Blackwell Unbound 1Blackwell Unbound is the second episode of the Blackwell franchise from Dave Gilbert’s Wadjet Eye Studios. It is an interesting game in many ways, in particular due to the decision to tell a story from the past, rather than continue directly on from The Blackwell Legacy. The ever-informative director’s commentary immediately sheds some light on this decision: the recently released The Blackwell Convergence was originally conceived with flashback sections showing Rosangela’s Aunt Lauren and her adventures with Joey the ghost in the 1970’s. It was later decided to cut these sections out of Convergence, but Dave found that they could potentially made a satisfying game in their own right. There is no need to worry that this has made Unbound a mere filler episode in the franchise though. Rather than having simply rushed something to market to keep fans satisfied whilst waiting for a proper sequel, I feel Blackwell Unbound is perfectly justifiable as the next chapter in the saga, quickly proving itself to be as much a labour of love as anything Mr Gilbert produces.

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The story begins even more quickly than last time; Joey is immediately present with no explanation (it has already been explained) and we join both him and Lauren Blackwell in full swing during their latest ghost investigations. The opening section wastes no time before showing off the latest gameplay mechanic for the series, with the player being able to swap back and forth between the duo at will. My small gripes from last time have also been somewhat addressed: inventory items can now be used in the traditional manner throughout the various environments, and coupled with the returning notebook mechanic, the gameplay is more satisfying and involving as a whole.

Also, several ghost investigations occur at once! I really liked the way this gave the game more scope and variety than the previous game, even if the cases did inevitably merge together later on. Still, I liked the illusion of freedom and scope this provided, and it was certainly a welcome change to the more on-the-rails feeling I got last time round.

As well, the game cleverly uses a phone-book and keyword-search gameplay mechanic to really emphasise that Lauren (and therefore the player) is an investigator. It was always a pleasure to search the phone-book for a new location, or a contact phone number. The new map builds on this by being far more aesthetically pleasing than in The Blackwell Legacy and again giving a good sense of exploration and discovery.

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The storyline all round is more honed and focused as well. You can tell that Dave Gilbert has really thought about the history of the Blackwell ladies, and their spirit guide Joey. Lauren Blackwell has obviously grown to be fond of her ghostly companion over time. It is interesting to see their relationship dynamic at this particular moment in time and have Lauren’s personality expanded upon, when in Legacy all that was known about her was gleaned from letters she had left behind after over 20 years in a coma.

The ghosts encountered are suitably interesting with well developed back-stories, and the other non-player-characters are more unique and memorable than they were in the first game. It is nice to note that many of the negative points I noticed last time have been addressed in the sequel. It is fun using both Joey and Lauren as well, with Joey being able to float through walls and do a little investigating of his own this time round!

The graphics are still of an older style, but score an immediate technical improvement due to greater artistry and a more consistent visual theme. Sometimes simpler really can be more effective! Sadly, the character closeups do not return (although they will do so in the next game) but perhaps this is a blessing in disguise: the cleanness of the interface and the graphics makes everything very easy on the eye.

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However, although much improved in many key areas, it is the sound of Blackwell Unbound that is the biggest leap forward for the series. The voice actors are uniformly excellent, save for one or two recording blips when the microphone obviously picked up more than it should have done from the actors (especially when they shout!) Abe Goldfarb is already proving to be an absolute gem of a find in his casting as Joey: he has the character down to a T. Likewise, series newcomer Dani Marco is great as Lauren, and may even read her lines better than the actress who portrayed Rosangela in The Blackwell Legacy! It was a good decision not to just use the same voices for the Blackwell ladies, and the variety is more realistic anyway, allowing Lauren to develop her own unique personality in the process.

The music is even better. As well as some lovely background tunes that match the New York nights wonderfully, Jazz bars with tinkling piano and a ghostly saxaphonist round out a surprisingly powerful soundtrack, topped off with a great original song sung at the very end over the credits. Again, Wadjet Eye Studios are showing that it doesn’t take a huge budget to produce material of a consistently high quality.

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In fact, the only sound problem I DID have was with the main antagonist’s voice. This was not the fault of the actress used, it was simply because it is difficult to make a small pixelated sprite move and sound intimidating (the close-ups would have worked well here). The scratchy, evil voice decided upon was a decent effort, but didn’t come across as natural sounding as the rest of the cast. Again, the leads are the real draw, with the story told being a great excuse for us to spend time with them. No doubt about it, the story leading up to the end is great (much, MUCH better than the demon at the end of the last game), yet the killer seems slightly B-movie most of the time.

Luckily, she is almost totally redeemed in an end sequence that I won’t spoil, but involved the very creative use of a lit cigarette, and Joey playing his own ghoulish version of Marco Polo. I must say that this sequel really surprised me, building upon the last game in some very fundamental and exciting ways that promises a lot more in the future.

The only real negatives here then are that the puzzles remain quite simple (even with the use of inventory items) and the playtime clocks in between 3-4 hours (perhaps slightly longer than the last game, but only just.) Still, these are minor quibbles that do not get in the way of the most important thing that Wadjet Eye Games seems intent on doing: spinning us bloody fantastic interactive stories. If things carry on improving like this, The Blackwell Convergence should be a knockout. I can now officially say I am a huge Blackwell fan.

Marty’s Score: 4 of 5 starks