Blackwood Crossing Review
Narrative games have a hard balance to make. Too strict, and you aren't playing a game, you're watching a movie. Too loose, and you lose the point of what's supposed to happen. Blackwood Crossing does it's best to tell an enthralling story through the video game medium. While it does push toward the narrative side with it's forced linearity, the human aspect of managing emotion and reactions gives you a strong sense of control and a desire to push forward and see what happens next.
In the game, you find yourself in control of a teenage girl named Scarlet with a slightly bratty younger brother. You're on a train ride, and he's being mischevious. As the story develops, you learn that your brother Finn is quite upset with you. Most of his confused emotions stem from never really knowing your parents, who passed before he was old enough to even remember their faces. Thus begins a dive into the surreal, as chasing down your brother on the train leads to your grandfather's greenhouse, your old treehouse, and other surreal places. Telling much more than this plotwise defeats the purpose of such a game, as learning the secrets is half the fun, but you slowly realize that this is more than just a physical journey. By the time you're done, you'll have delved into some magical powers involving fire, life, and control over the dark forces that get between you and your brother. Blackwood Crossing is a narrative that deals with death and coping mechanisms as the two siblings come to grips with life after their parents.
The graphics in Blackwood Crossing are quite beautiful, evocative of classic children's stories. For plot reasons, other characters you meet on the way are stylized with fuzzy filmlike bodies and papercut masks for faces. They are a bit disarming at first, before you know what kind of game you are getting into, but that further adds to the emotional rollercoaster of a storyline. As you progress, you learn that each of these separate souls have reason for being on this train.
In terms of actual gameplay, Blackwood Crossing keeps it simple. Usually, it's a matter of talking to people in the right order or finding a certain item or two and putting them where they belong. Only a couple puzzles stumped me, primarily because I couldn't find an item that was shrouded in darkness or buried in thick grass. Such mechanics can be frustrating, but I can also see how they are implemented to further the emotional escalation. In researching online, I found other players who had no problem with my stumpers, while they struggled with some I breezed through, so it seems to simply be a matter of perspective. Scarlet moves with a slow deliberation that I feel was implemented to prevent you from aimless wandering that would take you out of the moment, but it does get frustrating when you can't find that one item and have to slowly crawl across the room scouring for it. Solving the puzzles pushes the story forward, and at about two hours or so, you can see the entire story in one sitting if you so desire. The game autosaves at certain points, but it's hard to notice and the story pushes along so well that you never really see a place to end your game session. This is definitely a game to schedule an evening sesison for.
My biggest issues came with the interface. Perhaps a cursor and mouse would work better, but Blackwood Crossing can be very particular in how you interact with the world. There were times I'd put my cursor on an item or someone's face, but because I wasn't in the perfect place, the icons would just spring up for a split second, requiring me to readjust over and over. One time I encountered a glitch. I paused after waking up in a new area, and when I came back to the game all interface was gone. No icons, no reticle, the pause menu wouldn't even come up. I thought it was a new gameplay section and pushed through, but when I got so far I couldn't figure out anything new I did a forced reset. The last save was right before I paused, twenty minutes back, and the reticles were where they were supposed to be. Knowing the secrets, getting back to my point was easy, but that and the sensitive reticle can really pull you away from the emotions you are supposed to experience in such a story. Games like this make me frustrated at the modern achievement environment too. In my playthrough I got 650/1000 gamerscore, with only seven achievements left to unlock. Now that I know the story, I could polish them off on a second run, but my biggest issue comes in the fact that a thorough hunter could get all but one in one run, where a vague story bit would allow you to go a different way at one point in the middle of the story. With no branching story tree or individual save states, you will have to go through the game twice if you want to get full gamerscore/a platinum trophy.
Most of my worries are simple technical glitches that will likely be fixed in patches. The meat of the review comes down to the story, which as I said, should not be spoiled for new players. It truly tugs at the heart strings. I wish we would get more of a backstory, though. I came to appreciate these characters but never got to know more of the "why" behind how certain things happened. It was more like peeking through a window at someone else's life: understanding the premise but not seeing how we got there. And yet, more story would dilute the impact of what is there: the tale of a young woman dealing with grief at a time in her life where she is just learning to be herself.
Blackwood Crossing is definitely worth the experience, though your mileage may vary dependent on pricing. At $16 for a game that can be finished in an evening, some gamers may have difficulty holding value to it. But if you look at it more as an interactive tale and realize you spend that much on a Blu Ray movie of the same or shorter length, you can see that the emotional value inherent in it is worth the price of admission. Blackwood Crossing tells a gripping tale of grief and growing up that I encourage you to experience for yourself.
Thanks to the developers for providing a copy for review.
Final Score: 4.5/5