[19 May 2014]
In preparation for this review, I went and played through the entire Blackwell series up to this point. While The Blackwell Epiphany does market itself as a standalone entry (and it does work as such), it’s the closing chapter of a five-game saga, and it is so much better when played in conjunction with the rest of the series. Back in 2006, Dave Gilbert began releasing entries in his point-and-click adventure game series, and after all this time, the story of Rosangella Blackwell, her ghost partner Joey Malone, and their strange mission to help the dead reach the next world has come to a close.
The basic set up is that Rosangella Blackwell is a medium or Bestower, who has to go around and help lost spirits on to their final crossing. She is aided by her spirit guide, one Joey Malone, a wise cracker from the 1930s. They’ve had some adventures and crossed paths with dangerous forces in the past, and that’s all you really need to know. Everything else necessary will be explained through the course of the narrative, though it does help to have the first hand experience of those previous adventures to flesh out certain details. The thing about the Blackwell series is that it never settled into an episodic groove. It’s partially why each game works so well on its own. Each one has a slightly different feel while still recognizing the events of the previous games.
This time around Rosa and Joey have managed to turn their failed fledgling paranormal investigation business (thank you, internet) into a consulting firm for the police. Detective Durkin, who Rosa met in the previous entry, has taken to calling her up, off the record, to identify a group of unidentified bodies. The previous games have saw Rosa and Joey two stumbling around and hoping for a lead, but in the newest game, the experience that they’ve acquired is far more evident. They’ve learned how to use their powers and have grown as a result over the course of the previous four entries.
In fact, I’d go even further to say that the Blackwell series isn’t five individual games, but five distinct chapters of a single work. One of the great pleasures I’ve had over the last week or so was playing through the whole series in preparation. I got to see the progress the series and the characters made without the long stretches of time in between releases. These were snippets of Rosa’s and Joey’s everyday (albeit very strange) lives that built off one another. The whole feels like a single fluid narrative, connected as if I were simply turning a page.
In addition to character development, each succeeding entry in the Blackwell series has improved over the last in other ways. Puzzles are better designed and better signposted. The user interface has also been tweaked to become more player friendly, leading up to The Blackwell Epiphany which finally allows you to switch between the two protagonists when they occupy different rooms. And, of course, there is noticeable evolution of the art style.
There is a craft necessary to pixel art. It is not as utilitarian as it is often made out to be or at least, not any longer. It takes a hell of a lot of skill to make a crumbling old house a thing of beauty. It is the details in the backgrounds and the use of a wide pallet of colors that create both the characters and locations as living entities in their own right. The pixels coalesce from their impressionistic core into a realization of a game based reality. The visuals may set the stage, but it is the animations that sell it. I was gob smacked at the opening scene’s gorgeousness.
From there, the game sets up a fantastic mystery as a man comes up to you asking for your help as the Bestower, something no one should know about, and is then gunned down right in front of you. This is a perfect lead in to Rosa and Joey to do their thing, finding ghosts and researching their lives in order to be able to convince them of their present state and learn something new to progress to the next step in the mystery.
However, while the mystery concludes well, the ultimate end of The Blackwell Epiphany is an unsatisfying one to the series. We’ve gotten to know Rosa and Joey. We’ve heard them banter, muse, and complain about the mundane annoyances of the world. As I was watching the final scenes of the game play out, it didn’t feel right. And yet, this is what the whole game, the whole series has been about: unsatisfying ends. You help ghosts that find themselves stuck in the wrong world realize that they are dead and act as a means of passage for them to the other side. Death in the real world is rarely a satisfying or noble end. It just is.
In some respects, this is the only way that the Blackwell series could end. Nothing lasts forever and as much as I may feel there was so much more to see and learn about these characters and as much as I would like to spend more time in their company and go on more adventures with them, I too must accept that it is over. The game’s coda is about how the world keeps turning, and it speaks to the game as much as it does to life itself.
The Blackwell Epiphany is a solid point-and-click adventure game, far ahead of most of the pack in its execution. I didn’t know the series before, but quickly fell in love with its characters and its particular style. Though take my advice: start from the beginning and take it from there.