staff. An uncle who secrets himself away in his study, an ill-tempered gardener, and a family doctor who hints that he knows something are just some of the cast members Samuel will deal with. In all, Samuel will explore an ad blurbian 150 locations and listen to five hours of spoken dialogue.

Like most adventure games, Samuel spends a good deal of time collecting inventory objects and dealing with environmental obstacles. Left-clicking on hotspots makes Samuel do something: open a door, use a key, start a conversation. Black Mirror also lets Samuel right-click hotspots, at times, for a more thorough investigation or to make a general comment about a person. While it does have its share of puzzles, Black Mirror is not a puzzle-heavy game and Samuel will make it through large chunks of the game simply by using the correct object at the correct time or by talking to people.

Conversation plays a huge role in Black Mirror and the designers did a good job of weaving household intrigue into the storyline. For instance, a casual mention that someone imbibes too much leads to the discovery of a household feud and a reflection on the state of the Gordon family. While much conversation relies on clicking icons, occasionally Samuel has the opportunity to be gentle or abrasive. This doesn't affect the game's outcome, but it does reflect on Samuel's character.

Black Mirror is atmospheric and has wonderful ambient sound effects that draw the player into a largely static scene. Although the story is clearly a horror/mystery, whether its origin is natural or supernatural is wisely left open until the game's ending levels. And as the death toll rises (and finally reaches the game's M-rating), events become more unsettling with Samuel's life increasingly placed at risk.

The Bad

Like many games, Black Mirror has an alphanumeric code the player types in the first time the game runs. Black Mirror also uses the insidious StarForce Copy Protection System which analyzes the disk to make sure it's an original. It does this *every* time the game starts and takes between thirty seconds to two minutes. Thank you, Adventure Company!

Anyway, Black Mirror has a lot going for it in terms of story and design, but suffers from poor pacing and weak game play. To begin with, things take longer in Black Mirror than they should. Early on, Samuel realizes that he should document the arcane symbols he finds around the manor. The easiest way to do this is to use his old camera, but he needs film. Luckily Robert has film in his trunk in the tower. So Samuel goes to the tower and finds that the trunk is locked. Trek back to Robert and Robert says, Oops, here's the key. Just wait until you have to get the film developed.

Backtracking seems to be Black Mirror's theme though. Samuel tends not to notice inventory until he needs something. Expect to revisit areas and pixel hunt from time to time, just to see if something new pops up. Occasionally characters will ask you to wait a bit before they can help you. This doesn't mean just waiting though, it means leaving the area and reentering it to see if "time" has "passed."

More annoying is Black Mirror's expectation that players draw from an external pool of knowledge rather than using hints within the game. While I wasn't stumped by basic chess moves or identifying planets by their shape, I did have trouble with a slider puzzle that relied on knowledge of the order and symbols of the zodiac. Utterly amazing, especially for a game that isn't afraid to be wordy.

Finally, at times I was completely jarred by what Samuel was expected to do. How do you get a kid to talk to a stranger? Give him candy! Wow. Samuel is, at turns, a prissy snob who doesn't want to get his hands dirty as he talks down to the staff and a conniving liar who sets up an elaborate electrocution trap. I have no problem playing a right bastard as long as the game establishes that he's a right bastard. Samuel seems more misguided, so this adds unnecessary confusion—like when a character asks you to go into town for something and tells you specifically where to find it, it's easy to think that's really what you are supposed to do.

The Bottom Line

I imagine Black Mirror had a lot of back-story that never made it to the game. As such, the story is interesting, but elements like the main character's tortured soul come off as self-important. Some elements that did make it to the final game should have been better developed. Samuel takes pills for his headaches. Couldn't that be incorporated into game play? It seems like Samuel has a hallucination at one point, spotting blood in a grinder. Wouldn't it be interesting having a character that sees things, unless he takes his medication—and then limit the number of pills he has? Why not let Samuel's personality options, apparent in some conversations, have a real affect?

Instead Black Mirror is a typical adventure game, which isn't to say that it's a bad game, but don't expect to be whisked away.