Mr. Bill's Adventureland Review
Reviewed by Laura MacDonald
An Ominous Turn of Events...
We see a dark foreboding castle, cloaked in darkness and the pouring rain. As lightning flashes and thunder rolls, we move toward a tower with candlelight shining through its windows. Entering a dimly lit room, we watch as an old man comes in, clutching a massive candlestick. He places his candlestick upon an old roll-top desk, and takes up his pen. He is writing to his grandson, Samuel Gordon. Is it a warning, a plea, or perhaps a dark legacy for the intended recipient? He seems nervous and on edge, glancing frequently at the window. Something is coming... something sinister, perhaps even evil. It rolls up the outside of the tower wall, making its way toward that tower room. The man writes with deliberate haste, driven to finish his message. He startles as he senses some force drawing ever closer. The candles flicker... and then abruptly go out!
Our view shifts, and we are now looking up at the blackness of those tower windows. The darkness deepens to an oppressive level, and then... the window bursts open, as the old man, screaming, falls to his death on the iron fence below.
The Path of Evil
Samuel Gordon arrives to attend the funeral of his beloved grandfather, William Gordon. He has been away for 12 long years, and yet has no desire to remain. Black Mirror, ancestral seat of the Gordon family, signifies dark memories and loss for him. He suffers from disjointed nightmares, filled with dark images, and headaches that level him to the floor. However he is distressed when he receives no ready answers for William's violent end. So Samuel decides to stay at Black Mirror, at least for a short time, so that he can learn more about his grandfather's mysterious death.
Disturbing details quickly surface about the last few months of his grandfather's life. He had become obsessive and reclusive, locking himself away for days. Obsessive about what specifically, no one seems to know. Samuel also finds increasing evidence of a darker mystery, one rooted not in the present but in ancient times, and mystical evils. For Black Mirror's foundation was laid in the blood of others, brother against brother, good against evil. As Samuel is pulled deeper into this mystery, his resolve to leave is muted by his determination to find the truth at all costs. But the costs may be far more than Samuel imagines. Perhaps his life... perhaps his soul.
The story in Black Mirror is finely tuned. There is plenty of background story to be picked up along the way, and details can be gleaned from any number of interactions. If you just want to get through the main story and take the shortest path through the game, you will still enjoy yourself. However there are a large number of items that you can take note of. Some, upon closer inspection, serve merely to enhance the creepiness of the game. Others provide interesting historical filler about the family, and events of the past and today. And there are a number of side stories that serve to enhance the characters' stature as suspects in a series of ongoing murders. Again, I suppose it's not necessary to push the limits of the plot as far as the developers will allow. But here is my advice. If you bypass too many of these points of interest, you will experience a watered down version of the game. The fact that some probably passed up the wealth of delightful hints, details, and sub stories may explain the variation in reactions to Black Mirror.
I would also like to say that all of the threads are obvious to a careful eye, or are fully explained. Again, this game has so many details, characters, dialogues, puzzles and side stories, that I expect I missed out on more than a few plot points while playing Black Mirror. Some seemingly unexplained story lines may have been red herrings. Or perhaps they never even existed. One of the aspects of the story in Black Mirror is that it is a tale seen through a glass darkly. It is designed to play with our perceptions, and take advantage or our preconceptions. This leaves us open to surprise by sudden twists in the game. I have a pretty good idea that this game will generate more than its share of interesting debates over these plot twists. But that is the mark of a good tale. Perhaps some things are best just left to the thoughts, imagination and debates of the players.
Welcome to the Family
After the riveting cinematic that opens the game, we are treated to a voiceover against a black screen. The game then opens in a traditional English drawing room, with all of the main characters in attendance. This is a cast such as those seen in English or Hollywood horror films made in the 40's and 50's. The figures in Black Mirror would seem very familiar to fans of such films as: 'The House of Wax', 'The Black Cat', 'The Mummy', 'Ten Little Indians', and other classics. To be complete, we need only have Boris Karloff (a footman) walk in and say, "Good evening. Please allow me to introduce the Gordon family and friends".
