It's so nice to see the adventure genre finally make a return to mainstream gaming. After their supremacy in the 'golden days' of gaming, it seems like everyone forgot about them in a deluge of first person shooters and bad action games. For awhile there, we could only look back at classic adventure games with a sense of sad nostalgia. Recently however, it seems like the pendulum is starting to swing back the other way.
Enter 'The Black Mirror', a game published by the same people who brought us the acclaimed 'Syberia' last year - The Adventure Company. You play as Samuel Gordon, a young man who returns to the family manor, Dark Mirror, on the occasion of his grandfather's mysterious death. Although everyone accepts it as a suicide, Samuel isn't convinced. His investigation will lead to even more murders, and uncover a family secret that spans generations.
The gameplay is an excellent example of the adventure genre. There's plenty of puzzles to be solved. Sometimes you have to be very creative to figure out how to use your given items, as the game can be vague as to your immediate goals. There's also some excellent board puzzles which can be very challenging and enjoyable. A few of these can be difficult, as they rely on knowledge from external sources. For example, one puzzle requires you to place symbols of the zodiac in chronological order. This assumes you know what the symbols look like, and can be frustrating if you don't. In general however, the puzzles are enjoyable, and require a good deal of creative thinking to figure out. There's plenty of items to pick up, and a plethora of people to talk to. Almost every puzzle has a logical solution, and it's satisfying to figure them out.
The game however, suffers it share of frustrating moments. To properly use some objects, you can't just left click a couple times, sometimes you have to right click as well. This leads to clicking on every object many more times than one would expect. In addition, to complete many tasks it's necessary to run back and forth to different characters, exhausting pointless conversation options. This can be both frustrating, and time-consuming.
Given the subject matter, The artistic presentation of the game is suitably dark. The 2d backdrops are rendered beautifully, and the buildings in particular capture the mood of the game perfectly. It's wonderful to see the difference in a location during the day, and then seeing it bathed in moonlight. The superimposed character animations are also very well done, especially for NPC characters with limited ranges of motion. Samuel looks pretty good however, and nicely integrates with his surreal surroundings. Even his smallest movements are well animated - it's a touch which helps to complete the graphic presentation.
Environment design is almost uniformly excellent. There's many places to visit, but you never feel like you're running around aimlessly. Movement is also helped out by a handy map, which will get you from one location to another pretty quickly. There's snippets of FMV in most of the game's 6 chapters, and these are generally produced well. One area of complaint is the items in the inventory, which are monochrome. This is especially disappointing given the obvious amount of effort poured into other aspects of the game.
The sound is pretty crisp across the board. From the crash of thunder, to falling rain, to some moody music, 'Black Mirror' sounds as good as it looks. Each effect is sampled meticulously, and helps add to the games already wonderful atmosphere. Sadly, the voicework is of mixed quality. Some of the varied accents sound fake and forced, while others are almost perfect. The voice of Samuel contains elements of both at certain times, and it's irritating to constantly hear him say 'I will go now' when you end a conversation. It's only a small point however, as the game offers subtitles, which many fast readers will no doubt take advantage of.
The story is one of 'Black Mirror's strongest points. Coupled with the artwork, it serves to create a dark ambience replete with elements of H.P. Lovecraft. Samuel's journey is one of discovery, as he learns the truth behind the Gordon name, and the dark history of his house. The relevations are doled out in equal portions, and always leave the player wanting just a little bit more. The story grows especially interesting near the end, with an excellent plot twist which ties the whole story together. The final scene is somewhat anti-climactic, but everything's justified in the closing video.
There's a pretty good length to 'Dark Mirror', but it really depends on how good you are at adventure games, and if you run to walkthroughs whenever you get stuck. You can expect to spend anywhere between 20-40 hours to see it through to the end. There's not much immediate replay value to it, as once you know the ending there's little mystery left to the game. That isn't to say you might not pick it up after a year or so, and enjoy the game all over again.
A final note concerning the link to the demo in the left sidebar. For some odd reason, this sizable download contains only 3 screens from the game, and they're very stripped down. You're plunked right into the middle, and only have a few objects to play with. It's a short introduction to the gameplay mechanics, but that's about it.
All in all, 'The Black Mirror' stands as an excellent adventure game, sure to please fans of the genre. The foreboding atmosphere and engaging puzzles are sure to keep you occupied for a good while.