Monday, October 19, 2015

The Blackwell Epiphany

"Half of the time we're gone but we don't know where"

Simon and Garfunkel - The Only Living Boy in New York

I've been avoiding The Blackwell Epiphany though I bought it as soon as it came out last year. I dread endings and sequels in general, mostly because we've all seen so many bad ones. Here, we're not talking about a real sequel, though Epiphany is a good bit longer than the previous chapters. The five Blackwell installments are really just one adventure game, one semicontinuous plot released over a decade.

As I mentioned in my original post about them, this is part of their charm, as one can see both concept and execution evolve through its iterations: slight modifications to the game engine, mechanics, artwork, characters and overall tone. For instance, Rosa starts out the first game using mostly her notebook with an occasional desktop computer search and by Epiphany is exclusively living on her smartphone like any member of Generation Facebook. Or see for example the terribly cheesy ending of the first game (The Deacon) being retconned offhandedly at the end of Epiphany. Not that I'm a fan of retconning, but as an acknowledgement of past mistakes it sometimes serves its purpose. The writing also evolved, from the somewhat goofy, sardonic hijinks of the first game to a film noir style in the second, gradually evening out somewhere between the two by the fifth installment (though I personally am happy to see an RPG or adventure game go as "noir" as it can.)

Take the gushing pages of fanboy praise on GoG or in critic reviews with a grain of salt. Critics have little to choose from in an outdated market like adventure games, and good niche games will always produce a large percentage of fanboys within their small audience. The Blackwell games are not great. Good, solid work certainly, and a category above many other indie titles released mostly to fleece hipsters who'll buy anything with pixelated retro graphics, but also lacking that extra kick which makes for a truly memorable title. It lacks the believable characterization of April Ryan in The Longest Journey, the lavish prettiness of Syberia's backdrops, the intricate puzzles of Resonance, the macabre pathos of The Cat Lady.
Conversely, it also has better puzzles than The Cat Lady, better dialogue than Resonance, better secondary characters than The Longest Journey, etc. Second or third place in every category still puts your toes on the podium, and the Blackwell series is well worth playing.

As for Epiphany itself, as I cant resist a bad joke I must say it's no epiphany.
I am so glad rotten tomatoes can't really travel through cyberspace.
But anyway, it's a fitting ending to the series. It does not disappoint. It also does not exceed, excel or transcend. The puzzles are decent, mostly on the simple side with a couple of non-sequiturs (plus sometimes you'll wander around knowing exactly what the answer is but just needing to get one of the NPCs to say it out loud) but still more logical and complex than adventure games' infamous tendency toward the esoteric and obtuse. Just hard enough to always remain interesting while sticking to the precept of making failure impossible in such a game. You can only get stalled for a time.

In terms of storytelling, I for one thought the ending was much too overblown, but I can see the desire to escalate the scale of conflict for a grand finale after a decade of development. The dramatic reveal was also somewhat predictable from my point of view but maybe I'm just jaded. Overall, the characters really came together, the dialogue moved at the perfect pace and the plot's book-ends held up very nicely. Epiphany's greatest achievement though is probably its finely-tuned click-per-reward plot advancement keeping the player engaged from beginning through end, pruning clues away as they become obsolete, providing just enough hints through characters' banter and overall ensuring an enjoyable playthrough.

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