Note: This review was written in cooperation with Future Sack editor Annagram.
It’s been a long time since the release of the original Black Mirror (actually The Black Mirror), so does KING Art Games‘ reboot succeed in combining subtle horror with good puzzle design?
Black Mirror (PC)
(Germany 2017, developer: KING Art Games, publisher: THQ Nordic, platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One)
David Gordon returns to his family’s home after his estranged father apparently committed suicide, but he soon learns that there is something dark in his family’s history, with sudden murders starting to take place.
Unexpected story take on a classic game
One shouldn’t go into the game and expect the same story and characters of the first title. It’s actually commendable what the German developer tries: telling a story that is both intriguing for newcomers because of its psychological horror, influenced by H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe to a certain degree, and refreshingly new to those who’ve played through the divisive Black Mirror II and Black Mirror III. There is enough suspense and mystery to engage the player, as discovering the Gordon family’s past is just as thrilling as finding out the reasons behind some of the killings and strange goings on in the present. Seeing themes like domestic violence among other things addressed is surprising (even more than the inappropriate German 12+ age certificate), considering that the German studio’s previous narrative efforts with the narratively weak and only mildly amusing The Book of Unwritten Tales 2 proved anything but fruitful. However, the more one progresses the weaker the plot becomes, with a rushed ending that bares any description of logic, excitement or even horror. Just adding more and more quick time events doesn’t necessarily mean a tenser atmosphere, but more awkward repetitiveness.
The same but different setting
The dialogues are usually well-written and there is some great dry humor at times, but the characters themselves remain rather uninteresting. Even if one can choose different replies during conversations, there aren’t any alternative plot or character developments. It’s too bad that the main protagonist himself is rather boring, which isn’t made any better by the supporting cast, especially with a female psychiatrist who doesn’t only end up as the dumbest A.I. that can’t seem to be able to follow him and provide light in dark passages with her lamp, but also becomes rather annoying in her behavior as a know-it-all flat character. One only talks to these people because one wants to know more about the Gordon’s past, but one won’t feel much compassion for any of them. The world-building is also highly problematic, because despite being rather true to the original Gordon mansion, one won’t get a tangible sense of place, mostly because the other locations outside are simply used for solving a few puzzles. Unlike the original Black Mirror, one can’t visit the town or go anywhere else that is interesting or memorable enough.
The fear of walking and losing oneself
Despite offering a very good Gothic horror atmosphere, the game often struggles with its mix of cheap jumpscares and more subtle approaches to unsettle the player. While the first hour or so of walking through the Gordon mansion in darkness creates suspense, this later becomes tedious routine. With so many rooms to remember which again connect to others, not providing a map is a clear oversight by the developer. Unnecessary walking around to trigger events or talk to people just to be sent back to do something somewhere else is even more frustrating, which is usually due to the lack of direction and hints. Even if current objectives and what happened before can be looked up in a quest log and diary, one still spends way too much time wandering around aimlessly thanks to the confusing layout of the mansion, as the game is very linear and doesn’t leave much room for tackling more than one or two puzzles at a time.
Puzzles are also a mixed bag. While most are well-integrated in forwarding the plot, others simply ridiculous, e.g. pushing a boat into water with a car parked nearby (the only reason for it to being there). The way 3D is used for some conundrums is quite good, so one has to sometimes turn around objects or look under and behind furniture. Unfortunately there are also other parts where the 3D makes it a pain to solve the puzzles, e.g. the unlocking of mechanisms with a modified key being the most frustrating example. One has to move parts of it around so that it fits into a lock, but this is easier said than done, because 3D camera movement is so bad that one will have even have problems selecting these parts and rotating the key. In addition, it’s never clear which side of the key one actually puts into the keyhole. As this puzzle repeats itself so many times, this becomes neither a fun nor rewarding experience.
Overall, puzzles aren’t particularly difficult, as one usually doesn’t have much to carry around, and item combinations aren’t possible, either. However, finding all the locations and picking up the right objects requires more work, but mostly leg rather than brain work. The solutions are usually logic, but don’t offer much creativity or originality. Even the last part of the game doesn’t offer much of a challenge. Much more challenging are the memory sequences in which one sees glimpses from the past in which characters interact and one has to look at specific objects at the right time. What sounds easy is anything but, because if one stays too close to these ghostly apparitions, a game over screen will soon follow. As it’s not always clear when and what one should do, these become an exercise in frustration, which is a shame, because the idea is great to tell the backstory in a surrealist way and to let the player discover more of the past by deduction. As it’s not always possible to save and replaying longer sections becomes too frequent, this further adds to frustration. The less said about a labyrinth that doesn’t make any narrative sense, the better, too.
Looking good/bad and sounding great
The presentation is rather good, although it doesn’t come without its problems. The lighting and shadow effects are great to evoke a slightly disturbing atmosphere when wandering through the Gordon mansion, while the character models are also pretty good, but only in the case of older people whose faces are full of little details that almost seem photo-realistic. However, there are other locations outside that don’t look nearly as good as inside the mansion. Textures are bland and the level of detail is also not the greatest. Considering that there is quite some slowdown in these parts and the graphics card is doing quite a lot of overheated work, one would expect a bit more graphical fidelity.
The way how people talk to each other is also weird, as they never look into each other’s eyes and usually stand a bit apart during conversations, which would be unintentionally funny if it weren’t that distracting. In some cases there is even a bit of moonwalk going on, and what is even worse: animations looping and resulting in dead ends during conversation. The biggest problem is the 3D camera control, though, which is just atrocious. Full character control with mouse/keyboard or gamepad wouldn’t be too bad if the line of sight would be less narrow and the camera perspectives wouldn’t change so much. Even in a small room it’s almost impossible to see essential doors, exits, objects or even characters because of the position of the camera.
Fortunately, the sound design fares much better. Unlike the previous Black Mirror games that had terrible English voice acting, this one only has suitable actors and actresses who don’t simply read their lines and usually don’t fall back on exaggerated emotions, but are convincing in their roles. The sound effects are very good as well, as they add to the creepy atmosphere, while the music is especially great, with more than its fair share of moody set-pieces that carry most of the dramatic or subtle horror sequences.
Not a remake, but a flawed reboot
The new Black Mirror game is KING Art Games’ brave attempt to make a modern psychological horror adventure game. It’s commendable that it’s not simply a remake, but a re-imagining with a new story and characters. Unfortunately, it’s not all good in the mansion of the Gordon family. Despite an engaging storyline that has many often violent secrets of the past to unravel, the characters aren’t very memorable, with the tale becoming weaker the more the finale approaches.
Puzzles are well-integrated in the story and it’s nice to finally explore the mansion in full 3D, but the wonky camera and lack of direction without a map or clues soon turns the game into a wild or rather slow goose chase. It’s really a shame that the presentation also ranges from great voice acting and music, some surprisingly good character designs and atmospheric lighting effects to less stellar-looking locations and NPCs with annoying graphical glitches. But this somehow falls in line with the mixed sentiments one has when persevering through unnecessary QTEs, a nonsensical labyrinth, and trying multiple times to modify a key to open all sorts of mechanisms.
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