Date: April 2014
Release Year: 2003, Developer: Unknown Identity, Publisher: Future Games, PAGODA Link
The amount of tolerance we have for the things we love always amazes me. For example, if you are into jazz-fusion, you might not find peace until you have bought every single jazz-fusion record out there, ignoring the fact that some of them are not as good as the others. With me, it is adventure games with dark stories and bleak atmospheres. If a game has those, I will play and enjoy it no matter what. It doesn’t matter if the public thinks it sucks or it has the worst puzzles ever.
Fortunately, Black Mirror is far from being that bad, but it wasn’t welcomed with open arms when it was released 11 years ago. A lot of people criticized the puzzles, the gameplay and the ending of the story. I partially agree with all of these and I will also express my complaints further in the review. But despite all that, I LOVE this game. It brings together so many of my favorite elements, which makes it almost impossible for me to dislike. In the rest of the review, I will try to make it clear why I think it is an great adventure game, contrary to the public opinion.
The story revolves around the Gordon family and their ancestral manor in England. The protagonist, Samuel Gordon, leaves the family after losing his wife in a tragic fire accident. Twelve years later, he returns back to the manor for the funeral of his beloved uncle William. Shortly after his return, Samuel discovers that William was doing research on the family’s ties to occult magic and his death might not be due to an accident or suicide. As Samuel carries his own investigation, more mysterious murders happen around the town and he begins to reveal the dark secrets behind his blood line.
This is my favorite type of setting for a thriller; mysterious murders, ancient cults and bleak English weather. Nothing in Black Mirror is super original, but all of these elements are combined and executed so well that you end up being glued to your seat while playing the game. Moreover, the story gets more and more complex with each chapter. As the game progresses, you gain a new piece of information either related to the family’s past or to William’s murder. This dynamic aspect of the story simply keeps you wanting more. You are not simply witnessing events unfolding in front of you, you feel like you are actually solving individual parts of a greater mystery. And believe me, you will keep playing this game for a while. It is much longer than your average adventure, which is always a plus in my book.
Another thing I really like about the story is that it has lots of lore. The writers took their time to develop a background for the Gordon family, their manor and the surroundings. There are tons of extra hotspots and manuscripts that are nonessential to your progress, but they will give you information about the family history if you read/examine them. Same is true for the dialogues as well, every person you meet has some story to tell. Sometimes it is just gossip, and sometimes it is an interesting anecdote about the Willow Creek (the small town near the Gordon family manor). Simply, every person or every item you see has some background story and this feature immediately doubles your immersion within the gaming world.
Having said that, the story isn’t even my favourite part of the Black Mirror. It is the atmosphere! It is not only the beautiful graphics, the haunting music or the sound effects, it is how they come together to create a breathtakingly spooky atmosphere. Attention to detail and colour selection for the background images are amazing. Most of the images you see are a very balanced mix of shades of black, grey and brown (and of course red, we are playing a murder mystery!) Everything, even the most normal looking places, has an eerie feeling to it. Rain is constantly pouring and a hair-raising combination of ambient sounds and orchestral music is playing in the background. To me, this is how you create the perfect atmosphere for an horror adventure game.
Let’s talk about the puzzles now. Unlike some other titles from the same era (yes Syberia I am looking at you), this is a story-driven game with actual puzzles. Black Mirror is packed with challenges, mostly inventory puzzles but some nice logic puzzles are thrown into the mix as well. They are not terribly difficult, but I never felt that I was playing an interactive movie or just clicking hotspots to advance the story. In addition, most of the puzzles are well integrated to the environments, i.e. you are solving logic puzzles when you are venturing deep into an underground mausoleum or when you are trying to crack a code of a hidden safe. Inventory puzzles are mostly reserved for challenges that involve interactions with other NPCs (for instance distracting a guard to gain entry to the place he is guarding). Usually, third person camera games tend to be very inventory manipulation heavy in the puzzle department, I like that Black Mirror’s puzzles strike a balance between the two.
In order to present a truly objective review, I have to confess that Black Mirror has some certain design flaws (three to be exact). First of all, although the puzzle design is mostly good, some puzzles involve ridiculous amount of backtracking which is more frustrating than fun. Second, the game constrains you from leaving certain places or picking up certain items until the time is right. This is actually not uncommon, most games are designed to have these artificial constraints. But it happens way too much in the Black Mirror, you end up feeling you are trapped in a virtual sandbox and somebody is holding your hand to guide you through the exit. The third and the most critical flaw is, you can make a fatal mistake at one point of the game, and if you have no savegame prior to that point, you are screwed. You basically need to start over. Seriously? I am shocked to see such a critical flaw sneaked its way through the beta testing phase.
Apart from those three design flaws I just mentioned, my (and many other’s) biggest complaint about the game is the voice-overs. In particular, the main character sounds very dull and uninspired. I suspect this is due to the game being translated from another language. I believe the developers are from the Czech republic and the original version of the game might have much better voice-overs in Czech. Anyway, apart from that, the characters themselves are also not very memorable. That is not a huge problem since this is not a character driven game, nevertheless it would have been a nice touch to have more interesting people to meet and chat with.
Most of the reviews on the internet focuses on these negative aspects I have mentioned in the last two paragraphs and in my opinion they don’t give enough credit to its stronger parts. Black Mirror will always be one of my favorite horror adventure games because of its amazing atmosphere that brings together a captivating tale, dark graphics and haunting music. On top of that, I am always partial to adventure games that don’t dismiss puzzles for the sake of storytelling, and Black Mirror is a prime example of that. I am admitting that it is not everyone’s cup of tea, but if you are into dark adventures like myself, Black Mirror should belong to your gaming library.
Note: There are two sequels published in 2009 and 2011. They are developed by a different studio but succeed in following the spirit of the original game. I am planning to review them some time soon.
The Good: Brilliant atmosphere, excellent music and sound effects, lengthy gameplay with lots of puzzles, story is very absorbing.
The Bad: Some puzzles involve annoying amounts of backtracking, slow animations speed, too many artificial obstacles, lack of interesting characters, protagonist sounds uninspired.
The Ugly: You can make a fatal mistake which might force you to restart the game from the beginning.