The Black Mirror Review
After a 12-year absence from his home and British manor, Samuel Gordon returns to Black Mirror Manor after the untimely death of his grandfather, William Gordon. After reading his grandfather's diary, Samuel is convinced that the death was not simply an accident, and he is determined to unearth the details surrounding the tragedy. But the more he investigates, the more he begins to realize that there were other factors relating to William's death -- factors which he, Samuel, is determined to uncover.
The Black Mirror is the initial creation of Future Games, a Czech company. Game design began more than 3 1/2 years ago, and the effort shows, particularly in the areas of graphics and sound.
The installation of The Black Mirror is a tedious task. The game is distributed on 2 CD-ROMs, and only one installation option is provided -- a complete install of all files, requiring 2GB of hard disk space. Not having 2GB free on any single disk on my system, I ended up installing the game to an external hard drive. Then, after all files have been uncompressed and copied, a hefty disk copy-protection mechanism (StarForce) kicks in, requiring two more reboots, swapping of discs, and manually entering an interminably long key code by copying it from a piece of paper supplied with the game. Overall, it took me almost an hour to get to the point where the game was playable. (To add to the hassle, the first CD-ROM must be in the drive every time you start the game, but it is used solely by the StarForce copy protection mechanism.)
TBM is a mystery game, played in the third person, with the player directing Samuel's movements, actions, and dialog. Ah, yes... dialog. One of the "marketing hypes" for the game is that it includes "over 5 hours of dialog". Believe it! Then realize that, in a game that provides about 25-30 hours of gameplay, that means that a large chunk of time is spent listening to Samuel dialog with almost two dozen other characters in the story. And in virtually all cases, all of that dialog is necessary to trigger future events, and proceed with the game. The bad news is that it frequently gets long-winded, wearisome, and boring. The good news is that, as play continues through the six chapters of the game, the story of Black Mirror and events surrounding William's death is fleshed out into a surprisingly thorough, complex, and interesting tale. I found that, while I was already getting bored with the story by the second chapter, my interests had once again rebounded a bit later, after getting more involved in the details and events of the plot.
It is understandable that any game that is chapter-based will be a bit linear. Play cannot continue to a subsequent chapter until all actions have been taken, all puzzles solved, and all necessary items collected from the current chapter. Unfortunately, TBM takes this linearity to a bit of an extreme. The game is absolutely loaded with triggers. Samuel might walk right by an object that looks as though it could be useful, looks as though it could be picked up... but it can't. However, within that same scene, he might then speak to another character, after which that same object is not only active, but can now be placed in inventory! To my dismay, this happened repeatedly in the game -- resulting in an artificial extension of play time because of constantly having to retrace Samuel's steps, and try the same things over and over, simply because they may now respond differently than they did two minutes earlier.
If the game installation was a pain, and the dialog was brutally boring, and gameplay was unnecessarily linear, then what are the game's redeeming factors? On their web site, the developers state:
...we have also paid a considerable attention to all the ... components and aspects of the game since the entire elaboration is crucial for the overall atmosphere of the game. The graphic design of each picture starts from drafts on paper, from which it is transferred into the digital form and elaborated into minute details. The quality of sound is ensured by hundreds of meticulously chosen and arranged sounds proving a studio quality.... we have paid a special attention to the scenario from the very beginning of our work.
And that special attention paid off. As a fan of games like Schizm: Mysterious Journey, Syberia, and Riddle of the Sphinx, I had wondered if I was becoming jaded by incredibly awesome graphics. But the artistry described by the developers results in scenes that range from breath-taking to scary-as-heck. Gameplay involves moving Samuel from scene to scene, in a "fade-out, fade-in" mode. There is no panning, and only occasional scrolling, when a scene is too complex to fit on the screen at once. Yet virtually every scene is animated -- often with the smallest detail. Sure, birds flying and flags waving are now stock inclusions in games of this nature. But when the leaves on a tree are moving independently of each other, or water splashes and ripples naturally as Samuel walks through a puddle, it is breathtaking. The screen shots accompanying this review do not do justice to the visual effects throughout all of TBM.
The artwork is done in 800x600 true-color graphics, with over 150 scenes to traverse -- a daunting task for the artists. Realistic animations abound everywhere, including the 3D rendered characters. (If there is a weakness at all, in the rendered characters, it is Samuel himself. He appears a bit more "cartoony" than the two dozen other characters that have been rendered throughout the story.) Ambient visuals -- such as fog, rain, and lightning storms -- add to the realism. And there are numerous fully-rendered cut scenes throughout the game, some of which are fairly lengthy. Overall, the atmosphere is very "dark," supporting the macabre feel of this horror story.