We have Samuel, our leading man. He is reluctant to be back at Black Mirror. Returning only to attend the funeral of his beloved grandfather, William, Samuel is unsettled and not set on lingering for very long at Black Mirror, the name given to this ancient family seat. Then there is his grandmother, Victoria: she seems distant and quite proper. Much the same can be said for Samuel's uncle, Robert, and Bates, their butler. These characters are revealed through the developing story, documents and dialogues. There is a formality to these people and their interactions. Rather than a reflection of slightly sluggish graphics, I think it is a deliberate style choice made for the game. It really suits the tone and atmosphere well. I also saw this as a deliberate, measured flow to gameplay and the plot.
There are other people who round out our game cast. We have the village residents: a charming young boy, his step-dad the pub owner, and those that frequent the tavern. We have the fatherly priest and the requisite gravedigger, as somber and still as his clientele. There are a large number of characters you interact with in this game, and it is a pleasure to travel through the many environments in Black Mirror and interact with such a diverse group. Voice talent is very well done for the most part, although some, especially Samuel, have an oddly stilted manner of speaking. However he constantly refers to his medication and suffers from horrifying nightmares, which increase in intensity during the game. I came to view Samuel as a person with an unnatural response to events, one who seemed artificially sedated and maybe a tad too tightly wrapped. It is interesting that the one close up in the game occurs with Samuel, when he learns a final twist in this tale. In that one scene, Samuel reacted vividly and with great emotion. So I think Samuel's odd delivery throughout the game was another deliberate style choice. It suits the plot extremely well, and adds to the growing tension in the game.
I did find the dialogues themselves to be a bit clunky and too formal at times. Much of this I attribute to the fact that the game was originally written in another language other than English. Translation is often an area not quite as good as it could be in many games created in Europe. But again, it felt quaint after a short time, and it didn't affect my enjoyment of Black Mirror. There is a slight delay of perhaps 3 or more seconds when you transition through dialogues with other characters. It appears to be a slight lag that develops as the character responding finishes their animation loop. One thing that could have been improved is the animation speed in some areas.
The Darkness Rises
The look of this game is outstanding. I spent a great deal of time just walking around and exploring all the nooks and crannies of each new setting. This game has so many places to travel and explore. It has an extraordinary variety of game settings. You arrive initially at Black Mirror, the family estate. The estate and family line dates back to the earliest days of England as a nation state. The original founders, two brothers, are the stuff of legend, and pre-date ancient tomes from the 13th century found in the library. You will wander across the estate, within the house, and through underground cisterns and ancient passages. You will visit the local village, a cemetery, an old mine, a church, an asylum, and so many other locales. There are just too many unique environments to recall and list in the space of one review. There is further travel to visit another branch of the Gordon family, and this estate is again rich with areas to search and investigate. This is definitely a game that I will soon replay just to really see what I am sure I must have missed on the first go around. The graphics are crisp in some areas, darker and muted in others. If game graphics are important to you, Black Mirror will thrill you. Lighting, shadows and all the little touches were not once neglected or misplaced. Instead of using shadows, lightning and such additional animations everywhere, special touches were used only where they would truly add to the scene and mood, where they made sense from a game consistency viewpoint.
The sound effects, music and ambiance deserve their own separate review. I can't rave about this aspect of the game enough, but I am sure going to give it a good try! It's not just the individual choices of effects or the music written for the game that excels. It is the way in which these things were so meticulously built into this game. The devil may well indeed be in the details and boy, did they spend time on them in Black Mirror. If you don't get the chance or take the time to play this game with headphones, you will miss out on a fabulous experience. One scene in particular illustrates what I am trying to describe. You are in the cavernous entry room of the sanitarium. It has a tiled floor, as contrasted with the carpeted interiors of the estate. When Samuel speaks with the night nurse in attendance, their voices echo through the room. If you turn your character, the voices shift appropriately. I was so blown away.
