Reviewed: November 18, 2003
Released: October 15, 2003
Somewhere between the borders of Germany and Poland lies a nation of ten million or so people known as the Czech Republic. It is home to the cities of Prague, Bohemia, and Moravia, and was not established as an independent state until 1918. It is also home to something one would not normally associate with Eastern Europe – the game developer Future Games. Though they have been around for a few years, and have published a couple of previous titles, it is their latest release, The Black Mirror, which has caught the attention of adventure gamers across the globe.
Billed as a horror adventure, Black Mirror has been in development since 2000. The developers sought not only to fabricate a complex plotline, rife with twists and turns, but to add picturesque environments, thousands of audio effects, and hundreds of pages worth of spoken dialogue as well. These ambitions they have achieved, indeed, the game clearly demonstrates the results of years of meticulous effort – but was it worth it?
The game begins on a morbid note, as a cinematic portrays the death of one William Gordon, Lord of the ancient Black Mirror castle and its surrounding lands, somewhere in England. William’s unfortunate end is largely regarded as a suicide, though certain details revealed in the introductory cutscene would suggest otherwise. This viewpoint is shared by the game’s protagonist, grandson of William and heir to the manor, Samuel Gordon. Though he lacks sufficient evidence to prove it, he does not believe the death of his grandfather was an accident, nor can he accept it as suicide. From the moment we are introduced to Samuel, gathered in the common room with relatives and friends after William’s funeral, he begins his campaign of searching for the truth behind what happened.
Also introduced after the cutscene is the titular castle itself, and it is here where many of the game’s purported 150 locations can be found As we begin in the common room, the player must guide Samuel through the confines of the mansion. These scenes serve as an excellent guide to what the rest of the game will be like. In moments, the player will have grasped the controls and method of gameplay, and these conventions will carry on to the very end. The mouse is used for the vast majority of actions in the game; there is little keyboard interaction to be had. A left click will move Samuel to that location, or enable him to interact with the things around him – it is used to initiate dialogue, pick up an item, or to observe some aspect of the environment.
The cursor itself will turn red when it has come across something that can be used in this manner, any given location will have a number of such hotspots, and almost all of them are easily found. This alleviates some of the difficulty of the game, to the chagrin or delight of the prospective gamer. Some hotspots will not exhaust themselves after one click: some will provide additional lines of description, others will remain active until they have been manipulated in some way.
Because of this, getting stuck at any point of the game is less probable – one simply needs to find out which hotspots remain active even after multiple clicks, and try to devise their purpose. In some cases, a right click will reveal something more about a hotspot, such as whether it is hiding something, or if perhaps some inventory item needs to be used with it. This can lead to some instances where finding a hidden object is not the result of a logical set of actions, but the result of left and right clicking whatever hotspots remain available. Hidden at the bottom of the screen is Samuel’s inventory, right clicking on these items will reveal further details about them. Left clicking joins the item to the cursor, and in another blow to difficulty, items will flash if they are hovering over a hotspot where they can be used. This principle also applies to combining inventory items.
Initiating dialogue with a character will bring up a set of icons at the bottom of the screen, each of them representing a different subject. Some of these can be discussed more than once in the same conversation, and new points of discussion can pop up after Samuel has completed certain tasks. You will often find yourself conversing with the same characters repeatedly; dialogue is just as vital to progression as using items. Some events will be accompanied by cutscenes, others by simple animation.
Samuel will also encounter many puzzles on his path to the truth; these are presented in a first person perspective and often revolve around arranging something in a set order, or pulling levers to produce a desired outcome. Most of these are not really challenging, though there is one about midway through the game that can be especially daunting. It is the only exception. The solutions to most puzzles will rely on knowledge obtained through the game, but a couple will require the player to know something the game will not teach them. This could force the player to have to exit the game and conduct some research, which could ultimately detract from the experience.
There are a couple of thoughtful features included here – a double left click on an exit will bring Samuel to the next scene instantly, and pressing the TAB key will reveal all exits within a location. These are features that every game within the genre should boast of, and they make backtracking far less tedious. The cursor will also change to the symbol of a door when floating over an exit, somewhat diminishing the usefulness of the TAB feature.