And the sound effects are on the same scale. According to the developers, there are over 1000 sound effects throughout the game, and I could not disagree with that. In every scene, in every circumstance, there is full audio support for what is going on. All of the standard sound bites are there -- birds chirping, stairs creaking, etc. But it's the additional sounds -- the rain against the window, footsteps through puddles, or even remote sounds (which, often, are clues to the game) -- that provide the added touch of high-quality sound effects. (There is a lot of rain in the game -- mirroring, I assume, the developers' understanding of weather conditions in the English countryside. And on more than one occasion, I was scared silly by an unexpected -- and incredibly realistic -- flash of lightning and accompanying clap of thunder.)
I counted only a handful of true logic puzzles in the game, even though the developer's website claims the game has "15 logical puzzles." None of those puzzles was above-average in difficulty, and most of them were solved within seconds, if not minutes, with very little additional information. However, speaking of "additional information", two of the puzzles relied on information that could not be found in the game -- i.e., it is apparently assumed that the player already "knows" this information. In one case, I was able to complete the puzzle using my existing knowledge; in another, however, I had to resort to looking up the answer in an online encyclopedia -- something I am not fond of, when playing an adventure/puzzle game. (I kept thinking that somewhere in the game I would run across the information that I required, thereby keeping the solution within the game itself. But no luck...) And there were the inevitable "find-the-key-to-open-the-lock" variety, as well.
Did I mention "keys"? Ah, yes... keys. There are lots of keys in TBM. There are locked doors, locked drawers, locked chests, and other items that require keys before they can be opened. Did I say "lots"? I don't mean that there are half a dozen, or a dozen keys in the game. Or even two dozen. I eventually lost count of the number of times that I encountered a locked "something" and had to go find the key... but my best recollection is that the number is around 30. And frankly, after a while, the fun (!) begins to wear thin, if you know what I mean. I think that the developers could have stopped at half that number, and still had enough locks to open to provide some enjoyable puzzles.
Most of the necessary objects required by the game can be found without much difficulty. Rarely did I feel that I had to resort to a "pixel hunt" to locate a specific item (although a couple of places did require some fairly careful exploration). And the game even provides an additional help by way of a "hot key" that will show all available exits from the current location. So I feel that the majority of my gameplay was spent in actually working through the game, and not getting "stuck" trying to locate some object or location.
The inventory is a simple one. Rarely does Samuel carry more than half a dozen or a dozen objects, and most of them fit along the bottom of the screen quite well. When the number of items does become large enough, the inventory items will scroll across the bottom. However, I never found that I had to scroll more than two or three items, at the most.
One of the game settings allows spoken dialog to appear as text on the screen, as well. I found this to be not only helpful, but -- at times -- necessary, as the many conversations held throughout the game not only provide clues to the game, but also contribute to the overall story line. All of the characters are voiced well (especially given that this was a Czech development), although one or two do occasionally border on being caracatures.
There are many ways in which Samuel can die during the game. Making a wrong move, touching the wrong object, or not acting quickly enough in a do-or-die situation are merely a few of the ways this can happen. And when it does, the game provides no means of undoing the most recent action -- just an option to return to an earlier saved game (which, hopefully, the player is creating on a regular basis). Speaking of saved games, this was the only area in which I had any complaints about performance. My test system far exceeded the minimum requirements for the game, and I never noticed any hesitations during gameplay. However, saving (and restoring) games can potentially become tedious. TBM allows a total of 24 game saves, but for some reason -- which I never did determine -- it is quite slow in scrolling through existing game saves. So any saves/restores near the end of the list of 24 slots took forever to scroll to.
I'd like to make a comment about the game ending, but at the same time don't want to include any spoilers in this review. So I will simply say that, for a story that continued to develop in complexity throughout the game -- and one so thoroughly detailed -- I was terribly disappointed in the ending. Not only did I feel that it was an unsuitable ending, but it also seemed to fall far short of the level of quality of the rest of the game -- both in terms of the story itself, as well as the actual implementation of the game.
Like so many other similar games, TBM is a difficult game to rate. There are good parts, and there are bad parts; there are components that fell far short, and others that were stunning. However, one of my criteria for ranking a game is deciding whether or not I would recommend it to other adventure gamers. And I think that I can say that I would, indeed, recommend The Black Mirror as an entertaining game.
-- Frank Nicodem