The entire game is like this, both visually and acoustically. They have liberally made use of incidental animations in a variety of scenes. As you make your way through the side garden, a bird flits across the sky and a few dry leaves drop from the trees. This is often at your periphery, so it startles a bit and creates this lush feeling and a sort of suspended reality as you move through this game. In other areas the gloom darkens, the sound of the wind rustling through the trees gives you pause. There is also a murmuring sub-recording that is very subtle and occurs during some scenes. It barely rises to a sound level that you consciously notice, but if I paused in the drawing room or in places to take a few notes, I would suddenly hear it there subtly scratching at the corners of my thoughts. These wonderfully constructed nuances merge together into a total ambiance that deftly enhances the mood and atmosphere of the game. They also serve to gently elevate the tension and suspense you feel as you progress. Just stunning!
The Challenges We Face
The puzzles were logically integrated within the plot and environments. We have locked doors, ancient mechanisms, mechanical devices to get running, and items to pick up. I found the puzzles in Black Mirror to be fairly straightforward in design, and none were exceptionally difficult. One element that causes a few unnecessary game delays are some pixel hunting moments. The cursor glows red when there is anything to interact with, so this is always a matter of too much haste in any location. But because the scenes are so richly detailed and large, it is easier than you think to miss items. It's another reason to take your time when entering scenes in Black Mirror. The game also has its share of items that you cannot use yet or pick up, but they will become very important later on. So take note of things that look useful for later interaction. If you get stuck, always go back and recheck areas you have visited before, or speak with characters again: they may have something new to add. The large scale of the game does make for some frequent traveling, but fortunately all movement between areas is done through a handy map feature.
There is one odd game feature that needs to be noted. The inventory is adaptive to where you are in the game. Not consistently, but it happens. Inventory items you have picked up may all of a sudden vanish from your inventory. This happened to one item that I had picked up early in the game. It was fairly obvious that it was a key item. It stayed in my inventory for much of the game, then poof: it was gone. I half thought that I had dropped it at an earlier point where I had been trying things from my inventory on some mechanism. But I decided to keep on with the game, and figured that if I hit a dead end, I would reload a saved game. When the time came for its use, poof: there it was, along with just the other items I needed. So be aware when this happens that it's no glitch or worry. No, it's just a quirky thing about this build.
One other caveat. The game has only 24 save slots. This may seem adequate, but I saved a great deal in this game. There are a few 'game over' moments. It's a creepy game, so I doubt that any will catch you truly off guard. But you will save a great deal more than 24 times. So if there are any in particular that you want to save, be careful not to overwrite these when you start doubling over prior saved games. Obviously, just remember your standard adventurer's 'rule number one': save and save often, whenever things look risky.
There are a few things that could have been done better in Black Mirror: more save slots, keeping items that need to be found away from the periphery of game scenes, faster character animation loops, and a more attentive translation of game dialogues and scripts. But these flaws are completely overwhelmed by the big picture. This game amazed me. I haven't been this immersed in a game since I played Syberia. I even loved the way the menu slammed shut with a resounding bang every time I quit the game.
The bottom line for me: the lush graphics, astounding sound effects, rich story line, and incredible eye for detail, create a game that is truly destined to be an adventure classic!
© 2003 Laura MacDonald
Developed (2003) by Unknown Identity and published by Future Games in Europe and The Adventure Company in North America.
Rated: M for Mature 17+ (blood and gore, violence)
Minimum System Requirements:
PC: Pentium II 400 MHz Processor (Pentium II 600 MHz Recommended); Windows 98 / 2000 / ME / XP; 64 MB RAM (128 MB Recommended); 12X CD-ROM or DVD-ROM Drive (16X Recommended); 4 MB DirectX Compatible Graphics Card (8 MB Recommended; DirectX Compatible Sound Card; DirectX 7.1 or Greater; 2 GB of Free Hard Drive Space; Mouse, Keyboard and Speakers
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