Intricacies of the game aside, it is the plot, which is the main attraction here. From the first few minutes of the game, while traversing the many rooms of Black Mirror castle, it becomes clear that the manor is a place of crumbling antiquity. The castle is adorned with the mammoth portraits of previous Gordons, dating all the way back to the 12th century, and the land is pockmarked by decaying ruins and ancient tombs. The locations and plotline both have a definite Lovecraftian feel to them, fans of horror will revel in the oppressive weather and disturbing occurrences throughout the game. Small details of the story are presented through Samuel’s observations and exposition, as well as through conversations and the perusing of ancient texts. Attentive players will find themselves evaluating what they already know and trying to tie it all together, though such efforts are often thwarted as Samuel learns new things.
In all, Future Games has done an outstanding job of creating a multi-tiered mystery, filled with ancestral secrets and forbidden knowledge. Trying to discern what will happen next will become the focus of the player’s impetus to complete the game. The player is provided with 24 save slots, and they should all be used, for there are certain points in the game where the player can trap himself or worse, lose his head (literally).
Searching through environments for the next hotspot would be a chore if it weren’t for the dark but beautiful locations of the game. Black Mirror castle is both opulent and bizarre, luxurious in one moment and eerie in the next. Generally, scenes are composed of intricate 2D artwork accompanied by minor animations – in one scene, a broken chandelier gently tilts and swings from the ceiling, in another, black birds circle a forlorn ruin. The artists did an excellent job of blending everything together, anything within a given scene appears as if it belongs there.
Lighting plays an important role – golden rays of sunlight trickle through windows and illuminate darkened spaces, unnaturally dark clouds hover over the landscape and drown everything in shadows. There are many different shades of light and all of them are used carefully but unsparingly. The characters themselves are as detailed as anyone could reasonably hope for, though their animations can sometimes seem stiff. One character in particular, Bates the Butler, walks at an excruciatingly slow pace, but he is an old man after all. Other than that there are no complaints to be had here.
The cutscenes are well rendered and ample in number. The grisly details and relentless sense of dread presented in the story are fully realized in the game’s numerous environments. From medieval cathedrals to ancient tombs, village pubs to sanatoriums, the player will learn to appreciate the locations of the game, even after returning to them for the eight hundredth time. Some locations are revisited during different times of the day, and their appearances are altered appropriately. The weather will also change sometimes, usually going from dreary to wet and dreary, and the rain effects serve their purpose without obscuring the player’s vision.
All of Future Games’ hard work would fall to ruin if the music or sounds were insufficient, but fortunately, that is not the case. The music, though not often used within the game, is reminiscent of some of Tim Burton’s compositions. They incorporate elements of the macabre; though remain pleasing to the ear in all their symphonic glory. You will find no bright or cheery music here – all of the tracks exude melancholy. Anything else would be inappropriate.
The audio effects are more generously put to use, there are no locations where silence reigns. Whether it be howling winds or the incessant ticking of a clock, there is always something to be heard. Dialogue is prevalent through Samuel’s journey, and the performances of the voice actors are less than admirable. There is a wide range of European accents to listen to, and most of them seem silly. Samuel’s dialogue often seems dry and far too formal, but then so does Samuel himself. Left clicking or pressing escape will skip through dialogue, and this will prove useful for impatient players – like this review, much of the game’s dialogue is long-winded. The quality of the voice acting is questionable at best.
At $29.99 USD, purchasing this game would save you the twenty dollars extra you’d need for most other titles. Though some would question whether or not there are better things to spend that much money on, for a seasoned adventure gamer, it is a worthy investment. The amount of gameplay you will find here will depend on your ability to solve puzzles and blunder through the locales, but the game does progress slowly even for veterans, and you will probably not conquer all six chapters in less than a few sittings.
The quality of some aspects of this game exist in stark contrast to their shoddy brethren. Gorgeous locations and a robust mystery are hampered by poor voice acting and scarce difficulty. Toward the end, you will find yourself skipping through dialogue and ignoring the detailed environments in search of that next hotspot – and it’s a shame, because ultimately there is much to miss out on. I’ve played a fair amount of adventure games, and this is no Gabriel Knight.
The slow pace and ridiculously formal dialogue will certainly repel some players, even patient ones – but the rest of us will find a detailed, suspenseful story brought to life by alluring graphics. As I reached the final chapter, I was disappointed that there were only a handful of new locations left, but I was infinitely more angered by the end itself. Though I will reveal no spoilers, it is an end that cannot be justified without sufficient explanation – which the game fails to provide.
Black Mirror may have not met every expectation I held for it, but it left an overall pleasant impression on me, and I will definitely check out Future Games’ next effort. This was not an adventure without its perils, but an effort that should be applauded nonetheless. I just hope the voice actors aren’t undead next time.